Early English Piracy Law

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Since officials exhibited such latitude in determining what constituting an act of piracy, Letters of Marque became crucially important during the seventeenth century to shield sailors from potential charges. English courts clearly identified the legal demarcation between privateers and pirates as early as the fourteenth century. The sovereign issued commissions to privateer captains authorizing them to attack the vessels of specified enemy nations. Since piracy included an element of robbery, no property legally changed hands as a result of such undertakings. Therefore, English law required that privateer captains present their wartime cargo to Admiralty prize courts, which confirmed the legality of the seizure and took the court’s and the …show more content…
The law made piracy a common law offense, under the jurisdiction of the High Admiralty, tried in a special oyer and terminar court at the Old Bailey in London, presided over by an Admiralty judge, in the presence of a jury of peers. The Admiralty’s proprietary authority and jurisdiction to hear all cases of maritime crimes was the only consistent element of early English piracy law. The theory of ‘universal jurisdiction’ was written into law and grounded in two complementary ideologies. The first, was the belief that the Admiralty maintained the sole authority to try crimes at sea. The 1536 piracy act required commissions issued by the Admiralty, despite the fact that the trials took place in front a jury with a combination of common and civil law judges. The second element of universal jurisdiction was far more pervasive. Admiralty courts maintained the authority to try offenders for “all Treasons, Felonies, Robberies, Murthers and Confederacies hereafter to be committed in or upon the Sea, or in any other Haven, River, Creek or Place where the Admiral or Admirals have or pretend to have Power, Authority or Jursidiction…” This open-ended and vague language gave England’s High Admiralty jurisdiction to try any crime committed on water, through the issuing of special commissions, regardless of the …show more content…
The Jamaican Act for Restraining and Punishing Privateers and Pirates, passed by the assembly in February of 1683, made piracy a crime punishable in a local Admiralty court under common law procedures. In March of the following year, the Lords of Trade and Plantation ordered all of the colonial governors to pass anti-piracy legislation drafted on the Jamaican model. However, concerned about the legality of such actions, the Lords of Trade asked the King’s counsel and Advocate-general for a ruling. The leading English legal authority answered that the 1536 Henry VIII Act did not extend to the colonies, and could not be used as jurisdiction for establishing Admiralty courts there. So by the end of the seventeenth century, colonial officials preparing for a piracy trial had not one but several paths to choose from, each more legally problematic then the next. Three centuries of legal precedent gave Admiralty courts jurisdiction over all maritime crime, but the only legislation which could grant commissions to try pirates was ruled incapable of doing so in the colonies. Governors could always ship pirates to London, but this was costly, and antagonistic to the mounting pressure from the Board of Trade to try pirates in the

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