This Week in History


Liverpool Privateers

For the week of Monday November 1, 2004

On November 6, 1799, the Duke of Kent privateer vessel from Liverpool, Nova Scotia, received its letter of marque. Thanks to this letter, this ship was able to play a legitimate commercial and defensive role along with other Liverpool privateer vessels.

Steam Packet, Holyhead to Howth /         PU 6660
© The National Maritime Museum, London

Many people confuse privateers with pirates, but there is a significant difference between the two. Unlike pirates, privateers had a letter of marque legalizing their actions, without which they could be considered pirates and hanged. Privateering might seem exciting and adventurous at first glance, but the working conditions were often difficult and dangerous. Privateers employed a naval tactic that consisted of pursuing, capturing and raiding an enemy merchant ship in the hope of sharing in the profits. Although this tactic dated back to the dawn of time, it did not occur in Liverpool until the 18th century.

When the American Revolution began in 1776, American privateers infested Nova Scotian waters. In response to this threat, the following year the British Parliament granted letters of marque to Nova Scotian merchants who wanted to, at their own expense, help fight the war between Great Britain and New England. Once they received this official document, privateers were able to recruit a crew and turn their merchant ship into a warship. They could then set out from port in search of prey. When a vessel was captured, the Court of Vice-Admiralty in Halifax would decide whether it had been seized legally. If so, the enemy ship and its cargo were sold at a public auction. Privateers did not, however, keep all the profits, because they had to pay fees to the court, governor and Crown, and had to pay for storage, auctions and wharfage.

The Antilope Packet beating off Le Atalante a French Privateer in the West Indies / PU 5481
© The National Maritime Museum, London

In short, Liverpool privateers protected their trade with the West Indies and raided vessels along the coasts of the United States, Spanish America and the Caribbean during the American and French revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars. At the same time, they fought Great Britain's enemies. The Liverpool Packet was, without a doubt, the most successful privateer ship during the War of 1812. In nine months, it captured more than one hundred American ships off the New England coast. In 1815, privateering was abolished with the Treaty of Ghent, but it was only by 1856 that this activity truly ended.

In 1933, the Liverpool privateers were designated as an event of national historic significance.

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