1599923Handbook of Maritime Rights — Chapter 2Henry Alexander Munro-Butler-Johnstone



I HAVE already said that the question of privateering has nothing to do with the real question at issue. The distinction between them is made clear by this fact. The question of privateering regards the belligerents only; if both belligerents agree to abstain from the practice, well and good; if either refuses, the other is ipso facto absolved from the obligation of abstaining. This is what happened the other day in the war between Spain and Chili. Chili had adhered to the Declaration of Paris, the first article of which abolished privateering—Spain had not. When war broke out between them, Chili re-asserted a right which her adversary had never relenquished, and this re-assertion was acquiesced in by Spain and approved of by every other Government. In fact the other Governments had nothing to say to the matter; it in no way regarded them. But very different is the case when it is a question of the neutral flag covering the cargo. Then the rights of neutrals step in, and other Governments besides those of the belligerents have a voice in the matter. They will keep, and have a right to keep, the belligerent who has signed the Declaration of Paris to his engagement, by which it is their turn to profit, and by which he himself profited all the time he was a neutral, by driving a flourishing carrying trade with one or both of the belligerents. It is this distinction which clearly detaches the question of privateering from that far more serious question of the neutral flag covering the enemies cargoes.I am not myself an enthusiast for privateering. I take no particualr interest in the matter. I am not in favour of binding ourselves beforehand not to use this or that mode of naval warfare. It is for the interest, I believe, of a maritime nation like ourselves to use all modes of naval warfare, to put forth its naval strength in all directions, and all juggles by which modes of warfare are limited and crippled must turn out for the exclusive benefit of the weaker maritime belligerent. Privateering was in the last great war supposed to lead to abuses, and the sense of responsibility was believed to be not so strongly felt by the commander of a privateer as by that of a regular commissioned man of war. These abuses have, I believe, been exaggerated, and precautions of a stringent nature were certainly taken to enforce and strengthen this sense of responsibility. Owners of privateers were under heavy obligations to confine themselves within the limits of their commission. This commission was not "to kill, burn, and destroy," as ran the commission of the officers of the Royal Navy, but exclusively to capture and bring into port captured vessels and cargo, there to be duly adjudicated on by the properly constituted tribunals (Admiralty Courts) of the country, and under no pretext whatever were they allowed to break bulk. Any violation of these obligations was severely and summarily punished, and commanders of privateers were required to find large pecuniary security for their conduct.

That these regulations were not always sufficient to restrain lawless men and to prevent abuses may be true, but has never been very clearly established. It clearly will not do to go for examples of excesses to the days of Captain Kidd and his compeers, for those were lawless days, and the exploits of these heroes can be matched by those of regular commissioned officers in those days. Buccaneering was then in vogue, and the code of honour of buccaneers was such as might be expected.

A very prevalent confusion of ideas on the subject of privateers has considerably enhanced the prejudice against them. It is often stated that letters of marque may be issued to individuals of any nationality to prey on the commerce of the enemy, or, at any rate that an individual of the nationality of the belligerent may fit out a privateer in any neutral port, select his crew from sailors of any nationality, and set out with his letters of marque to prey on the commerce of the enemy. Nothing can be clearer than the law of nations on this subject. A vessel so fitted out is not a privateer at all, but a pirate, and its captain and crew, if captured, are clearly liable to the pains and penalties of piracy. The Alabama was a buccaneer pure and simple, and it was essentially the interest of England to recognize her, indeed to insist on her being recognized and viewed as such. Consider for a moment the consequences of the opposite doctrine. According to it, Switzerland, Bavaria, or any other microscopic inland state, having a quarrel with England or the United States, might declare war, and, whilst their geographical situation placed them beyond the reach of offensive operations from them, might send letters of marque to the cut-throats of every port in the four continents of the globe to prey on and destroy the commerce of their enemy. This is a conclusive reductio ad absurdum, I take it, of an assertion which is continually being made on the subject of privateering. It is highly important to prevent the slightest confusion on this matter. Privateering may be a good or a bad thing, but it is clearly quite distinct from buccaneering. Pirates, however, having been dignified with the name of privateers, it is not surprising that privateers should be stigmatized with the name of pirates, and the whole subject enveloped in a maze of prejudice and mis-conception.

If privateers were abolished, substitutes for privateering would immediately take its place. During the last war, Prussia was engaged in chartering large merchant steamers, arming them, and putting them under the command of naval officers, with a view of sending them out to prey on French commerce. The overwhelming superiority which she soon managed to establish over her enemy on land rendered any mode of naval warfare superfluous, and put an end to the device.

Prussia fought the battle of her cruisers on land, for she imposed a contribution of 1,000,000 francs per occupied department, overtly as compensation for the mischief inflicted on her commerce by French cruisers. England could very easily charter any number of merchant steamers, convert them into cruisers, put them under the command of naval officers, and so find an effective substitute for privateers.

The question of privateers is therefore quite a secondary question. It is unwise, I think, to make arrangements beforehand on this subject with foreign nations. Keep all your arms stored in your national arsenal. Don't part with any of them. If it is unnecessary or inexpedient in any particular war according to the circumstances of that war, to employ a particular weapon, let it remain stored up until the necessity or expediency for using it arises. The day might come when some disaster to our regular military marine might endanger our very existence, and then it might become expedient and highly necessary to call into activity every privateer which the wealth of our private enterprise and the daring of our seafaring population could place at the disposal of the Crown. To limit or control or trammel that reserve power by convention or treaty with foreign nations seems to me unwise and impolitic; and when I remember that the Spanish Armada was defeated and England saved by a fleet composed exclusively of privateers, I am at any rate unwilling to join in the unreasoning clamour raised against this particular mode of naval operations.