What is the Difference Between Pirates and Privateers?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Pirates and privateers are often considered to be the same things, leading to the words being used interchangeably by some. Scholars argue that there is a clear distinction between pirates and privateers, however, despite the fact that the realities of their work were often identical. During the Age of Sail, opportunists could actually change from one to the other, and records exist of seamen who switched sides several times during their busy lives. A pirate commits robbery under no one's authority, while a privateer's acts are under the orders of a ruling nation.

For a price, a pirate could purchase letters of marque that would make him a privateer and save him from being preyed on by a nation's agents.
For a price, a pirate could purchase letters of marque that would make him a privateer and save him from being preyed on by a nation's agents.

A pirate, by definition, is one who robs people by sea. The word comes from a Greek term that loosely means to find luck on the ocean. Traditional pirates are often considered free agents, not beholden to any governing body or system. This freedom has led to their modern portrayal as rebels and independents, hero figures that have abandoned conformative systems. In actuality, pirates are criminals who will often resort to violence in order to rob ships or towns.

Pirates by definition rob people at sea, and modern day pirates off the coast of Somalia can be quite dangerous to ships they choose to attack.
Pirates by definition rob people at sea, and modern day pirates off the coast of Somalia can be quite dangerous to ships they choose to attack.

Pirates and privateers differ subtly in several ways but their main distinction is very clear. While a pirate robs under the authority of no one, a privateer's acts of robbery or violence are under the orders of a ruling nation. In the 16th to 19th centuries, the major ruling countries of the world all employed privateers, to bring home money and to curb illegal piracy.

Privateers were not always naval officers, but both pirates and privateers operated their own ships. Both pirates and privateers would attack ships and towns for plunder, but a privateer was supposed to do so only if the target belonged to a hostile nation. Sometimes, privateers out for personal gain endangered peace treaties between warring nations by continuing attacks. This may not always have occurred out of greed, as correspondence was much slower in that era and news of treaties may not have reached the eager privateers.

Some experts do consider pirates and privateers to be identical, as both followed the same job description. The British privateer Admiral Henry Morgan was considered more brutal than many contemporary pirates, and once ordered an entire Spanish city massacred and burnt to the ground after capturing it. His behavior violated peace negotiations and nearly brought Spain and England back to war, but the Admiral was never convicted of piracy, as he was acting in the name of the government.

During times of need, nations would sometimes offer pirate amnesty to operating pirates. For a price, the pirate could purchase letters of marque that would make him a privateer and save him from being preyed on by the nation's agents. After receiving the letters of marque, pirates became privateers and would conduct missions on the nation's behalf. Many pirates would later violate their status and attack neutral vessels or even those of their own nation, however, and governments would rescind their status.

Some pirates began life as naval officers or privateers before turning or being considered a pirate. William Kidd, an Irish privateer working for the British government, did not realize he was considered a pirate until he returned to his home port after a raid and being arrested for piracy. He was later hanged for piracy, despite his protests that he was a loyal privateer.

Pirates and privateers are inextricably linked by the violent methods they used to obtain treasure. By a literal definition, they are separated only by the letter that one possesses and the other does not. The ability to change from one to the other at the opportune moment does suggest that they were not truly separated at all, but merely titles distributed to anyone who committed violence on the seas.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Privateers would (at least "officially") worked for a government and attack only ships belonging to an enemy country. Unofficially they attacked whomever they chose on the side. Problem only appeared if their private pirating was too visible. Some privateers retired to become lords. Pirates, on the other hand, had no contract with any government and were hanged on sight. Technically privateers are a type of pirate.


All privateers were were "legal" pirates. They were backed by a ruling country that said "Go do this for us." Pirates had no support anywhere. They were "freelancers" if you would. Privateers were hired and paid to do the dirty work for a ruling country. Thus, they were only viewed as criminals by the enemy state, not those who hired them.


There are some distinct differences between the two: Pirates were governed by no recognized laws, and attacked the vessels of any nation. They often assaulted the crew and passengers of captured vessels, helping themselves to any valuables they came across. They were undisciplined and operated according to their own interests.

Privateers were often motivated by their own profit, of course, though there was some element of patriotism as well. They were granted a letter of marque and reprisal by their national government (recognized by all nations), which allowed them to commit hostile action against enemy vessels only, but they were not permitted to attack vessels under a neutral or allied flag, assault either the crew or passengers of captured vessels except in self defense, or even to purloin the personal effects of the crew or passengers themselves -- only the ship and its cargo were fair game.

Of the profit gained from each prize, the government took a cut. In the War of 1812, American privateers gave 10 percent of their take to the American government. Prisoners were to be treated according to the codes of war, the same as if they were naval prisoners, and were to be returned to a port belonging to their own nation within a six month period.

Of course, the line between the two is thin, and easily crossed, if a privateer is unsuccessful and greedy enough to risk the severe consequences awarded to pirates. However, one can be a privateer, or one can be a pirate, but not both. Once they have crossed that line, they would become a target of all nations, even their own. Some privateers, called letter-of-marque vessels, were mainly trading vessels, running blockades, carrying cargos and only taking a prize if the opportunity presented itself with minimal risk. The difference between a pirate and a privateer was admittedly small, but it was well-defined.


Pirates and privateers are no different; they are both criminals. Someone asked why be a privateer and give up what you took? Why not be a pirate and keep it all for yourself?

I believe that people are so easily convinced by what they are told, that they believe they are doing the right thing for their government. That is what I call brainwashed.

They actually believe they are better than the pirates because that is what they are told by authorities and it is getting worse. People would rather do evil and get a free pass for robbing their fellow Americans than being good and living and taking care of their own lives. I am an individual and still do good.

People, wake up. Once you give in, you are no longer an individual; you will always be a privateer, owned. Then, if you want out, you are a pirate either way. You are evil and no longer free. Even Robin Hood, as good as they tried to make him out to be, still did wrong. You don’t take what is not yours. It’s hard to always do the right thing, but not being owned feels even better.


Privateers cannot attack neutral vessels or those of their own nation? It's on the high seas. How will anyone ever know how a merchant ship went missing? It's not like they have radio or something. Even if the merchant ship escapes, it's very unlikely that they can identify which ship attacked them. So, why would any pirate not want to be a privateer? How does privateering works for the government then? This question has had me googling for hours now. Anyone?


What about Francis Drake? He was also a brutal "pirateer" according to what I read. All of them were extremely cruel.


anon39464 said: yeah, I think they are more accepted because they're helping the country to earn more money.

It's not earning, it's stealing. Unless I can raid your house and call it a job? Even in those days, people knew it was wrong to harm others and steal.


So by that definition does that not make Somalia performing a daily job atypical in piracy both serving themselves and a state who permits and condones their acts? Therefore both are pirates and privateers in the 21st century where nether carry letters of permission.


so what is the job of a privateer?


yeah, I think they are more accepted because they're helping the country to earn more money.


Were the privateers more accepted than pirates? Or...what?

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