Not all pirates were rogue ships, taking prisoners from any country and pillaging anywhere they could land.

Some pirates were authorised, and even encouraged, by their governments to attack ships of other countries.

A corsair was a pirate licensed to attack other ships, like those of the Barbary States, or sailing from Malta under the protection of the Knights. Corsairs sailed from ports all over the Mediterranean. If you were Italian, you were a corsaro, while a Spaniard would be called a corsario.

The idea was that countries which could not afford a navy would allow private ship captains to operate on their behalf, attacking ships of any country with which they were at war, and bringing home the booty to be shared with the court or the monarch.

In the Mediterranean, the only corsairs who really followed the rules were those of the Barbary States. They mostly attacked ships from Christian countries or cities on behalf of the Ottoman Empire and their local ruler. If they dared attack a ship from a country with which a peace treaty had been signed, they got into really big trouble.

Corsairs working for the Knights of Malta sometimes weren’t so fussy. They’d been known to attack Spanish or Greek ships, even though they were really only meant to attack Barbary ships. Venice, Florence, and even the Pope complained about their ships and towns being raided by Maltese corsairs.

But both the Knights and the Barbary corsairs believed they were fighting a religious war, so they usually concentrated on each other.

Grand Harbour, Malta


English and American corsairs like Sir Francis Drake were usually called “privateers” and they carried Letters of Marque to prove they were allowed to plunder other ships.

Under the law, a pirate was someone who attacked any ship from any country, and kept all the booty for himself (and crew). A privateer or corsair was someone who only attacked certain ships – enemy ships, during war. But in fact, many countries let their privateers plunder ships and towns of other countries even though they weren’t at war: they simply didn’t like the other country much.

So privateers like Drake from Protestant England, for example, attacked ships from Catholic Spain (this led to war – to the Spanish Armada), and both Spanish and English privateers attacked ships of neutral countries.

During the Napoleonic Wars, French privateers plundered anyone they came across, while British privateers raced after them, and there were thousands of pirates licensed by the United States during the War of Independence.

In the Caribbean, where pirates and privateers were called “buccaneers”, everyone chased after everyone, forged Letters of Marque or bribed local officials, and got chased in turn by French, British and Spanish naval ships.

Naval prizes

Just because you were in the Navy, that didn’t mean you weren’t allowed a bit of plundering too.

Navy ships were allowed to capture “enemy” ships, just like a privateer, in times of war – and often in times of peace. Sometimes they even sneaked into port and stole a ship from right under the noses of the garrison guards (this was called “cutting out” – Hornblower does it very well in CS Forester’s books).

The captured ship had to be sent back as a “prize” to the nearest naval base, where it would be assessed, and every member of the victorious crew got a share of the proceeds. Even the admiral, who might have been on the other side of the sea when the ship was taken, got a share.

This was also a great way for the navy to get new ships. There were many ships in the Napoleonic Wars which were built by the French, captured and renamed by the British, recaptured and renamed by the French … and so it went on.

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