Letters of Marque : Declarations Against France, Spain, and the United Provinces (HCA 26/33-59) : 1777 - 1783.

Call Number: HIL-MICL FC LMR .G7A3L4F7
Category: Military
Creator: Great Britain. High Court of Admiralty.
Description: 8 microfilm textual records (27 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 was passed in 1777 that gave the Lord High Admiral the authority to issue Letters of Marque.

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, and other details.

During the American Revolution, the Lord High Admiral or his agents issued 7352 letters of marque. Of this number, 2328 were issued against France, 1506 against Spain, and 1233 against the United Provinces. The ports of London, Liverpool, Bristol, the Channel Islands, and ports in the South-East of England, South-West of England and the West of Scotland were major centres of privateering activity against these three nations, while a number of smaller ports also fitted out a considerable 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 entirely 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 twenty-seven volumes of declarations for letters of marque issued by Great Britain against France, Spain, and the United Provinces (Dutch Republic)during the American Revolution preserved in High Court of Admiralty 26, Volumes 33-59. 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.

The records are organized in three chronological sequences beginning with the entry of each country into the war and ending with the effective end of the war at sea in January 1783. The declarations against France are recorded on four reels beginning on 15 August 1778 and ending on 20 January 1783. The two reels of declarations against Spain begin on 6 June 1779 and also end on 20 January 1783. The declarations against the Dutch comprise the third chronological sequence, also on two reels, and date from 26 December 1780 until 20 January 1783.

Each declaration contained the vessel's name and the name of the master along with a full and detailed description of the vessel, including the tonnage. The place of ownership, names of the owner or owners, cargo, and port of destination are recorded. Also included is the number and type of guns or other armament carried; the amount and type of ammunition on board; the number of crew members; the quantity of sails, cables, chains, anchors, and spare cordage; and the length of time for which the vessel was victualled. 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 26/33-59.
Finding Aids:
            Detailed introductory material prepared by Walter Minchinton and David Starkey of the University of Exeter has been microfilmed at the beginning of the first reel of film. It consists of a section on provenance, an essay on the history, purpose and content of a Letter of Marque, a section of background information and statistical tables specific to the Letters of Marque against France, Spain and the United Provinces, a table of contents and a bibliography.

A microform shelf list providing reel numbers and corresponding volumes and date range is available electronically.

Scanned indices of commander and ship names referencing the folio numbers for corresponding letters of marque are available electronically. The indices are arranged alphabetically by vessel and are also found on the film at the end of each volume, except volume 42.

Electronic Finding Aid Record: Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 1 Index Vols 33 to 35.pdf
Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 2 Index Vols 36 to 38.pdf
Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 3 Index Vols 39 to 41.pdf
Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 4 Index Vols 43 to 44.pdf
Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 5 Index Vols 45 to 48.pdf
Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 6 Index Vols 49 to 52.pdf
Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 7 Index Vols 53 to 56.pdf
Letters of Marque France Spain UP Reel 8 Index Vols 57 to 59.pdf
Letters of Marque Against France Spain UP Shelf List and Contents .pdf
Notes: The Letters of Marque : Declarations against France, Spain and the United Provinces : 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 America : 1777-1783, which is available in the Loyalist Collection and shelved at the following number: MIC-Loyalist FC LMR .G7A3L4A4.

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

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