Articles

This is how piracy became totally legal during wartime


 

What's the difference between pirates and patriots? A government to be loyal to, of course. Such was the case during the age of sail, when warring nations would literally hire pirates and other captains to raid enemy shipping.

When officially endorsed by a belligerent nation, pirates were issued a Letter of Marque – the marque being a pledge to fight for one nation...at least for the time being.

"God save the Queen! Whichever Queen we're supposed to save!"

Such was the case with England's "Sea Dogs," hired by Queen Elizabeth I to raid gold-laden Spanish treasure fleets sailing from the New World. Capturing a ship meant money for both the ship and her crew as well as the Marque-issuing government.

The Catholic King Philip of Spain was determined to flip Protestant England back to Catholic control. The English Protestants and their Queen were having none of it. For some 19 years, the two countries were bitter rivals, fighting a series of battles on both land and sea that saw little else but money change hands.

I mean...who fights a war for 19 years? That's crazy, amirite?

For the crews who shared the prize money, life was harsh. Disease and starvation were common among sailing crews at the time. For the Sea Dogs' commander, a few good prizes could make them rich. One pirate would become the second highest-earning pirate of all time.

That Sea Dog was Sir Francis Drake, a Protestant captain with a distaste for Spanish Catholics. Perhaps one of the greatest English leaders of the age, Drake led the expedition that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 and took his piracy tour to the Pacific for the first time in history.

"What's armada with you?" "SHUT UP CARLOS"

The Spanish put a price on his head that would be the modern equivalent of almost $7 million.

Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and the war ended the next year. Drake would also not survive the war, dying of dysentery after attacking Puerto Rico. Though the peace restored the status quo, the war was a disaster for Spain.

Embracing the Sea Dogs was a disaster for England as well. After the war, they joined the raiders of the North African coast, continuing their anti-Catholic piracy careers alongside the Turkish corsairs of the Barbary States.

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