The Rules of Privateering

Shipboard inkstand

From the moment the ship set sail until it returned to homeport, every activity aboard a privateer was structured and regulatedPrivateering was regulated, institutionalized and governed by various rules. From the moment the ship set sail until it returned to homeport, every activity aboard a privateer was structured and regulated. Because of these rules, privateering was considered a recognized, official activity, thus affording its participants some measure of protection for their property and profits.

Shipboard inkstand

For the most part, it was this adherence to rules that distinguished privateering from piracy. Failure to comply with regulations could completely ruin a privateering business and, consequently, result in serious financial losses for the ship's owner.

The government was responsible for ensuring compliance with the regulations on privateering.



The Phases of a Privateering Expedition

Each phase of a privateering expedition was documented, described in contracts, and approved by the relevant authority. For the whole time privateers sailed the Saint Lawrence, Quebec City was the capital of both the French and English colonies.

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However, Quebec City was not the only site to have a burgeoning colonial bureaucracy charged with applying privateering regulations. Louisbourg in Cape Breton and Plaisance in Newfoundland also boasted an "admiralty" during the French Regime that authorized and monitored every phase of the privateer's expedition, from start to finish.

The Charter Party

Before a ship could set sail, an agreement between all those involved in the privateer's expedition had to be negotiated and signed. Specific documents recorded the names of all those who would be taking part in the expedition. The captain and ship owners' names would appear, along with the amounts invested in the expedition. Most importantly, these documents would clearly spell out each individual's share of the profits. This contract, which formed the basis for any expedition, was known as the charter party.

Other conditions could also be specified; for example, how to compensate a crewmember who distinguished himself or was injured. This was the case in the charter party written for an expedition led by Jean Léger de la Grange in 1704:

Said Sieur de la Grange shall further have the power to grant as he sees fit such recompense to those of his officers and men whose actions are meritorious or to those who are wounded or handicapped.

Pierre-Georges Roy, Un corsaire canadien, Jean Léger de la Grange, Lévis, 1918, pages 15 and 16.

The Letter of Marque

Letter of marque

The authorities also had the power to issue what to the privateer was the most important document: the letter of marque.

The letter of marque was issued in the name of the privateer and his ship for a determinate period, during which the privateer could legally attack the enemies of the state. The letter, and the accompanying crew list, needed to be registered with the appropriate government office before departure and upon arrival. This registration allowed naval authorities to control the ships that entered their ports.

The Return to Port

return to port

Once the privateer had successfully and profitably completed the phases of his expedition, he was required to return to port with his spoils to have them declared legal. At that point, Admiralty officials would review all the phases of the privateer's expedition to ensure that all the rules and formalities governing them had been followed. To do this, they would interview the privateer's crew and the captured ship's crew to corroborate the information provided by the privateer's captain.

If all the rules had been followed, the authorities would pronounce the privateer's booty as "good." Only then could the spoils be sold and the profits distributed as specified in the charter party.