William Clark Russell's An Ocean Free-Lance (1882) most obviously reads as a brittle homage to the nobility of a certain mode of imperial activity: it is, most apparently, a memorialisation of the privateer. But this is not the novel's only register. It also involves a broody engagement with oceanic space that is harder to interpret. This might simply be read within a belated-Romantic genre of novelistic yearning within the age of steam for the age of sail: in such terms, the novel easily reads as a critique of industrialisation. But the clear legal tones of the narrative and the novel's particular maritime aesthetics indicate that the nostalgia is more fully felt for the loss of a righteous order, a universal lex naturalis that is embodied in—that inhabits—the privateer. But even this is brought into question by the obscure poetics of light and water that slow down the plot and over-determine the atmosphere of the narrative. Via an engagement with recent historiographies of empire and of British privateering, against the background of work on the significance of law within nineteenth-century literature, and with the help of W.C.R.’s contemporary Robert Louis Stevenson, this paper reads An Ocean Free-Lance towards some larger speculations on the anxious meanings of the ocean as both an inhabited and abstracted space of empire.