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Loyalist Collection, Piracy and Privateering Guide Ask Us

Guide Sections

Essential Information

Why Use This Guide?

This guide seeks to provide a sample of the wide variety of materials relating to pirates and privateering in The Loyalist Collection at the Harriet Irving Library, with an overview of what they contain and how to search them. Though the study of Loyalists is the primary focus of the collection, the selected materials transcend beyond the American Revolution to provide a range of material on pirates and privateering in the British Atlantic world c. 1680 to 1830. With geographic coverage spanning present-day eastern Canada and the United States, England, and the West Indies, the sources provide a first-hand view of the role of privateers and pirates in warfare and commerce; privateer ownership; the process of acquiring a letter of marque in Britain, its colonies, and America; the functioning of prize courts; and the approach of government bodies in dealing with pirates.

Types of Materials: Primary and Secondary

Primary materials are sources usually created at the time of an event and involve first-hand accounts of historical events without secondary analysis or interpretation. These include personal journals, original correspondence, and applications for a letter of marque, to name a few. Secondary sources offer an analysis, description, or interpretation of a primary resource; and often provide the historical context. For example, if a diary were the primary resource, the secondary resource could be an article explaining the significance and context of the diary; or if a personal letter during the American Revolution were the primary resource, the secondary resource could be a book or encyclopedia article about the American Revolution. These sources provide insights such as social context and military backdrops to piracy and privateering activities. 

Understanding Key Concepts

Courts of Vice-Admiralty:  These are courts in the British colonies with jurisdiction over shipping and maritime law cases; High Courts of Admiralty are the courts in Britain.

Letters of Marque:  This is a license given to an individual by government to legally capture enemy ships in times of war.

Piracy:  This is the act of attacking and robbing at sea.  The Atlantic British colonies in the early days welcomed pirate ships as it was beneficial to their economies - the pirates brought in cheap and valuable commodities and in return the pirates purchased supplies which enriched merchants.  But as they spread their reach across the Pacific and effected trade at a greater scale, Britain unleashed its Navy and by 1730 large-scale piracy was at an end.

Privateering:  Before the end of the 16th century it was not clear where piracy began and privateering ended; thereafter, privateering was understood to be the legal seizure of enemy ships in wartime while operating under a license of a letter of marque.  The British Atlantic colonies were adversely affected by Britain's many European conflicts, especially with France, but these wars provided opportunities for privateers.  Merchants's ships from coastal ports, for example, were armed and manned and scoured the seas from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to the waters of the Caribbean where the prizes were rich and numerous.  As of the War of 1812, privateering was still a pursuit.

Prize:  This is a ship or goods legally captured during war.


Liverpool Packet

The Liverpool Packet, a Nova Scotia privateer vessel active during the War of 1812 by Thomas Hayhust.

(Image courtesy of the Queens County Museum)


Archives & Special Collections Assistant - Microforms Collection, PhD History

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Last modified on May 18, 2024 14:42