It may surprise some to think of Newburyport as a home for pirates but it was. It all came down to how individual nations defined the function of ships during a war.
America was a colony of Britain and therefore any act of rebellion would be treated as treason. Though the new Continental Congress issued Letters of Marque establishing government-sanctioned privateers, the British considered these former loyal British subjects attacking their shipping as pirates. This was the attitude regardless that the action was motivated by insurgents motivated by political reasons.
In the British eyes, every privateer coming out of Newburyport was a pirate ship and the mouth of the Merrimack River was a pirate cove.
Consequently the letters of marque were worthless and instead of being treated as prisoners of war with certain rights, they were treated worse than dogs often being left to rot on floating prison ships or in the cells of Plymouth, England.
On the other hand, the ships that left Newburyport harbor for privateering during the War of 1812; were going forth with legal letters of marque fully recognized by the British. Hence, treatment was much improved compared to the Revolutionary War veterans.
Of course, unlike the pirates envisioned today who have lost all semblance of inhibition with a wench in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other; these privateers would pray at night on a Saturday and march faithfully into church on Sunday. Their wildness on the open seas empowered by the all or nothing privateer financing structure – no prize ships, no profit.
I have attached an excellent video that humorously parodies the situation as it stood at the time of the American Revolution.
The pirate (from Greek “peiratès”, which means “the one who undertakes”, “the one who tempts fortune”) acts for his own account, he is an outlaw who cross the seas and who plunders, violates and often kills without distinction of nationality. If he is caught, he is hanged high and short. High so that everybody sees him, and short to save some rope!
The privateer acts on a letter of mark delivered in the name of the king. This letter is a document by which a country recognizes him as an auxiliary military force. The privateer acts for the service of his country. If he is captured, he shows his letter of mark, which avoids him the rope. But some unscrupulous privateers took advantage of this official paper to plunder and kill civilian merchant ships, like the pirates. Now piracy is as old as the hills and still exists, whereas privateers raged only during three centuries (from the XVI to the XIX century).
The Smuggler is engaged in the clandestine business of prohibited goods or for which he did not settle the customs duties.
The Buccaneer. These hill poachers during the 16th century were composed of outlaws, army deserters runaway slaves and smugglers and which could be found in the mountainous areas of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic/Haiti). The original word buccaneer came from the word in French for barbecuing called, Boucan. The Arawak Indians called it Barbicoa which eventually came down to us as Barbeque.
These men became boucaner or literally barbequers. Later in the 17th century, they found a much more profitable means and settled on the coast. They were rough, cruel and desperate men and they’re style of piracy reflected it. They were not above murder in their pursuit of treasure.
The present day costume for a pirate is of a buccaneer. Happily, there has never been a single buccaneer in Newburyport throughout its long history though some have been sighted recently in Rockport and Salisbury.
So, what has happened to the privateer in history?
During the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era, as described accurately in the Horatio Hornblower series, European powers would often convert their merchant fleets into warships and give all combatants even those in their official navies, a chance to share in the booty of a captured ship. These Letters of Marque authorizing the conversion of a merchant ship were later translated into the required Marques for future privateers.
The United States used privateering largely in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. It also declared itself the right of privateering during the Civil War but never exercised it. The Confederacy on the other hand used it aggressively against Union shipping.
Finally, the United States declared the practice of Privateering illegal during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The first attempt internationally to make privateering against the law was in the Declaration of Paris of 1856. Unfortunately, some major players did not sign on such as Mexico, Spain, the United States and Venezuela.
Another attempt was done by the Hague Conference of 1907 which tried to regulate what exactly is a privateering ship and recognizing that a merchant ship used in war could then be classified as a warship. The Germans unfortunately used this interpretation to attack the Lusitania because they felt it was being used to haul munitions and soldiers.
Finally, in the Hague Conference of 1922-23, called to formulate the use of aircraft and radio in a time of war, privateering was officially outlawed in the air and sea. The declaration indicated that because belligerent rights at sea could be exercised only by units under the direct authority, immediate control, and responsibility of the warring nation, belligerent rights in the air should also be exercised only by military aircraft.
Technically, privateering exists today in the form of mercenaries but the practise of splitting the prizes of war, which was the prime motivating force has died out entirely.