Revival of Letters of Marque

For the unfamiliar, a Letter of Marque, was a document issued by a sovereign government to a private citizen that allowed them to arm a ship and prey on an enemy’s ships at sea. The ships in this program were called privateers. Famous privateers included Sir Francis Drake and John Paul Jones. Ships could be captured, taken to a port and sold - cargo and all. The proceeds went to the owner and crew. One capture could make them very wealthy. They were an effective way for a small country without a navy - like the US colonies or the civil war Confederacy - to strike at the trade of their enemies.

So I was reading this today: 'Shadow' Tanker Fleet Raises Risk of Accidents.

And it made me think of the old punishment for criminals. They were declared “outlaws”, people living outside the protection of church and state. They could be robbed without penalty by ordinary citizens.

From there it was a short leap to Letters of Marque and the shadow fleet of tankers helping Russia and Iran operate outside of sanctions.

Letters of Marque have been discontinued since the mid-1800s, but I see some parallels in current events. What’s to stop the Ukrainians from offering to commission ships as vessels in the Ukrainian navy and tasking them with capturing shadow tankers on the high seas?

The shadow ships are sailing dark, but I bet a friendly government with satellites could tell the Ukrainians where most of them were. I also bet there would be a lot of ready buyers at $0.50 on the dollar. Transactions that wouldn’t require the vessel being in a port.

After being sold this way what sort of legal standing would the new owner have regarding the cargo and ship? Could they expect protection from Western Navies?

Any thoughts?

(edited to correct grammar)

Interesting concept. My immediate thought is that privateers operating under letters of marque were at the apex of naval warfare. There wasn’t a lot the victim nations could do to retaliate so escalation wasn’t an issue.
With nuclear arms in the major players’ arsenals, the prospect of escalation takes on a whole new meaning.

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I think we’re already there regarding risk of escalation.

Which war are you referring to?
The “Hot” war in Ukraine, or the “Cold” war of words with China?
Or maybe both?

The main problem with modern privateers:

Two hundred years ago you didn’t know who that ship was coming over the horizon. It may even fly a friendly flag. But when she came close to you, the prey, ka-boom.

Nowadays every big vessel has an AIS. In a world with modern privateers every ship with no AIS (electronics failure?) will be perceived as a threat, and attacked itself by the soon-to-be armed, trigger happy merchantmen.

If privateers begin to display false data in their AIS to hide their identity, then the trigger-happy merchantmen may fire first on any ship that looks suspicious.

  1. False flag operations were a standard practice of privateers. The “shadow fleet” are likely to be operating without AIS anyway - that’s why they call them the “dark fleet” or “shadow fleet”.
  2. There are an estimated 600 dark fleet tankers. They would have to arm a lot of ships. They would have to find crews willing/capable of defending them. None of that happened in the pirate crises. Why would this be different - except the privateers would be better armed?
  3. To attack a ship these days you’d only need a drone with a missile. Not necessary to get close.
  4. The tanker crew can probably be bought off cheap in the face of a threat.
  5. VLCC carries 2 million barrels of oil worth about $70 per barrel. For that amount of money someone will figure out the problem.
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And looking at the MacGyver drone creations in Ukraine these day, a DJI drone with an IED is all a privateer would need. Belarus opposition group landed a drone on top of a Russia’s A-50, and then it was subsequently bown up. Lots of places where it woul suck to have a grenade or Molotov land on a tanker…

Yup. And a cheap DYI fixed wing UAV/Drone can easily be constructed, fly a reasonably long, undetectable mission and end in a terminal kamikaze dive on any kind of target. Ask me how I know… :sunglasses:

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Keep in mind Ukraine is very conscious of public opinion. Setting a couple million barrels of oil on fire is not something anyone wants to see. Same with sinking.

The idea is to capture the ship in a legal manner by having the “privateer” be a vessel in the Ukrainian navy. Then sell the cargo.

It wouldn’t take very many incidents to dry up the trade of sanctioned oil carried on ships without insurance.

I sure hope the kgb isn’t reading this.

An old diesel electric sub fitted with a deck gun and “Cruiser Rules”

And a Pirate hat

Yee hah me hearties !

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China is only a step away from doing just that. Beijing has recently significantly increased the size of its “Spratly Fishing Fleet” to claim sovereignty in the south China Sea. The fleet now consists of 300 to 400 vessels.
It should be noted that they are not armed. Not yet.,new%20vessels%2C%20among%20other%20things.

The cat is out of the bag…so to speak.

If these ships were captured and then sold, the legal standing of the new owner regarding the captured cargo and the ship would depend on various factors. Typically, international law recognizes the concept of “prize law” for captures made during times of war. However, the situation you describe falls in a gray area, as it’s not a traditional conflict but an enforcement action against economic sanctions. The legality of the capture and sale could be contested, especially by the countries whose sanctions are being violated.

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Would that be true if the Letter of Marque was issued by Ukraine? Their standing would be more war than sanction enforcement.

Don’t forget more than one privateer decided they no longer cared all that much whose ships they were attacking. In the Revolutionary War the British got such a fleet going in the Chesapeake and they soon forgot about nuances such as which side someone was on and attacked loyalists just as readily as revolutionaries, never mind the the 1600s/1700s era privateers turned pirate.

That would be epic. Someone needs to go suggest this to the Ukrainians. Now we’ll have merchant ships in far distant waters capturing Russian ships in the name of Ukraine.

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Bring back the Q ships!


At the end of the day the world needs the oil Russia pumps and any real disruption in that market (letters of marque) will have real negative economic consequences globally.

India and Saudi Arabia (both friendly nations) are buying huge amounts of Russian product and reshipping it all over the world. Can’t imagine they would be “down” to having their cargos seized in the name of Ukraine to say nothing of the consumers who depend on them. Sounds like a foreign policy nightmare and probably the only reason they have attacked one tanker.

Considering the value of 2 million barrels of crude compared to the value of the tanker, you can look at the ship as nothing more than a grocery bag. It is useful to hold the goodies but worthless and disposable once you get home, hardly worth paying the paperwork costs to reflag.

One of the former main players in the “Shadow/Dark Fleet” has stepped out of the shadows:

Their fleet has shrunk to just a few old tankers: