From: The advanced learner's dictionary of current English / by A.S. Hornby,
E.V. Gatenby, H. Wakefield. - 2nd ed., 14th imp. - London : Oxford
University Press, 1970
[mark] n. 1. letters of --, authority formerly given to private persons
to fit out an armed ship and use it to attack, capture, and plunder of enemy
merchant ships in time of war. 2. = mark, def. 11 (esp. of cars).
The original function of a letter of marque (or Letter of Reprisal) was to right
a private wrong. For example, when a Dutch merchant has his goods stolen in Germany,
and he cannot gain satisfaction for his loss through legal or diplomatic means, he
can be granted a Letter of Marque by the Dutch government. Such a letter allows him
to "capture" a German merchant to compensate him for his loss. Since the early 18th
century it was no longer in use as a means to right a private wrong. The function
of the letter of Marque had changed. These letters were now used by governments,
as an instrument of State, to augment the National Navy. This gave the
state a naval force which could attack the commerce of the enemy at no
cost to public funds. The ships captured had to be brought before an
Admiralty Court and tried to ensure they were a legal prize, and not
the property of a neutral state.
The privateers acted on a commission recognised under the Law of Nations.
One of the principle clauses of a letter of marque is that of specifically naming
the country whose vessels can be legally captured. There were heavy penalties if
the property of other nations was violated.
Letters of Marque did not completely safeguard a privateer from prosecution even
when ships of certain countries were excluded from attacks. When a privateer is
captured by hostile nations he is often charged with being a pirate and swiftly
executed. Also when countries make peace between them and a privateer fails to
get the news about this in time he can be prosecuted if he continues to attack
ships of the now friendly nation. Sometimes a privateer is such a long time away
from home or the colonies that he only hears the news of a peace treaty when he
returns home from his privateering enterprise.
The use of Letters of Marque was discontinued by many countries who signed the Declaration of Paris
in 1856. The United States as well as several other countries signed
the International Treaty much later. The US was at that time much more
dependent on their use to increase their Maritime power because they
lacked a Large Navy.