Commerce raiding

Bermuda Gazette of 12 November 1796, calling for privateering against Spain and its allies, and with advertisements for crew for two privateer vessels.

Commerce raiding is a form of naval warfare used to destroy or disrupt logistics of the enemy on the open sea by attacking its merchant shipping, rather than engaging its combatants or enforcing a blockade against them.[1] It is also known, in French, as guerre de course (literally, "war of the chase") and, in German, Handelskrieg ("trade war"), from the nations most heavily committed to it historically as a strategy.

Commerce raiding was heavily criticised by the naval theorist A.T. Mahan, who regarded it as a distraction from the destruction of the enemy's fighting power. Nevertheless, commerce raiding was an important part of naval strategy from the Early Modern period through the Second World War.

Usually, commerce raiding is chosen by a weaker naval power against a stronger, or by a nation with little ocean-going trade against one with a great deal. The best protection against a commerce raiding strategy is for merchant vessels to sail in convoy, protected by naval escorts.


The first sort of commerce raiding was for nations to commission privateers. Early instances of this type of warfare were by the British and Dutch against the Spanish treasure fleets of the 16th century, which resulted in financial gain for both captain and crew upon capture of enemy vessels ("prizes").

This quickly became a major commercial enterprise, with privateer vessels, often in groups, being outfitted by venture capital, with investors also sharing in the returns. The practice rapidly spread. A privateer was distinguished from a pirate by the letter of marque, by which the vessel was commissioned as a private man-of-war. Captured vessels and cargo were submitted, in Britain's case, to Admiralty courts, where they might be condemned for sale, or, if the captures were not found to be within the rules of war, they might be released, sometimes with awards for damages.

17th and 18th centuries

Privateers formed a large part of the total military force at sea during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the First Anglo-Dutch War, English privateers attacked the trade on which the United Provinces entirely depended, capturing over 1,000 Dutch merchant ships. During the subsequent war with Spain, Spanish and Flemish privateers in the service of the Spanish Crown, including the notorious Dunkirkers, captured 1,500 English merchant ships, helping to restore Dutch international trade.[2] Dutch privateers and others also attacked British trade, whether coastal, Atlantic, or Mediterranean, in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch wars.

During the Nine Years War, French policy strongly encouraged privateers, including the famous Jean Bart, to attack English and Dutch shipping. England lost roughly 4,000 merchant ships during the war.[3] In the following War of Spanish Succession, privateer attacks continued, Britain losing 3,250 merchant ships.[4] Parliament passed an updated Cruisers and Convoys Act in 1708, allocating regular warships to the defence of trade.

In the War of Austrian Succession, the Royal Navy was able to concentrate more on defending British ships. Britain lost 3,238 merchantmen, a smaller fraction of her merchant marine than the enemy losses of 3,434.[3] While French losses were proportionally severe, the smaller but better-protected Spanish trade suffered the least, and Spanish privateers enjoyed much of the best allied plunder of British trade, particularly in the West Indies.

Other Languages
беларуская: Рэйдары
български: Рейдер
Deutsch: Handelskrieg
français: Guerre de course
한국어: 통상파괴
日本語: 通商破壊
norsk nynorsk: Handelskrig
polski: Rajder
português: Guerra de corso
русский: Рейдеры
українська: Рейдери (кораблі)