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Golden Age of Piracy > Letter of Marque

Letter of Marque

Background

William Kidd's Letter of Marque (c. 1695)

William Kidd's Letter of Marque (c. 1695)

A Letter of Marque was an official document that designated someone between a legal pirate, also known as a privateer and an outlaw pirate. This small distinction was highlighted especially in the case of William Kidd and was one of the largest driving forces behind the Privateering Era and the Buccaneering Era. These pieces of paper were given out under the authority of any of the Royal governments at the time and authorized their agents to attack and disrupt the commerce operations of enemy empires.

This process was extremely effective during war time and allowed the quick conversion of many privateers into an informal navy but often caused problems during peace time as there were hundreds of unemployed privateers suddenly without work. These unemployed mariners would often ply their trade against anyone during these periods and was one of the major driving forces behind the golden age of piracy throughout the world.

The idea behind a Letter of Marque was that the privateer would pay himself out of the prizes taken and give a share back to the crown, thus providing a win-win-win situation of paying everyone in the home nation while depleting an enemy nation in the process. The rich target of the Spanish Main provided a seemingly endless supply of wealth to raid and plunder and attracted pirates from throughout the world to claim their share.

Letters of Marque were issued by nearly all of the empires such as the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the French Empire, the Portuguese Empire and the Dutch Republic. Privateering ships were much better armed than typical merchant ships and often traveled with a larger crew anticipating a fight.

Letters of Marque would not prevent punishment and reprisal if caught by an enemy nation.

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