Was Privateering any different from piracy?
Yes. The two were very different. Privateering was legal, and in its time generally respected, and often admired. Privateers operated only in wartime and only against enemy shipping. They were, in many ways, in the same business as the navy which likewise paid its sailors and officers from the proceeds of captured ships.
Pirates were stateless criminals who attacked anyone's ships in peace or war, following their own unique customs and rules which bore no resemblance to elaborately regulated world of privateering.

What was a Letter of Marque?
A Letter of Marque was a license to operate and own a private warship subject to a long and complicated regulation system. To get one you had to post a bond of over a thousand pounds to ensure your good behaviour.
Here's an example of a Letter of Marque from 1799.
And here's a blank Letter of Marque from 1812.

How successful were privateers?
As a business venture, very successful while the war and the sources of enemy prizes lasted. As a source of income for mariners and communities, very successful as the good periods of privateering usually coincided with bad times in fishing and commercial shipping. As a military tool, they were useful although not decisive: useful as efficient destroyers of enemy commerce and as platforms of local armed strength in home waters. However since they were dependent on capturing enemy ships, their deployment was unpredictable.

How did Canadian privateers compare to other nations?
British colonies did not engage in privateering as intensively as the Americans or the French since these two nations lacked formidable navies and turned wholeheartedly to privateering as an alternative. However for its very small size, Nova Scotia fielded an impressive number of privateers and in most wars more than made up for its own vessels captured by the enemy. This success was probably most marked in the War of 1812 where Nova Scotian privateers contributed significantly to the close blockade of American ports. (With larger vessels, the Royal Navy was more effective at high seas blockade.) The many captures of American vessels so close to home by Nova Scotian privateers played a significant role in demoralizing New England communities, undermining their support for the war and putting pressure on them to push for peace.

Why is Nova Scotia the centre of most Canadian privateering?
Nova Scotia was an ideal base for privateering, given its location: thrusting out into the busy sea lanes of the North Atlantic and close to the United States, a favourite target. Other colonies, such as Quebec or Prince Edward Island made poor bases for privateers since vessels had a long sail out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence before they got anywhere near hunting grounds. New Brunswick shared Nova Scotia's advantages but was a relatively young colony and only got into serious privateering in the War of 1812. However, although these colonies did not field many privateers, they did commission armed merchant ships, which also held Letters of marque, but mainly for defensive purposes (to encourage crews to resist attacks).

Was privateering dangerous?
Not much more dangerous than normal seafaring occupations such as fishing or merchant shipping, and certainly less dangerous than the Royal Navy, where diseases, accident and battle took a regular toll. Privateers seldom fought heavy battles, as almost all their captures surrendered without resistance. Disease and accident took more lives than battle. Probably the greatest dangers was the chance of being press ganged into the Royal Navy, as privateers sometimes attracted shorthanded navy ships looking for experienced crewmen. Despite the impression given by Barrett's Privateers and some scholars, privateering almost never saw the loss of an entire ship's company. Ironically in the Napoleonic Wars, insurance rates in Nova Scotia were actually lower for privateer ships than for normal merchant ships, indicating that privateers were in fact safer and less likely to be attacked than their merchant colleagues.

Why don't you have information on American privateers?
Well, because I am a Canadian and this is a website about Canadian privateers. Try my links to chase up some leads on US privateers or check my reading lists for some American works. Carl Swanson is good on American colonial privateering and there are plenty of American authors who have written about US privateers in the War of 1812 and American Revolution. Just beware the heavy duty jingoistic tone to some of the older American works which tend to depict the British as the Great Satan and the Americans as saints who never lost battles.

What can you tell me about privateering in the American Civil War?
I concentrate on Canadian privateers, but here is my take on privateering in the American Civil War because I get asked about it all the time:
The South - There were a few Confederate privateers commissioned, however Confederate privateering appears to have been limited by the Union naval blockade and that fact that privateering and steamships do not mix too well. It made more sense just as well to informally commission Confederate warships in a Confederate Navy and simply destroy Northern ships instead of capturing them since it was almost impossible to get captured ships through the Union blockade to homeports in order to reward privateering investors.
The North - Didn't commission privateers because there was so little Southern commerce to prey upon and because the North had a huge navy. The North condemned Southern privateers as pirates and threatened to hang them. From a Non-American perspective, the Union position on privateering seems hypocritical and bizarre, as the US refused to sign the Declaration of Paris, which abolished privateering in 1856 and privateering remained (and still remains) enshrined in the US constitution!
The only Canadian connection I know of is the use of a forged Confederate letter of marque by raiders who seized the steamship Chesapeake and were tried in Halifax in the Civil War. Historian Greg Marquis writes about this in his book on Eastern Canada and the US civil war In Armagedon's Shadow
Where does the term "Jack Tar" come from?
The term "tar" as a nickname for mariners goes back to at least the 1600s. It was clearly used in this period to refer to sailors most likely because of their tarpoulin hats (hats made of canvas soaked in tar) as well as the tar worn on hands and in the hair from the days when tar was used everywhere on ships to preserve rigging and seal seams. It also had a political connotation meaning working sailors as opposed to gentlemen sailors. The term was shortened to tars as years went on. Sometime in the 1700s it was combined with "Jack", a traditional generic term for a working man to make "Jack Tar" meaning a working mariner. It was sometimes used in a derogatory way to stereotype crude sailor behaviour and in some places had a racial connotation connected to black skin colour. However it is most commonly known as a fond and often proud way to describe a seasoned working sailor. There are a number of good books about this: Gentlemen and Tarpoulins and Jack Tar in History. I use it as my e-mail name because I like the tradition!
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All contents Copyright 1999 Dan Conlin Revised Feb. 14, 2000