A review of Under The Black Flag

Essay by funnybanddude102University, Bachelor'sC+, September 2009

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Each privateer built his or her, in some cases, lives around not only what was best for them, but also what was best for their ruler and kingdom. The definition of a privateer according to the Webster Dictionary is: "A ship privately owned and crewed but authorized by a government during wartime to attack and capture enemy vessels." The difference between being a pirate and being a privateer is that when you are a pirate you are carrying out this naval warfare without enlistment, or "Letters of Marque", from the government. "Letters of Marque" are a license to a private citizen to seize property of another nation. The motives of the rulers and the privateers are not always very clear. There is a fine line between piracy and privateering, and it is not always based upon a "Letter of Marque." Privateers and rulers, just as pirates, have motives for their actions.

What are these motives is what most interests historians today about pirates and their voyages of blunder and destruction. "Under the Black Flag" by David Cordingly gives very good insight into what is believed to be the motives on both sides of the equation; what is the ruler getting and what is the privateer getting?Let us look first at the idealistic pirate. A person who can really not be known to be a pirate, a corsair, or a privateer. He was all of these; Sir Henry Morgan. His beginnings are truly uncertain and history seems to have lost him early in his life. We do know that what he was, has and probably always will be up for debate. By law, Morgan was a privateer. He carried a "letter of Marque" from England and from the Governor of Jaimaca during every battle or raid he fought. According to the code, Morgan was a privateer, but there is much debate because a lot of his raids happened during time of peace. The privateers specifically chose certain locations to attack because they knew it contained large quantities of riches. "Panama was the principal treasure port on the Pacific coast of Central America for the gold and silver which was brought by ship from Peru and Potosí (Cordingly 51)." The rulers and the privateers always had motives for doing what they did, even if it was a time of war. He had once been captured and sent back to London following his sacking of Panama City (Cordingly 43)." London accepted him with open arms and treated him as royalty. This goes to show that the rulers of these kingdoms that allowed and expected piracy or privateering showed their liking of it. Sir Morgan grew incredibly wealthy from his raids on Spaniards all over the Atlantic. He became infamous for his cunning and his ability to fool. All of this was sactioned by the English government. They used Morgan to destroy the Spanish and to pirate their riched and make them their own. This was part of the way the English was able to continually grow. They took riches from other empires, while still being able to take them down at the same time. This is why piracy was so popular because it helped the ruler of a state in many ways.

Sometimes the motives of a voyage are of personal interest. One such case is that of Captain William Kidd. While in London Kidd met with Robert Livingstone, from New York, and Lord Bellomont, a member of Parliament. "The most suprising part of the whole deal was that the king himself was persuaded to take part in the venture. William III gave formal approval to the scheme and signed a warrant which authorized the partners to keep all the profits from Kidd's captures, thus bypassing the usual arrangement whereby all prizes must be declared in the Admiralty Courts. The King was induced to agree to this unusual arrangement because Lord Shrewsbury, one of the sponsers, arranged for him to reserve a share of 10 percent (Cordingly 181-82)." This is interesting in itself because this is a case where the ruler is receiving some compensation, while the journey itself is important to Captain Kidd. Once again the ruler wins because someone is taking down the pirates of other nations and the ruler is also receiving riches and goods from the raid.

The bad thing about sending out privateers is that they are so unpredictable. Things can change in a heart beat and sometimes they are not able or refuse to do what they were sent out to do. Sometimes, like Captain Kidd, the privateer turns pirate. His charter says that he is to hunt down pirates when his voyage starts in 1696 but he is declared a pirate himself in 1699. He had raided a number of vessels that were not ones on his charter and had also failed to arrest a pirate when he met one, Robert Culliford captain of the Resolution, at Madagascar. So in some cases the privateering idea can backfire and force larger problems into the rulers hands. With this happening there could possibly be some switching sides as well. Whoever pays the most money could come into play. Other pirates just did as they wanted without any sanction from any government. It was just easier to "ride the waves" by themselves and live the life at sea. This did not allow the King of England to expand his state, it only caused more problems.

Privateers are basically "legal pirates." With their "Letters of Marque" they are able to go and do as they like. English privateers are attacking French and Spanish ships and vice versa. When a French merchant ship is taken or looted by an English privateer, all of the goods and the wealth on board now becomes English property. This allows the ruler of England to build his or her state to a higher power. With that comes the raiding of land based treasure holds. Sir Morgan raided Panama and Portobello, which are both land bases. These both contained riches for Morgan's men, but they also contained hidden wealth for the expansion of England. There is always a motive behind each move a ruler makes. The motives for the rulers can be personal, National, or hidden. For the Privateers it can be the same thing. In Morgan's case it was completely National and he did what he did for his country. Captain Kidd, on the other hand, started and continued to do what he did for his own sake. He wanted wealth and power and he was not able to achieve either. He only found death at the gallows. Motive is an important factor when it comes to privateering because it "make the man" so to speak. When it comes to the "High Seas," nothing is for certain.

Work CitedCordingly, David, "Under the Black Flag".