Letters of Marque : Declarations Against America (HCA 26/60-70 ; ADM7/317-318) : 1777 - 1783.

Call Number: HIL-MICL FC LMR .G7A3L4A4
Category: Military
Creator: Great Britain. High Court of Admiralty.
Description: 4 microfilm textual records (13 volumes) ; 35 mm

Letters of marque were commissions issued during wartime by the Lord High Admiral or Commissioners acting on his behalf, permitting privately owned vessels to be operated as privateers or as armed merchantmen. Before 1739, Orders in Council provided the authority for issuing Letters of Marque, but after that date an Act of Parliament passed at the beginning of a war was required before letters of marque could be issued. At the time of the American Revolution, the act that gave the Lord High Admiral the authority to issue letters of marque was passed in 1777.

There were two types of private men-of-war. The first was a privateer whose purpose was to seek out and capture enemy vessels. The second was a merchant vessel whose captain had the authority to seize any ships of the enemy he might encounter while engaging in regular trading enterprises. The Letter of Marque provided the evidence that the privateer was acting legitimately on behalf of his government and was not engaging in piracy. The original document was held by the captain of the vessel and a copy was preserved in the records of the High Court of Admiralty. To obtain a Letter of Marque, an application had to be made in writing to the Lords of the Admiralty giving a full and detailed description of the vessel, the master's name, and other details.

During the American Revolution the Lord High Admiral or his agents issued 7352 Letters of Marque. Of this number, 2285 were issued against America. The ports of London, Liverpool, Bristol, Guernsey, Jersey and Glasgow were the major centres for privateering activity, but Folkestone, Dartmouth, Dublin, Whitehaven and Lancaster also fitted out a sizeable number of vessels. Since a Letter of Marque was issued against one particular enemy, privateers often carried several letters of marque making it possible for them to sail against more than one enemy power.

Prizes were awarded to the captors; the Crown did not receive prize revenue. Letters of marque could remain in effect for the course of hostilities, but a new commission would be issued if there was a change in a vessel's name, the master, ownership, alterations in rigging, additions of guns, change in home port, change in voyage plans, or if the original commission was revoked.


The collection contains declarations for letters of marque issued by Great Britain against America during the American Revolution covering the dates April 1777- January 1783 from two series: High Court of Admiralty 26, and Admiralty 7. Individual declarations detail ship owners, ship type, commanders, cargoes, supplies, armaments, ports of origin, crews (gunner, boatswain, carpenter, cook, surgeon, etc.) and voyage plans. Larger subjects include law, commerce, foreign relations, shipping, war, and the American Revolution. Analysis of the letters of marque gives insight into the size and nature of the British privateering fleet during this period.

Arrangement: The volumes in both series are arranged in chronological order from the date of authorization for the issuance of Letters of Marque by King George III in April of 1777 until the effective end of the war at sea in January of 1783. ADM 7/317 covers the years 1777 to 1779 and ADM 7/318 from 1779 to 1783.

Detailed Content: The Registers list the ship's name, commander, tons, guns, description of ship, who they were employed by, home port, owner(s), date letter was issued, and by whom it was signed.

Each declaration contained the master's name; the vessel's name; a full and detailed description of the vessel; the tonnage; place of ownership; names of the owner or owners; number of crew members and frequently the names of the officers; the number of guns and other armaments; amount and kind of ammunition; quantity of sails, cables, chains, anchors, spare cordage; cargo; ports where bound; and the length of time for which the vessel was victualed. The declaration was signed, witnessed and dated. When a commission was issued, a record of the transaction was entered into a numbered folio volume.

Originals: The original records are held by the National Archives in London.
Archival Ref. No.: TNA HCA 26/60-70; ADM 7/ 317-318
Finding Aids:

Detailed introductory material prepared by Walter Minchinton, Exeter University, has been microfilmed at the beginning of the first reel of film. It consists of a section on provenance, a lengthy essay providing background information on letters of marque with statistical tables specific to the letters of marque against America, a combined table of contents and microfilm shelf list and a bibliography. Available in the electronic finding aids section as PDFs. HCA 26/60-70: A typed index of commander and ship names referencing the folio number for corresponding letters of marque is available on the microfilm at the end of each volume for that volume, and compiled electronically for volumes 68-70; see Electronic Finding Aid section below.

Electronic version available. See Microforms staff.
Electronic Finding Aid Record: Letters of Marque Declarations Against America Index.pdf
Letters of Marque Against America Shelf List.pdf
Notes: The Letters of Marque : Declarations Against America : 1777-1783, is one of several titles in the series, British Records Relating to America in Microform, which are published under the auspices of the British Association for American Studies by Microform Limited.

Researchers may wish to consult the companion series, Letters of Marque : Declarations Against France, Spain, and the United Provinces : 1777-1783, which is available in the Loyalist Collection and shelved at the following number : MIC-Loyalist FC LMR .G7A3L4F7.

The excellent introductory material provided by the editor of the series has been the source of much useful information in the preparation of this Inventory description.

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