prize money

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The net proceeds from the sale of ships and goods captured in prize and condemned in an Admiralty Court. In Britain, all prize captured at sea was forfeit to the crown, and was known as Droits of the Crown. Droits of Admiralty, that part of the prize fund which accrued by right to the Lord High Admiral, comprised ships improperly brought in for adjudication in a prize court before declaration of war or reprisal; those brought in by those operating without a lawful commission or letter of marque; and those forced into a British port by stress of weather, or shipwrecked. The High Court of Admiralty became the legal prize tribunal in 1589, with Vice-Admiralty Courts exercising local jurisdiction wherever they were set up. In 1692, with a view to making service in the British Navy more popular, the crown waived its right to part of the Droits of the Crown, granting it to the actual captors in a scale of shares laid down by royal proclamation. By an Act of Queen Anne (1665–1714) in 1708, known as the Cruisers Act, the whole of the Droits of the Crown were allocated to the captors, the value of the prize being divided into eighths, of which three went to the captain, one to the commander-in-chief, one to the officers, one to the warrant officers, and two to the crew. Any unclaimed prize money was allocated to Greenwich Hospital.

Prize Acts lapsed at the end of a war but were normally re-enacted at the start of the next. The last Prize Act in Great Britain came into force on the outbreak of the Second World War (1939–45). After the war it was announced that this was the last occasion on which prize money would be paid. This brought Britain into line with most other maritime countries which had, of course, their own prize law and decided their own method and scale of distribution.

Historically, prize in the British Navy was always a considerable incentive to recruitment and large numbers of men were tempted to join the navy for the chance of quick riches from this source. One of the most remarkable instances of prize distribution followed the capture in 1762 of the Spanish treasure ship Hermione by the frigates Active and Favourite. She was condemned in prize for £519,705, and each of the two captains received £65,000, every lieutenant £13,000, and every seaman £485. There were other captures as rich as this, but in most cases there were higher numbers entitled to a share in the distribution, making the payout proportionately smaller.

Subjects: Maritime History.

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