Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Letters of Marque

In my last post, I got on a bit of a soap box about the standoff with pirates over the captain of a private vessel in Somalia. Brandon points out that using our navy to fight pirates around Africa may not be the best, or most cost effective solution. Brandon suggests using a combination of convoys and training for local coast guards to solve the problem. For a short term solution, I am not against convoys. However, there is one solution that I am in favor of that could potentially make money for our government and has worked in the past: Letters of Marque.

Letters of Marque are issued to private entities. The documents allow a privately owned vessel to attack specifically named enemies of the issuing nation on the high seas. This was a way of dealing with pirates in the 1700's. The receivers of the Letters of Marque are typically called privateers.

There is legal grounds for the United States to issue these. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to issue Letters of Marque in Article I, Section 8. As much as our Congress likes to spend money, they may consider this idea. Secondly, those nations that signed the Declaration of Paris in 1856 agreed to no longer issue Letters of Marque. The United States is not a signer of the Declaration of Paris. Finally, we have used Letters of Marque as recently as World War Two. Admittedly, that is the only time the U.S government has since the War of 1812, but we have done it.

Historically, a privateer would pay a fee to a nation to get a Letter of Marque. Let's say $100,000 in today's world. The privateer would be responsible for outfitting and training their crews, and would be entitled to a percentage of any "booty" captured under the Letters (let's call it 85%). The United States would designate specific "hostile forces", such as pirates operating off the coast of Somalia, and would get the 15% "booty" not accounted for in the last sentence. One last note, the privateers would also be able to deal out punishment to any pirates they captured. The Letters are very specific in the areas and enemies privateers are allowed to operate. It would not be a blank check to cause mayhem on the high seas.

I think this is a very smart way to handle the pirates. The United States doesn't have to beef up it's military presence near Somalia, nor do we put additional funds and resources into the area. Private companies or individuals would go forth and deal with the pirates. Already the pirates have said they are going to retaliate on future U.S. vessels they capture, and they have tried as recently as today. Letters of Marque were quite effective against pirates in the past, and can be once again.


pack04 said...

Letters of Marque served their purpose in the past. I think this is a different situation in which they are not ideal. As you pointed out they were used in WWII, the War of 1812 and in the 1700's. In the 1700's the ocean was big and not enough of the British Royal Navy to cover it all. During the War of 1812 our Navy was just about non existent. During WWII lots of ocean again and lots of other things to do. Those were all times that contracting out military work was necessary.

Now the US Navy has more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. Are you telling me that we are so weak or short staffed or stretched so thin that we can not deal with these pirates? Are you telling me that our ships, our countrymen are not worth the protection of their US Navy? Attacking our ships on the sea is like attacking our country, or our embassy in a foreign country. Not acceptable.
These pirates and that country need to be shown that we are serious about protecting our country and it is not worth their lives to mess with us.

Brandon said...


Although the Letters of Marque sounds like an intriguing idea, there would be a couple issues to work out.

First of all, what would replace the booty that the privateers used to capture? Back in the day, privateers were basically legal pirates, today I don't think it would fly for the modern privateers to drive off the Somali pirates only to demand a portion of the cargo as a reward. Perhaps the U.S. and the nations that make up the E.U. could chip in for a bounty fund that would reward the privateers for each pirate they bring in.

Secondly, Americans traditionally don't like mercenaries, thanks to British and their Hessian mercs in the Revolutionary War. From a P.R. perspective, people might not go for the idea of private persons hunting down pirates.

Brandon said...


It's true that the U.S. has the most carriers in the world, they are far too busy to be diverted for something as trivial as piracy.

The Navy keeps at least one and usually multiple carriers in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to support Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, we have to keep one carrier minimum available in the Pacific to respond to possible action by North Korea against South Korea or China against Taiwan. Factoring in carriers that just returned from deployments or are in dry dock getting routing maintenance, we really don't have any carriers available to fight the pirates even if we were so inclined to use them on such a mission.

