There was no rank or office of Commander in any of the American navies. There was a commissioned rank of Master and Commander in the Royal Navy.


I have consistently referred to the men commanding privateers as Commander, to distinguish them from officers in regular naval services. Technically these men were civilians, similar to sailors on a merchant vessel, but not quite the same.


What is a privateer?

There is a short answer and a long answer. First, the short one:

A privateer is a privately owned and operated vessel licensed by a legally recognized entity to capture or destroy vessels of a declared enemy, subject to conditions of the license. Profits of the captures go to the owners, and are divided among owners, officers, and crew by a previously agreed contract. The expenses of the crews and vessel were paid by the owners.

The long answer:

Privateers had their origins in medieval times when governments and international relations were weak. There was rampant piracy and crime, both on land and sea, frequently aided and abetted by powerful local lords. A man wronged in some way by theft or piracy could seek a license from his sovereign to obtain redress from the parties which had wronged by means of a letter-of-marque. This letter-of-marque allowed the wronged party to, in turn, seize property belonging to the parties that had wronged him. This was a form of private justice, and the possession of the letter-of-marque made the robbery/seizure legal in the courts of the licensing authority.

As time progressed and governments became stronger and more centralized, the power to grant letters-of-marque was restricted to internationally recognized authorities (the King of England, the King of France, or some other recognized state). Privateers flourished when a declared enemy of the state had a large enough merchant marine to make the expense worthwhile to the privateer owners. Privateer operations were part of the guerre de course, or commerce war, a traditional way for a weaker naval power to attack a stronger one. Since both England and France had extensive merchant marines, both developed traditions of privateer warfare.

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the revolting colonies had some hard choices to make as regards the licensing of privateers. There was the issue of sovereignty: to be recognized as legal, privateers had to be licensed (commissioned) by a recognized international entity. The Continental Congress, in granting the authority to the colonies to issue such licenses, assumed the sovereign right to do so. The debates over this issue presaged the independence debate.

To the owners, officers, and crews of the privateer vessels, these commissions were very important papers. This license separated them from out and out pirates. Men captured in an armed vessel, preying on an enemy, without such a commission, were called pirates, and sometimes paid the traditional price for robbery on the seas. The problem for the Americans was that the British did not recognize the Americans as an international authority able to grant privateer commissions. Thus, the Americans serving in privateers were, to the British, pirates as well as rebels.

The actual process was straightforward. An owner, or group of owners, obtained a vessel, fitted her for raiding by arming and provisioning her, and obtained a crew. A petition to one of the colonies was then sent forward, praying for a commission. The local council or governor granted the petition, which was given to the captain for a specified vessel. Along with the commission went a formal list of instructions and rules for the operations of privateers, listing which vessels were legal to seize, how to treat prisoners, and other necessary information and instructions. To enforce these rules the owners and master had to give a bond for their observance. The bond amount varied during the war. Any complaints about the conduct of the privateers could lead to the bond being prosecuted in court.

Not all privateer commissions went to privateers. Many were issued to vessels and captains that were not going after enemy vessels but were sailing form port to port with cargo aboard. These vessels were usually referred to as a letter-of-marque. The distinction is a fine one, but a real one. A letter-of-marque could capture an enemy vessel, and had the license to do so, if one came into her way. However the primary purpose of a letter-of-marque was to deliver her cargo. A privateer’s primary purpose was to make prizes of enemy vessels.


In these pages a vessel is referred to as a privateer if it was known or suspected to have been commissioned or if it was reported as armed and a privateer/letter-of-marque by some contemporary report. American privateers usually have a state/colony prefix to the description. The term Continental Privateer refers to a vessel whose state/colony is unknown, or to a privateer commissioned in the West Indies or Europe by various extra-legal processes. British privateers were, technically, letters-of-marque. They were commissioned for defense only. Since they acted like privateers they are referred to as privateers.


A prize was a vessel seized from the enemy. It was not recognized as a prize until it had been sent into a port and tried in a legally constituted and competent court (usually referred to as an admiralty or maritime court). If the capture followed the authorized rules and was, indeed, an enemy vessel, it was condemned and sold, and the proceeds paid to the owners. If the vessel was acquitted it was released to the its owners after they paid court costs and fees. Very few vessels were acquitted.


An American prize is a vessel captured or seized by the Americans from the British or from Loyalist Americans. It becomes a prize when it is occupied by American sailors. A British prize is a vessel similarly seized by the British from the Americans. A recapture is a vessel seized from the enemy after it had been captured by the enemy. After trial and condemnation vessels are not counted as recaptures. In contemporary terms, the British did not recognize the condemnation of their property in American prize courts and counted many captures as re-captures.

Revised 6 August 2014 ©