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In Tolkien's Middle-earth, the region of Umbar is some distance almost due south of Gondor. It's inhabited by a fierce seagoing people, descendants of evil Númenóreans and Haradrim, feared for their depredations as raiders and pirates, known as the Corsairs of Umbar. If they don't live outright by plunder, then plunder at least comprises a significant fraction of the Umbar economy.

However, historically corsairs were not like this. From the middle ages until the 19th century, it was possible for wealthy individuals to purchase a warship and acquire a license from the sovereign to seize enemy shipping during wartime for profit. These licenses were known as letters of marque, or in French, lettres de course. Hence, people who took part in this activity were known as Corsairs. Although their victims might not have made the distinction, corsairs were not outlaws as they were acting under established law of the time and answerable to authority.

It seems unlikely that the Corsairs of Umbar took the trouble to obtain lettres de course, or were subject to licensing and regulation of any sort. So why were they called Corsairs?

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    Seeing as they're from Umbar, "Corsairs of Wolverhampton" would have been a bit... sorry, read the body now. Nov 22, 2021 at 11:11
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    I suspect that the etymology behind the word corsair gives you a different meaning depending on if you are French, or as Tolkien, British. In France, corsair would mean privateer. But elsewhere it's just a fancy word for pirate. Especially since privateers were really just hired thugs and pirates answering to one specific nation.
    – Amarth
    Nov 22, 2021 at 15:07
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    @PaulD.Waite Technically it's the Unitary Authority of Warrington Corsairs, since they changed the boundaries, but it doesn't have the same ring to it…
    – Lexible
    Nov 22, 2021 at 17:54

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Let's look at some sources for the meaning of the word "Corsair".

pirate, especially : a privateer of the Barbary Coast

  1. a fast ship used for piracy.
  2. a pirate, especially formerly of the Barbary Coast.

A corsair is a privateer or pirate, especially:

  • Barbary corsair, Ottoman and Berber pirates and privateers operating from North Africa
  • French corsairs, privateers operating on behalf of the French crown

1 archaic A pirate.
Reputations spread through any community, and the pirates and corsairs knew who they wanted to work with, as well as who they did NOT want to work with…

1.1 A pirate ship.
The Goshawk was probably enough to discourage most pirate corsairs from attacking, but a cruiser was another matter.

1.2 A privateer, especially one operating along the southern coast of the Mediterranean in the 16th–18th centuries.
French corsairs settled on the western part of the island in the 17th century and Spain recognized the French claims to the area in 1697 in the Treaty of Ryswick.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives:

a pirate (= person who sails in a ship and attacks other ships in order to steal from them), especially one given permission by a government to attack enemy ships in the 16th - 18th centuries in the southern Mediterranean

It would appear that the word is used to mean "pirate" as much as "privateer". It would also appear that in actual history, the targets/victims did not always clearly distinguish between pirates and privateers. The British refereed to John Paul Jones as a pirate, although he had a letter of marque from the US authorities, for example.

So far as i know there is no canon source for how Umbar was organized or governed. It is quite possible (although nowhere stated by JRRT) that the raiders were authorized by whatever leadership they had, making them technically privateers rather than pirates.

Also, please remember that the English of dialog in LOTR, including "corsairs" is only a translation from the Westron. Whether the speech of Gondor had any similar distinction between "pirate" and "privateers" is less than clear. Out-of-universe, JRRT no doubt used "Corsairs" for its somewhat antique flavor, which fit with the style of much of LOTR, particularly the scenes set in Gondor.

The distinction between "pirates" and "privateers" in historical English comes with the development of Prize Courts and other somewhat legalistic ways of dealing with sea combat and blockades during the 15th to 19th centuries. (The word "privateer" dates to the mid-17th century.) Privateers became essentially obsolete in the late 19th century, partly because the economics of commerce raiding no longer work (an effective warship is now much more expensive), partly because the Declaration of Paris bound all signatories not toi issue Letters of Marque. There have been no significant uses of privateers since the 1870 Franco-Prussian War (well before Tolkien's birth).

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    The emphasis on the Barbary Coast seems especially noteworthy, given the southen location of Umbar
    – Lykanion
    Nov 22, 2021 at 17:54
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    Tolkien sometimes had explanations for Umbar's rule, sometimes not. It was ruled by Gondor in several periods. After the Kin-Strife it was also ruled by heirs of Castamir the Usurper for time, until they were all killed when Gondor took it back temporarily. The second time it was lost by Gondor it was taken by the Haradrim, who probably ruled it at least until the end of the War of the Ring. Nov 22, 2021 at 20:51
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    @suchiuomizu Yes, but I don't think we have any detail on how Umbar was rled by either the heirs of Castamir or by the Haradrim, much less whther they used anythign corresponding to a Letter of Marque. Nov 22, 2021 at 22:41

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