I think you don't have a great understanding of the modern maritime industry. Very few ships are U.S.-flagged anymore and very few ships have Americans on their crews for cost reasons. A ship owner can register his ship and fly it under the flag of any third-world country and use crewman from a third-world country or a former Warsaw Pact country for very cheap.

Basically the only ships that still are U.S.-flagged and have U.S. crews are ships used by the military as equipment transport and aid relief. So the question we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to expend a lot of resources to protect foreign sailors that are delivering goods to Africa and will never get close to a U.S. port.

Andy D said...


I am not telling you any of that. However deploying vessels to protect all of the worlds ships from pirates cost money. The free world has traditionally looked to the United States to protect them from things that go bump in the night. The world loves to throw criticism at us when we do. Let's issue Letters and see what others do about it for a bit.

Brandon you bring up some interesting points. Perhaps enriching the pot would be a good idea.

At the end of the day, my goal would be to provide a different means of patrolling the coast. I am looking for something outside of the box, and something to keep the pirates on their toes. Our military has certian rules it has to fight by, privateers wouldn't. Maybe that would be enough to let the pirates rethink their chosen career.

pack04 said...

Alright if there are not that many American ships that need protecting then we don't need a carrier to protect our ships.

I ask why do we care then? If it is a ship that is not American and is not coming to America then why would we even bother with the navy or letters of Marque? You do not buy a Hyundai and get the performance of a Jaguar. You don't sign up under a cheap country and get the protection of the US Navy.

I am tried of being the country that is responsible for every "bumb in the night." Taking flack for doing something or doing nothing or doing the wrong thing. I am tried of providing welfare to the rest of the lazy world just like I am tired of providing welfare to the lazy people in my country.

Andy you are an advicate of encouraging people to get off their ass and do something. Well why not the same for other countries. Let other countries deal with the letters of marque or a navy or coast guard. If they wish to hire the US Navy then by all means I am sure we can come up with a price. If what Brandon said is true that there are not many US ships then I say happy pirating.

Matt said...

On top of everything else, please note that Letters of Marque were very often abused, and it caused many problems. The sentiments of the 13 Colonies with their long lost 14th - Halifax in Nova Scotia were soured because American Privateers took to attacking local fisherman - many of whom were originally Yankee traders who moved up to Halifax before the war - and it quelled any sentiment to join the Revolution. The ability to spark a political incident is even greater now when even the smallest tragedies have a large voice. Putting that in the hands of private individuals is dangerous at best.

On top of that, many Privateers would often wait until another Privateer captured a ship in order to capture it back. The rule was that the last person to lay hold of the ship was the proper owner. So if you are I were of the same nation and I had a massive cargo ship and you had a privateer, you could just sit and wait until the poor pirates captured me and then "claim" me as a prize and take all the money. It is not so simple a job to arbitrate who gets to keep the prizes, especially when they were once the property of the home nation of the privateer.

Matt said...

"The free world has traditionally looked to the United States to protect them from things that go bump in the night."

By tradition you mean only starting in WWI, correct? Previously the US was rampant in it's self-interest. Our only involvement with Europe for the better part of our existence was a neutral trading ally. That does not sound like protection to me.

Now I don't agree with Pack either, and I anyone who is "tired of taking care of lazy people" should get a good dope slap, I do think you should realize that the currently held self-righteous opinion that "Everyone has always looked to the US to solve their problems" is pretty much a self-righteous platitude and nothing more.

Andy D said...

Matt, this is one case where I almost wish you were right. I mean that since the end of WWII, and perhaps since around WWI, Europe specifically has expected the United States to protect it in a time of emergency. I don't think that is a particularly insightful point by me, it's just the facts. Look at the military spending by our European allies. Could Britain protect itself from a small scale skirmish? Yes. A full scale war with a country like Russia? Nope.

To a certain extent, this column was a little tongue in cheek. However, I think the idea could be implemented with a few small changes.

The reality is that the world does look to the United States to protect it if it is attacked by someone. You may not like that fact, but it is obvious by looking at how seriously other nations take military spending, and by who the UN expects to supply troops in any UN effort.