Marque And Reprisal

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 16, 2009

My colleague, Ben Domenech, has penned a very nice examination of Ron Paul’s very good idea to use letters of marque and reprisal to create a new class of privateers that can take on pirates abroad:

Deploying the New Privateers as a blunt instrument against the Somali pirates has some downsides. But I’m unconvinced that these enemies can be negotiated with or stopped without the deployment of an innovative solution — in this case, one that’s a throwback to the era these thieves come from. The cost, difficulty, and risk of a dozen more Maersk standoffs has to be weighed. We shouldn’t be satisfied with better protections for ships, hoping that the pirates will grow bored of their revenge streak, and reorienting our naval force in the region to combat this enemy will take time. Instead, President Obama and the Congress might consider encouraging those individuals who can to solve the problem in their own way — as messy as it may be — so that these seaborne brigands wake up on a morning soon to find their sands are run.

Click on the link above and read the whole thing.

Update: A friend of the New Ledger sends along the following note, which makes a fascinating point:

There is another dimension to this which is often not mentioned. Piracy is a business. Piracy thrives now, as it did in the early 19th century, because it is profitable. It takes only a few adverse market incidents (e.g. a robust armed response from a warranted combat team) to make piracy unprofitable.

Tactically, to make this work we must must turn what looks like pirate prey into pirate predators. Pirates will seek out unarmed and unescorted fat merchant vessels. They elude at all hazard big gray warships. So we must disguise certain merchant ships or camouflage their offensive capabilities. (“Q-ships” from the British WWI and II vernacular)

For the most part, I believe “offensive capabilities” amounts to putting aboard a small but well trained force of naval infantry. I do not think we need to deploy heavy weapons.

This is why the letters of marque worked. They warranted vessels where armed merchantmen not purpose-built warships. They were decoys that attracted unwary pirates. I don’t know the exact numbers of course but we may find that arming only one ship in ten or less is sufficient to make piracy unattractive in this region.

We are actually facing a more easily solved problem than Jefferson. We are not (yet) facing whole nations built on the financial foundations of piracy, ransom and tribute (e.g.the Barbary Coast). For the time being, it is a private affair. (Although certainly there is some level of state collusion in providing havens for the pirates.)

We can with remarkably little national treasure solve this problem.

  • RightWingNutter

    A privateer with a letter of Marque and Reprisal was essentially a pirate operating under the auspices of a sovereign state. The value of the letter was that if captured, the bearer (and his crew) were considered legal combatants rather than as pirates. The difference was that of prisoner of war vs. summary execution.

    I rather doubt that the Somali pirates would recognize that distinction. The value of such a letter today would be recognition by the warships of real nations that your ship was engaged in legitimate piracy suppression.

    The question is how to make a privateer ship pay in the 21st century. Modern pirates make their money by getting cash payment of some small fraction of the value of the ship and cargo to release it plus the crew. 17th and 18th century pirates simply stole and kept the cargo. Treasure stolen from the Spanish could be sold to the French or English. The Barbary states kept the goods they wanted, sold the rest around the Mediterranean, and sold the crew into slavery.

    A modern privateer would not be able to deal in stolen cargo. They would need to collect bounties from nations or insurance companies for any pirates or their ships captured, or attack pirate bases and steal back money or goods that had already been covered by insurance payments.

    Given the capabilities of modern small arms, the latter option would be too risky for a private force based on a single ship. Shore raids would be a job for a Naval force with SEALs, Marines, helicopter transport and reconnaissance drones and satellites.

    So a 21st century privateer would have to have a bounty rate set in advance for various captures. So much for a live pirate, so much for a dead one, with the largest bounty for an intact mother ship and crew. That requires a state and/or insurance company willing to pay enough for such “prizes” for the privateer company to turn a profit.

    So the next question is, how much would it cost to buy, equip, arm, crew, and operate a privateer capable overpowering a pirate mother ship? Then, how much are the bounties? How frequently could this ship attract the attention of pirates? How long would it take pirates to catch on and avoid this vessel? What does the privateer company do then?

    I don’t have the answers to these questions, but someone considering being a privateer would need to answer those and more to their own (and their financier’s) satisfaction.

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