Anatomy of a Privateer

Much has been written about privateers, their success, letters of marque, Admiralty Courts where the privateers took their prizes, and the money they made, but not much about the ships and the crews. So, who were they? What kinds of ships did they sail?

Let’s start with the issue of the letter of marque. To be legal, a letter of marque must be issued by a country at war with another. It is very specific in that it enables the holder of the letter to seize ships from the other country and sell them in an Admiralty Court (the names of these types of courts varied by country) either in their home country or one that is neutral.

Wealthy individuals or consortiums of like-minded investors would apply to their government for a letter of marque while at the same time having a vessel or vessels in mind that they would send to sea as privateers. In most cases, the ships were converted merchant men.

By the middle of the 18th Century, most merchant vessels were heavily armed with 12-pounder cannon. Some, like the Dutch and British East Indiamen, were better equipped than others, but for cost reasons, they didn’t have enough men to man all the guns.

For a privateer to be successful, it had to be able to outmaneuver and outfight a merchant ship crew determined not to be captured. This entailed reinforcing the bulkheads and frame of the ship, cutting additional gun ports, adding a magazine to the cargo hold, and other features that separated warships from merchant ships. These modifications added weight and, if not done correctly, affected the handling of the ship and reduced its speed.

At the time, most merchant ships sailed at five to six knots, so the privateer had to be several knots faster to run down the merchant ship. More sail area wasn’t the answer since the pressure from the wind stressed the rigging and masts.

What evolved were ships with enough armament to cause enough damage to force the merchant ship to surrender without engaging in a long battle that put the privateer at risk. The goal was to capture the merchant ship with as little damage to the merchant ship and its cargo as possible. The more damage, the less the ship’s value in the sale.

Many privateers were full-rigged brigs with two masts rather than three. Brigs were faster and more maneuverable than their prey and could run from an enemy frigate.

Privateers were armed with six to two dozen cannons, ranging from 6-pounders to 12-pounders. A 6-pounder, including the carriage, weighed under 2,000 pounds, while a 12-pounder was double that.

The weight of the cannon dictated the size of the gun crew. Once the cannon fired, its recoil rolled it back on the gundeck where it was reloaded before being hauled back into battery. A 6-pounder could easily be pulled back into position with the ropes and pulleys by six men. A 12-pounder weighing 4,000 lbs. needed at least 10!

Simple math suggests that ten 6-pounders require 60 men to crew while the same number of 12-pounders need 120 or more. More men in the crew meant more had to be recruited, fed, paid, and most important, reduced the size of each man’s prize share.

(See May 26th 2019, Blog Post – Prize Money – War, Patriotism, and Instant Wealth –

Privateer crews were much larger than the merchant vessels they hunted. Assuming they captured a merchant vessel, a prize crew had to be put on board the captured ship, which was escorted to a port with an Admiralty Court. Typically, 30 – 40 men, including an officer, a senior quartermaster, and a bosun, were transferred to a prize. This left enough men to sail and fight the privateer. Most privateers had enough men on board to man two prizes at once.

Image is the 2009 Lance Woodworth photo of the brig U.S.S. Niagara which was rebuilt from the remains of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s ship that fought in the Battle of Lake Erie.

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