For centuries, privateers and pirates demanded ransom for ships, cargoes, individuals, and towns, a practice that continues today. One of the earliest known stories concerned the capture and ransom of Julius Caesar in 75AD by Cilician pirates. Throughout the late 17th century, the buccaneers L’Ollonais, Blackbeard and Henry Morgan separately held towns for ransom and squeezed neighbouring governors for every piece of eight they could acquire. In Somalia, the practice of demanding ransom for kidnapped individuals began in Mogadishu after the state collapsed in 1991. In 2018, Nigerian pirates demanded a ransom for the crew of a Swiss-flagged vessel hijacked in the Gulf of Guinea.
Historically, authorised sea-raiders commonly used ransom as a private, documented arrangement between individuals. Ransoming allowed privateers to extort money from innocent neutrals who would do anything to avoid the slow, expensive and often partial Prize Courts. Wrote one St Eustatius merchant in 1758: ‘as soon as we hear of the vessels being taken we send the money which the privateer demands as if an agreement founded upon equity and the laws; their government and ours are perfectly inform’d of it and nobody lays claim against it.’
A privateer’s commission usually authorised the privateer to take captured ships as prize, not hold them for ransom. However, as the merchant’s quote suggests, authorities did condone and respect the use of ransoming until well into the 18th century.
'The buccaneers began to go out on marauding expeditions'
Reproduced from the first edition of De Americaensche Zee-Roovers, Amsterdam 1678, by permission of the Trustees of the British Museum and printed in A O Exquemelin, 'The Buccaneers of America'. Translated by Alexis Brown (London: 1972).
How did ransoming work?
After boarding and disarming the crew, a captor quickly seized and secured ship papers and any money found onboard. With the captain now penniless, the captor set the ransom demand amount within a bill of exchange for the ship’s captain to take to the ship’s owner. The bill of exchange created a non-interest-bearing, binding written contract for the ship’s owner to pay the captor a fixed sum of money at a predetermined future date. It gave the captured ship a license for safe conduct from the captor’s government and authorised the ship’s captain to sail to a designated port over a specified route and within a limited time. Crucially, it provided immunity to capture from other privateers; and should it be ignored, obliged the captain to pay the ransom personally.
The use of ransoming through bills of exchange provided significantly more advantages to the sea-raider than the sovereign or state. Ransoming allowed sea-raiders to stay at sea longer and capture more ships for greater profit, particularly when:
the crew of a captured ship was dangerously large
the captured vessel was in disrepair
the cargo was of very small value, or
the sea-raider could not afford to spare a crew to commander it back to port for adjudication.
However, the sea-raider carried all the financial risk. By sending a captured ship to a safe port for prize adjudication, he might avoid losing it to the sea-raiders, but if sea-raiders capture him with ransom bills of exchange he lost everything, including his own ship.
On occasion, failure to pay a ransom bill resulted in court proceedings. Courts considered the ransom bill as a valid contract but over time, only a hostage could launch non-payment proceedings in the court of his own country for the recovery of his freedom.
For a sovereign, ransoming allowed one of the few instances of peaceful engagement between belligerents in wartime, but for the most part, governments came to frown upon ransoming because:
it only took a toll on the enemy’s trade, rather than intercepting their supplies
it deprived the sovereign of potential prisoner exchanges and the return of qualified sailors
the ransom was always less than the value of the prize, otherwise there would be no point in the arrangement, and
it deprived the government of its share of the prize and the associated customs and duties.
When was its legitimate use outlawed?
Limited historical record of the extent of the English Government’s encouragement or authorisation for privateers to use ransom exists, however during the eighteenth century, a succession of legislative instruments indicated an increasing focus on outlawing it. By 1782, the British Government made it unlawful to ransom captured vessels and voided bills of exchange. The French Government had already moved against the practice, providing a legal definition of ransom in 1706 to curb the practice and outlawing it altogether by 1756.
However, the use of ransoming continued in the United States.
American privateers used ransoming during the War of 1812 with Britain (1812-15). American records suggested the payment of at least twenty ransoms by British vessels during the war, but there is unsurprisingly little evidence of this on the British side. Formal correspondence from the British government demonstrated a refusal to reciprocate the bills of exchange from American captors of ships and prisoners. By the end of the war, the Americans had stopped trying.
In the United States, the legality of ransom by captors and the captured, including against neutrals and with a hostage to assure payment continued throughout the 19th century. The belligerents of the US Civil War used ransom bills, referenced in a story of how Captain Semmes of the Alabama left his collection of them (unfortunately for him they were payable after the recognition of the Confederate states) along with his other valuables in safe custody ashore while fighting.
From this point, there is no evidence of the use of ransom in practice by the US Navy, as even prize adjudication ceased after the Spanish War of 1898. In his 1916 book, Wright claimed US law permitted ransom on receipt of a signed ransom bill. After this, it seemed ransom law disappeared entirely.
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