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The Prize Game
Making money out of war
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Commerce warfare is a great deal simpler now than it was in the 19th century, and even into the early 20th. Governments and crowns used to grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal to private parties—called privateers—for handling a lot of commerce raiding work that navies lacked the ships and men to perform. These remarkable documents gave nominal civilians a license to steal from the enemy, as long as they gave a percentage of what they got to whoever issued the Letter of Marque. As an incentive, this system was a part of a complicated legal dance built up on edifices of the (unwritten) Law of the Sea known as the prize system, or “Prize Game” for the cynical. From the outside, this system was simple:
A ship captures another ship;
The captured vessel, called a “prize,” is brought into a port;
A court decides who owns the cargo, what it is worth, and who owns the cargo and ship after the capture;
Profits are distributed to ship’s captains, admirals, countries, monarchs, and crewmen.
Everyone except the captured ship’s owner and the cargo owner is happy. But, this is war.
Then it got complicated.
The cargo may have been owned by a neutral and thus be unsalable, or some ungentlemanly ruse may have been used to take the prize. With commissioned naval vessels, depending on how they wrote the ship's commission, the court may consider the entire cargo crown property (“droits of the crown” in the British sense), and only the monarch got the profits. With private (privateer) vessels, the capturing ship may not have had a valid Letter of Marque. Maybe the convening court did not recognize the authority of a privateer to take prizes, making the legal status of the capturing crew most perilous; not all privateers used prize courts unless one was conveniently located.
The prize system worked best when wars were short.
And as long as belligerents limited their tussles to one hemisphere or ocean, but after the 16th Century, few conflicts between major powers were that small. While the privateer system worked well enough many times, in others it didn’t, because there was no way to communicate with all the privateers in real-time, if at all. When alliances changed, making yesterday’s victim an ally since last week, the loot wasn’t legal. For another, wars rarely lasted forever, but the Letters of Marque rarely had expiration dates. At least one privateer hanged for a pirate defending himself before the bar of justice using a Letter of Marque issued to his great-grandfather nearly a century before.
The Declaration of Paris of 1856 banned the Letter of Marque.
However, the United States never joined, and was never signatory to, that convention, unlike another fifty countries, thought they said they would abide by most of it. They refused to say they would not issue Letters of Marque because they had relied on them heavily in three wars: the Revolution, War of 1812 and the Mexican War. For the Americans, privateers were a simple and cheap way to fight complex and expensive wars on the high seas. While they acknowledged parts of the Declaration having to do with blockades and lawful seizures, they would not say that they would not issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal.
The Confederacy issued Letters of Marque to their raiders during the American Civil War.
No prize courts would adjudicate Confederate prizes, so the issue was moot. The Union withdrew its handful of Letters of Marque at the end of 1861. Countries issued Letters of Marque as late as the Spanish-American War (1898) and courts condemned prizes in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894). However, the economics of the prize game were dead by 1900. One by one the major powers withdrew from the prize game (the last, the United States, formally withdrew in 1907 though they had not condemned a prize since the Mexican War in 1848) while recognizing a stark fact: capturing a steam-powered, iron-hulled ship that didn’t want to stop was nearly impossible without doing significant damage to both the ship and the cargo, or by harming passengers.
Complicating all of this was the concept of cruiser rules.
These unwritten "rules" restricted what cruising vessels could attack and how, and people understood them long before they were formalized. Commerce raiders could use “false colors” to approach potential targets until just before they opened fire; the crew and passengers had to be allowed to escape a ship that was to be sunk; merchant ships were not to be armed or in any way militarized (which included carrying troops or ammunition) before their countries reclassified them as merchant or auxiliary cruisers, and so on.
The Declaration of Paris formalized these rules…sort of.
While these cruiser rules applied to the newest and deadliest weapons of commerce warfare—submarines—it wasn’t long before everyone recognized they no longer made sense for vessels with no means of carrying captives or fighting any armed ship. When U-20 sank RMS Lusitania in May 1915, the big liner was violating cruiser rules by carrying ammunition and flying no flag. However, the Germans thought the RN had already converted her to a merchant cruiser (as she was scheduled to) and was thus a lawful target under the Hague rules of 1907—amplifications of the Declaration of Paris. Aside from this, the Germans were just then practicing unrestricted submarine warfare, the first country to ever do so, declaring that cruiser rules were no longer being followed. Cruiser rules—and the prize game—died in WWI, though they were still in force in theory as late as 1940.
Which leads us to cruising and cruisers…issues for another day.
This is the end of the Stella’s Game Trilogy, the final chapter in the friend’s story that started in 1963 and ends in 1986.
While it has nothing to do with The Prize Game, I’m here to sell books.
Myths and Legends of Shiloh II
Writing Military History—Fiction Edition
On 23 September:
1779: American privateer Bon Homme Richard fought an epic battle with HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head, Scotland. The gunfight raged for four hours into the night. Serapis had more guns, but Bon Homme Richard was bigger and had more men on board. In the end, “Bonnie Dick’s” larger crew prevailed, though the ship sank two days later.
1926: Gene Tunney knocked out Jack Dempsey after ten rounds in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, taking the heavyweight title. Demsey told his wife after the fight, “honey, I forgot to duck,” or something like that.
And today is NATIONAL CHECKERS DAY AND DOGS IN POLITICS DAY. Richard Nixon delivered his “Checkers speech” on this day in 1952, admitting that he’d kept a Cocker Spaniel gift from a donor that his children called Checkers.