The Queen said it was OK
During their heyday on the high seas, boat bound thieves and plunderers could be divided into two categories – Pirates and Privateers. The difference being that pirate operated outside the law whereas privateers carried with them a letter of mark – usually in the form of royal consent from a King or Queen – that gave them permission to attack, rob and capture other vessels they encountered on the waves with the caveat that these actions be confined to the King or Queen’s enemies (which was a word painted with a broad brush stroke so that could have been about anyone!). While I am sure Privateers thought they were being quite clever sailing around essentially with a license to kill in their hands, to me it seems like a kind of fence sitting. If they were caught by the royal authorities – they had a get out of jail free card – and if they were captured and called out by other Pirates they could simply play the part of the double agent – pretending to be under the royal thumb when in fact they were “really” subverting justice.
Sir Francis Drake was one such man who chose the path of the Privateer, expressing his deep loathing of the Spanish by attacking their ships and the Spanish Main and stealing, killing and generally being a right nasty. This of course made him very popular with Queen Elizabeth I of England, to whom Spain was being a right pain in the bottom. She eventually knighted him for his efforts.
Drake nurtured his hatred for the Spanish crown following a terrible defeat in 1568 at hands of the Spanish invaders in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua. Returning to England, Drake then received a commission from Queen Elizabeth I and not long after was planning his revenge on Spain. His first raid as a Privateer was carried out on the town of Nombre de Dios on the Spanish Main in 1572, when he commanded over 70 men sailing in two ships (the Pascha and the Swan). The raid was successful and the Pirates… er sorry… Privateers came away with a truckload of treasure. Drake then spent the following year raiding any Spanish ships that came his way.
Following a disastrous “secret” expedition against the Spanish colonies in 1577, where 4 of the 5 ships Drake had set out with were lost , but he did become the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan.
Between 1579 and 1596 Drake continued with his murderous campaign against the Spanish, and was considered a “brilliant privateer”. However in 1596 he contracted dysentery, and eventually succumbed to this rather nasty illness shortly after and was buried at sea. Admittedly for a career spanning a quarter of a Century it was not the most dignified end, but hey that’s life on the sea!