Difference Between Pirates and Privateers

Pirates vs Privateers

Just like thieves and robbers in cities and rural areas, there are people engaging in such criminal activities on the sea. These are known as pirates. Theft or violence against a person travelling on a ship by a co passenger is not included in the broad category of piracy. But when we hear or read about pirates, there are other terms that describe similar behavior in water bodies. These are buccaneers and privateers in addition to pirates. This article intends to highlight the differences between pirates and privateers.


The word has become notorious and gained currency in recent times because of the pirates of Somalia. These are robbers working in seas, instead of land, and operate in gangs to get on to passing ships and rob the passengers of their valuables. Of late, the robbers have been indulging in kidnapping people on a ship and then asking for ransom for their release. The word has a Greek origin with the word literally meaning finding luck in sea. Pirates are people who show no mercy to their victims and indulge in violence at the drop of a hat.

International community, despite having a definition for pirates is finding it hard to deal with the menace of piracy because of differences in laws prevailing in different countries.


Originally, privateer was a ship having papers from a government and performing specific tasks in the sea. The crew of a privateer later came to be known as privateers. The captain of the privateer has an authorization letter from the government or a company to engage in different tasks such as getting slaves, objects, and treasures from the sea. This letter was called Marquee that was vaguely worded that allowed privateers to do as they pleased. When a government was at war with another government, it sought services of privateers to attack and destroy the ships of enemy countries. This was historically the case when England allowed these privateers to indulge in loot and arson, in the name of King and the nation. In fact, there was a custom of giving away a portion of the loot to the privateers as recognition of their efforts. Their ship was also given safe harbor and use of other facilities. What may seem surprising to many is the fact that if such privateers were caught by enemy countries, they were treated as prisoners of wars and not as plain robbers or criminals.


What is the difference between Pirate and Privateer?

• To a casual observer, the activities of pirates and privateers may seem similar. However, pirates are plain criminals whereas privateers ostensibly work under the directions of a government or a company.

• Pirates are rebels and treated as common criminals, whereas privateers are treated as prisoners of wars in a war like situation.

• While privateers were employed by kings, to indulge in specific tasks, pirates are robbers who indulge in violence for money only.

• A privateer would attack a ship, only if it belongs to an enemy country, whereas pirates make no such distinction.

• History is replete with people starting out as privateers and turning into pirates.

• Privateers have a letter of Marquee, whereas pirates do not have it.