This article is about the concept in naval history. The term is also used in motorsport — see Privateer (motorsport).
Privateer and its expansion pack, Privateer: Righteous Fire are also a game in the Wing Commander franchise of computer games.
A privateer was a private ship (or its captain) authorized by a country's government to attack and seize cargo from another country's ships.
Prior to the development of international law among European nations, there was no legal recourse for minor grievances. Privateering was a form of covert operation used to resolve these matters without open warfare. The government of a country provided a letter of marque and reprisal to a shipowner that allowed him to arm his ship and attack other ships sailing under a particular flag. In return he received a share of the seized cargo, while the rest went to the government as payment for the grievance.
To the target country, a privateer looked very much like a pirate, and indeed this was the intention. The only difference was that pirates were considered outlaws by all nations, while privateers had immunity from the country that commissioned them. Privateers were sometimes known as "gentleman pirates."
European powers renounced privateering in the 1856 Declaration of Paris. Other countries (including the United States) also renounced it under the Hague Conventions (1899/1907).
Privateers in American history
The United States Constitution authorizes U.S. Congress to grant letters of marque and reprisal, as did the Confederate Constitution. The Confederates used privateers during the American Civil War. Britain also used them against the U.S. after the American Revolutionary War.