The politics of piracy : pirates, privateers, and the government of Elizabeth I, 1558-1588
By Amanda J. Snyder
Master’s Thesis, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, 2009
Abstract: This thesis addresses the distinctions between “pirates” and “privateers” and the reasons for and usefulness of these distinctions. The consolidation of power and the compromises enacted to quell religious disputes in sixteenth-century England allowed Queen Elizabeth to assess the problem of piracy. In doing so, she determined that by sanctioning piracy through official letters of marque and reprisal thereby bringing pirates under some sort of government control as “privateers,” she could add to her dwindling naval forces and add to her coffers with the spoils of these missions.
Elizabeth’s navy had become an important issue because of the threat of Spanish attack and possible invasion of England. While Elizabeth had wanted to focus her attentions internally on England itself, she was drawn into continental affairs—most the rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands. Elizabeth found herself torn between maintaining peace with Spain and aiding fellow Protestants in the Netherlands. During this time, the issue of pirates and privateers became most important. Elizabeth had to avoid conflict because she had insufficient military forces. Realizing that at her disposal were dozens of experienced sailors with their own ships, she began to sanction piracy by creating and encouraging a fleet of privateers, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins. Such an act allowed Elizabeth to whittle away at Spanish hegemony in the Atlantic, thereby increasing her own influence, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The most interesting part of this creation of a privateering corps, is that all the while, Elizabeth and her council were issuing more stringent laws against pirates and those who aid pirates. She even allowed Sir Julius Caesar to completely reform the Court of Admiralty in order to make the capturing and prosecuting of pirates more efficient. It is this dichotomy in the context of English foreign policy that I will be exploring as well as the ultimate effects of these policies as they relate to the establishment of a tried and true Royal Navy and as they contribute to the formation of English trading companies like the Levant Company.