I’ve been enjoying this show a fair bit for a number of reasons. It has a pretty detailed world with a history, which is something I love in fantasy and sci-fi works, and it deals with the interesting subject of privateers.

Privateers Do Not Equal Pirates; Your Mileage May Vary

Bodacious Space Pirates tells of a world where once upon a time, pirates were given Letters of Marque to help against their foe, and that both sides ended up being conquered by a greater power, who allowed the Letters of Marque to remain intact, passed onto the descendants of the originals.

Although it’s a bit muddled, this is very similar to what happened with the USA in the Revolutionary War. Most privateers, however, never were pirates. Privateers were often financed by investors, and were actually pretty reputable. Indeed, the Continental Navy was tiny compared to the number of American privateers who preyed on British Merchant shipping in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

In Marika’s first mission, she and her crew board a passenger liner, rob the passengers (legally), and then depart. That’s not how privateers operated, or pirates for that matter. Privateers were noted for having large crews. The reason for this is that a privateer would capture a ship, put aboard a heavily armed prize crew who would keep an eye on the civilian crew, sailing back to a friendly port, where the ship and its cargo would be sold by prize agents. This would result in far more money than simply robbing the passengers on board a ship.

Privateers were not usually pirates, but some pirates got their start as privateers. Many of the famous British pirates got their start as privateers. One of the most famous examples of a privateer who is known as a pirate is Jean Lafitte, hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The age of privateers was from the 16th-19th centuries, and at certain points, the aggrieved nation would sometimes treat privateers as pirates. But as time passed the distinctions between privateers and pirates became more distinct, until the breakdown of the Spanish Empire and the revolutionary turmoil that followed caused distinctions to blur yet again. Legitimate privateers were generally well regarded in society, so Marika’s place in society in BSP is actually reasonably accurate.

Letter of Marque

The way a Letter of Marque worked is that country A might be at war with country B. Country A might then issue Letters of Marque to ships to prey on the vessels of country B. So if you have a Letter of Marque from England who is at war with Spain, you could attack and capture all the Spanish shipping you wanted. Where problems would happen is when peace would be declared, and British ships would keep capturing ships of Spain, or if a British ship captured a neutral ship. Letters of Marque could and were issued against multiple countries, increasing the potential targets of a privateer. Privateers didn’t fly under pirate flags; they operated under the flag of the nation that had issued their Letter of Marque.

The breakup of the Spanish Empire and the War of 1812 are generally considered the end of the privateering era. Many of the countries in Central, South America and the Carribean issued Letters of Marque against Spain, and against other nations which they might be in conflict with. It was in these circumstances, where a privateer might receive Letters of Marque for any number of different countries, raiding ships of country A for country B one year, and vice versa the following year. In such circumstances, it wasn’t uncommon for privateers, who were just using Letters of Marque as a figleaf, to become actual pirates, as would happen with Jean Lafitte.

Privateering was mostly ended in 1856 when a number of European countries led by Britain and France outlawed privateering. However, the USA never signed that treaty. The Confederacy would issue Letters of Marque during the Civil War, resulting in the Union first attempting to treat them as pirates, before agreeing, after retaliation threats to treat them as POWs. The last known privateering happened during some of the South American wars in the last part of the 19th century, again for the classic reason of one nation not having a navy.

Privateers were primarily patriots and profiteers. Most of the time, there was a clear difference between them and pirates. They went after an enemy’s merchant ships, although they would also sometimes raid coastal villages and towns, taking anything not nailed down. The age of the privateer had mostly passed by the time of Japan’s emergence on the world stage; pirates were something Japan new of, privateers, not so much.