Subsection Arrr: Did pirates really have Codes?

Several authors, including an economics professor, are pretty sure they did. Even the snooty-booty New Yorker has noticed, although New York is far more famous for “corporate pirates” who would have been useful to their high-seas counterparts only as ballast or sharkbait. (BTW, many thanks to Keith Nagel, author of highly useful patent-perusal program IPDiscover, for bringing this article to my attention).

These authors are probably right. Piracy is largely an organized crime; pirate chieftains like Blackbeard, Jean Lafitte, Grace O’Malley, and Madame Chiang commanded sizable fleets. Organizations have to have rules if they want to grow and achieve.

Don’t get me wrong; pirates were (and still are) “not very nice persons at all.” They stole ships and their cargo for personal gain, took prisoners for ransom or slave-price (or addition to the crew if sufficiently useful), and killed anyone who got in their way. Not like, for instance, national navies and letters of marque, which confiscated suspected enemy ships and their cargo as prizes shared by the crew, took prisoners for exchange or impressment into service, killed anyone who got in their way, and were sanctioned by governments and mostly financed by taxes.

My point –and I do have one – is that 17th- 18th-century pirate codes reveal a professional culture exhibiting much more democracy, safeguards for dispute resolution, and merit incentives at all levels than could be found in most governments of their age, and far more than can be found in most legitimate business ventures of our own time. They could certainly be a model for contractual relationships among salvagers and others who, albeit within the local law, profit from things that they find (rather than make or buy).

Although pirates and indigenous tribes are cultures as different as night and day, they share one thing (apart from certain individuals identified with both groups during their lives) – a tendency to be either romanticized or demonized by people who don’t really understand how they live. Because they run around in comfortable clothes all the time and are not subject to the same laws and strictures that the outside viewer is, the outside viewer assumes they have no laws or strictures at all and turns them into symbols – either of untrammeled individual freedom or unrestrained savagery. In either case, nothing could be further from the truth.

Pirates had the original “motley crews” (although most of them had never seen an umlaut). Although the trade itself sometimes ran in families, their travels necessitated parleys, alliances, and mergers with individuals and groups of many ethnic and national backgrounds. Besides, the “model” pirate crew numbered 80 to 120, and crews of 200 or more were not uncommon. They realized, long before Ben Franklin did, that they must “hang together or all hang separately.” Lacking the inborn ties of blood and birthplace common to land-based criminal organizations, they needed another way to ensure loyalty and high performance.

Furthermore, the most successful pirate chieftains, apparently unlike their modern corporate counterparts, knew that good officers weren’t enough to make a ship profitable. Disaster at sea, inside or outside of a conflict situation, comes in many forms; a navigator, sailor, lookout, gunner, boarder, quartermaster, or powder-monkey could, at any given moment, find himself (or, more often that is generally credited, herself) the only one standing between a ship and its destruction.

Anyone who’s seen a movie with “mutiny” in its title will understand that there aren’t many worse situations than being stuck on a tiny floating object in a huge and treacherous ocean, wholly subject to the unpredictable whims of a pathological nutcase who happens to be in charge. Crown and Company ships were autocracies; dissent, however sensibly based and politely proposed, could be punished by imprisonment, flogging, or death. Many experienced sailors who joined pirate crews were fleeing just such situations and didn’t want to see them again. Pirate codes (which differed between organizations and even between individual ships) therefore incorporated checks and balances to avoid vesting too much power in any one person. One common measure was to have captains elected by the crew, and removable by it – without the risks and damaes of mutiny – for good cause, such as predation (on the crew, that is; predation on target ships was to be expected), cowardice, or poor judgment. Another was to give the captain control only in battle operations, and vest between-conflict control in the also-elected quartermaster (not unlike the “war chief / peace chief” dichotomy in some of the Plains Indian nations). Contemporaneous chronicler Charles Johnson called the typical pirate quartermaster “an humble Imitation of the Roman Tribune of the People; he speaks for, and looks after the Interest of the Crew.”* Nor did pirate captains generally draw much larger shares of the plunder, or enjoy much more private space, better provisions, or other privileges than the rest of the crew.

Quartermasters were, in their turn, reined in by Articles of Agreement or chasses-partie – mini-constitutions that were adopted by unanimous consent of the crew before an expedition began. Besides detailing the division of spoils, the Articles often imposed universal duties such as care of weapons, prohibited on-board fighting and fight-provoking behaviors such as gambling, set forth punishments for transgressions such as fraud or desertion, and defines compensation to be paid to anyone wounded in action. Those unwilling to live with the terms were usually free to leave at the first reasonable opportunity. Pirates who transferred between ships or joined fleets often compared different ships’ Articles, and a body of knowledge evolved about what worked and what did not. These bodies of knowledge sometimes developed into regional bodies of piratical customary law, such as the Caribbean “Jamaica Discipline.”

Fascinated by “outlaws’ laws,” but hate blood and bad smells? To learn more from a safe distance, you can read Colin Woodard’s “The Republic of Pirates” or listen to an NPArrr interview with him.

*Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates: From Their First Rise and Settlement in the Islands . . . to which is Added a Short Abstract of Statute and Civil Law, in Relation to Pyracy. (2 vols., 1726-1728 [1999]).

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