Letters of marque
Everything old is new again - maybe or maybe not
Until the Declaration of Paris in 1856, a nation would sometimes authorize ships in its merchant fleet to carry out offensive action against ships of another nation. Such authorization was considered a step just short of war. The measure was widely used by the English and French and to a lesser extent by the Spanish. One of the most famous recipients of a letter of marque was Francis Drake, who sailed the Golden Hind and utilized the authorization he received from Queen Elizabeth I to wreak havoc on Spanish settlements in the Americas. Suggestions have been made that such letters should be issued to US merchant ships to attack pirate vessels off the coast of Somalia. In fact, the United States Constitution specifically authorizes the Congress to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal”. Such action would be impracticable today for several reasons. First, the holder of a letter of marque officially was compensated solely by successfully capturing a “prize” and bringing it into a port of the nation that issued the letter. A “prize court” would then review the circumstances and decide on the amount of the award (somewhat similar to a salvage award). Since Somali pirate ships are virtually worthless hulks and would never survive a voyage to the United States, the basic concept fails. The less expansive option of arming merchant vessels to defend themselves against pirates has a certain initial appeal, but is also fraught with danger. The better course of action is for the organized naval forces to continue fighting a holding action at sea while diplomats work to build an effective government in Somalia, thus denying the pirates their current safe haven.