Privateers played a large role in history. They helped many a nation succeed in economic, exploration, and actual wars. The success of England becoming a world power can mainly be attributed to legalized pirating. It was a way to keep the hands of the crown clean while hurting the enemy, Spain, with loyal men.
Who were they? Who were these men who legally performed theft? They were a unique group who helped shape much of the Western world for a period of time.
Setting the Stage
Imagine the scene. Spain got an early foothold in the Americas. They are plundering the people and the resources. As they grow and gain more and more gold, they grow stronger. That does not bode well for other nations such as England who are constantly at odds for each other and would love to seize power.
England is getting established in North America, but while they are beginning to explore, tension back in the Old World is escalating. It is a time of religious bloodbaths. Mary is dead which means Catholicism has been replaced by Protestantism under Elizabeth. Other Catholic rulers are not happy. Especially the ruler of Spain, Philip, who was once married to Elizabeth’s deceased sister. Philip wants the English throne back under his power and his religion. If he can get enough gold to fund an attack, England could be his.
Elizabeth is sitting on a new throne that is not exactly peaceful. Many are claiming that she is not legitimate and cannot wear the crown. She is bringing back the religion of her father. She is defying a man’s world. She is in need of money and help if she is going to defend her crown, her country, and her life. The answer she gets is in the form of privateers.
Sir Francis Drake
The Queen turned to an explorer/sea-captain by the name of Sir Francis Drake. England was technically at war with Spain, but she didn’t want to be either if she could help it. The only way to do that was to cripple them before they are strong enough to attack. Elizabeth turned to her experienced friend and let him know that a little pirating on the good of England would be greatly appreciated. In fact, some silent investors might help out to ensure success. What could Drake do, but say yes to his country and his queen?
Remember that this queen was unique. She was one of the most successful female rulers ever to sit on a throne. Women had tried to rule successfully in the past, but none took it to the level that Elizabeth did.
Experience Against Spain
Drake led many raids against the Spanish ships. What did not sink was looted. He even attacked some Spanish settlements. Many a Spaniard spat at the sound of Drake’s name. The wealth of Spain was not piling up as quickly as Philip had hoped. Privateering was so successful that more legal pirates were employed. Sir George Clifford (an Earl), Christopher Newport, and Sir Henry Morgan are just a few that were under the service of their Queen while stealing from the Spanish.
Other monarchs frowned on privateers, while others employed them most happily. It cannot be doubted that the use of privateers helped Elizabeth defeat the Spanish when the time came for war. If Spain had received all that gold, how much more different could history have been?
The Downside of Using Privateers
The use of privateers wasn't the perfect solution with no fall out. There were a few downsides.
Legality was a little grey. International laws did not exist. They were legalized crime when the government had need for it. When that wasn't the case, they coul dhave been hung like any other outlaw. Those who employed them had to deal with the knowledge that they had pulled in criminals to help them. This had to be handled delicately.
Those who employed them also had to trust a crook. They went into the partnership knowing they could easily be ripped off and probably were to a degree. It was an unusual and tentative arrangement.
- The Pirate King - http://www.thepirateking.com/terminology/definition_privateer.htm
- The Mariner's Museum - http://www.marinersmuseum.org/blog/2012/09/the-difference-between-pirates-privateers-and-buccaneers-pt-1/