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Pirate vs. Privateer: Know the Difference

Pirate vs. Privateer: Know the Difference

‘Pirate’ and ‘privateer’ sound very similar, but they are two different terms with unique meanings. Knowing the difference between these two terms can make all the difference in understanding maritime law and history.

Pirates are criminals who rob ships for their gain, while the government authorizes privateers to attack the ships of their enemies in times of war. [1]

This article explains pirates vs. privateers, their differences, and how they fit into maritime law. 

Pirate vs. Privateer: Know the Difference. Infographic.


A pirate commits acts of violence or robbery at sea without official sanction from any government or political leader. This could include boarding merchant vessels, stealing cargo or personal belongings from passengers, and even attacking other ships to gain wealth

Edward Teach, originally from an engraving by Benjamin Cole in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724).
Engraved by Benjamin Cole (1695–1766), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted that piracy has been a problem since ancient times, with pirates operating off the coasts of Greece, Rome, and Egypt, among many others.

Governments traditionally saw pirates as criminals since their activities often resulted in substantial economic losses for their countries. However, many pirates were also regarded as folk heroes.


A government or political leader licensed someone to attack and capture ships belonging to their enemy country. This could include taking over cargo, sinking enemy vessels, and even engaging in battles on the high seas.

Privateers were often seen as a valuable tool by governments during times of war since they allowed them to use other people’s resources to gain an advantage over their enemies without openly declaring war.

They were also considered less of a threat to their own country since they only attacked foreign ships and had the backing of their government. This made them far less likely to cause economic losses for their nation than pirates operating without official sanctions.

Francis Drake is widely known for being the most famous privateer of all time. [2]

The Golden Age of Piracy and Privateering

The golden era of piracy (1650-1730) significantly influenced numerous regions, such as the Caribbean, North America, the United Kingdom, and West Africa. 

This era is usually divided into three segments: the buccaneering stage, Pirate Round, and the period after the Spanish Succession.

Many privateers that were rendered unemployed due to the end of the War of the Spanish Succession turned to piracy during this period. 

Conditions such as increased valuable cargo being transported across oceans, smaller naval forces, experienced maritime personnel coming from European navies, and ineffective governments in colonies all contributed to piracy in the Golden Age.

These events have formed the modern idea of what pirates are like, though some inaccuracies may be present. Colonial powers fought with pirates and had notable battles with them during this time. Privateers were a large part of these events as well.

Pirate and Privateer Hunting 

Pirate and Privateer hunting was a frequent activity of the naval forces of many countries during this time. Privateers were given a Letter of Marque, which allowed them to legally attack enemy ships, while pirates had no document enabling them to do so.

Privateers were often seen as less dangerous than pirates, causing them to be hunted less vigorously. Pirate hunting was done by both government forces and privateers themselves, though the former would act more frequently. Privateer vessels often carried pardons or amnesties from the authorities to avoid confrontation with naval vessels.

The famous pirate Blackbeard, active during this time, was hunted by the British Royal Navy and eventually killed. This demonstrates how far governments would go to eliminate piracy and privateering activities during this era. [3]

Wager's Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708.
Wager’s Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708
Samuel Scott, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Decline of Piracy and Privateering 

Many factors led to piracy and privateering declining towards the end of the 18th century.

Increased Naval Power

The decline of piracy and privateering can be attributed to the rise in naval forces within various countries, particularly during the 18th century.

Governments of Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal heavily invested in military technology, including larger ships with more advanced artillery. This allowed them to travel further and faster than ever before, allowing for greater control of the seas.

The increased power of naval officers enabled them to end many pirate and privateer activities, thus drastically reducing their numbers. Governments such as Great Britain began to offer pardons and amnesties to those willing to give up their life of piracy – providing a more enticing alternative for many mariners.

Increased Regulations

The other major factor in their decline was the increased regulation of maritime activity. Governments such as Spain and France passed laws that restricted the use of Letters of Marque and imposed stiff punishments for those involved in illegal activities at sea. 

The British government also passed the Piracy Act of 1717, which made piracy punishable by death, further discouraging people from taking up a life on the high seas.

Loss of Popularity 

The final nail in the coffin was their loss of popularity amongst the ordinary people. During the period of the Golden Age, piracy was seen as a heroic profession by many, with famous pirates such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Anne Bonny, and Henry Morgan becoming folk heroes in certain parts of the world. 

In later periods, these figures were no longer looked upon with admiration, and the idea of a life of piracy came to be frowned upon instead. [4]

Spanish Men-of-War Engaging Barbary Corsairs.
Spanish Men-of-War Engaging Barbary Corsairs
Cornelis Vroom, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Legacy Remains

Although the Golden Age of Piracy has passed, its legacy continues.

Pirates and Privateers exist in various forms, though they now operate under different regulations and laws. Organized crime syndicates, such as drug cartels and human traffickers, are seen by many to be the modern-day equivalent of pirates.

Furthermore, piracy in the digital world has become a significant issue, with hackers stealing data from companies worldwide. 

The romanticized notion of famous privateers and pirates is still popular today, with books, movies, and television shows frequently featuring stories of seafaring criminals.

They were an essential part of the maritime history of many countries, and while they may not be as prominent today, their legacy continues to live on. These activities helped shape the world we know today and gave rise to some of the most famous figures in seafaring history. 

Even though these crimes are now considered illegal and are punished severely, they have left a permanent mark on the world’s history. Knowing the difference between pirates and privateers is essential for understanding maritime law and history. [5]

Final Thoughts

Overall, pirate vs. privateer is a crucial distinction to make when discussing maritime law and history. While both terms refer to people who attack ships at sea, they have very different motivations behind their actions and vastly different legal statuses in the eyes of the law. 

Understanding the difference between both can help us better appreciate the role these two have played in maritime history and law, the brave acts of individuals who took to the high seas in search of glory or fortune, and how they are still relevant today.

Whether it be a lowly pirate or a noble privateer, their footprints are indelible. They may be gone, but their legacy remains.