Thursday, March 7, 2013

History: Instructions for Privateers

On May 2nd of 1780 the Continental Congress of the fledgling U.S.A. did something that hadn't been done by what they would have termed a "civilized nation" for close to 400 years: they issued instructions to the captains and commanders of private armed vessels carrying Continental letters of marque. This essential act of congress would be referred to in evaluating the conduct of U.S. privateers until the Civil War with only one small amendment in 1781.

The document, which you can view in high resolution at the Library of Congress website, is thoughtful and specific. There is very little "wiggle room", so to say, as there would be in a straight letter of mark - for instance this one issued during the War of 1812. The instructions include guidelines for the taking of enemy ships (only Britain is mentioned here), the treatment of persons aboard those ships, the libeling of ship and cargo and other issues of conduct.

Of particular interest here is the treatment of passengers aboard captured ships. From Article VI:

If you, or any of your officers or crew, shall, in cold blood, kill or maim, or by torture or otherwise, cruelly, inhumanly, and contrary to common usage and the practice of civilized nations in war, treat any person or persons surprized in the ship or vessel you shall take, the offender shall be severely punished.

That's a key factor that should, in theory, separate a privateer from a pirate. Aside from the proper legal libel of any captured vessel and it's cargo, the mistreatment of so called prisoners marked the rogue vs. the gentleman sailor.

The amendment of 1781 changed the following piece of Article I which excepted the capture of:

...ships or vessels, along with their cargoes, belonging to any inhabitant or inhabitants of Bermuda...

At the time the U.S. held, albeit very shakily, the capital of Bermuda, New Providence, and probably had aspirations of including the islands as a future state. Also excepted:

... such other ships or vessels bringing persons with intent to settle and reside withing the United States...

New people were a welcome commodity for the new nation. Despite this, the commanders are instructed to search these vessels and, should the man in command prove hesitant or false in his description of his ship's intent, seizure is implied to be permissible.

All in all the document, which is handsomely preserved, is a commendable attempt at keeping U.S. privateers from slipping into the habits of piracy. Over all, it seems to have had the intended effect.

Header: USS Revenge via Wikipedia ~ she is flying the famous "Don't Tread on Me" flag favored by U.S. privateers during the Revolution


Timmy! said...

That really does help to clarify the distinction between a privateer and a pirate for those who may be confused or think that they are the same thing, Pauline.

Plus cool links and picture, too...

The "Don't Tread on Me" flag always makes me think of the Metallica song of the same title.

Pauline said...

It does, I think. Although, in fairness, the British would contend that all U.S. privateers were pirates until after the Treaty of Ghent was ratified by both sides in 1815.

And this post from last year on William Mitchell sort of spells out the "don'ts" for privateers in my opinion:

Just sayin'.