Pirate Governance

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James Surowiecki, discussing the work of Peter Leeson:

"pirate ships were governed by what amounted to simple constitutions that, in greater or lesser detail, laid out the rights and duties of crewmen, rules for the handling of disputes, and incentive and insurance payments to insure that crewmen would act bravely in battle. (The rules that governed a ship that the buccaneer John Exquemelin sailed on, for instance, provided that six hundred pieces of eight would go (pdf) to a man who lost his right arm.) The Pirates’ Code mentioned in the “Caribbean” series was not, in that sense, a myth, although in effect each ship had its own code.

But rules alone did not suffice. Pirates also needed to limit the risk that their leaders would put individual interests ahead of the interests of the ship. Most economists today would call this problem “self-dealing”; Leeson uses the term “captain predation.” Some pirates had turned to buccaneering after fleeing naval and merchant vessels, where the captain was essentially a dictator—“his Authority is over all that are in his Possession,” as one contemporary account had it. Royal Navy and merchant captains guaranteed themselves full rations while their men went hungry, beat crew members at their whim, and treated dissent as mutinous. So pirates were familiar with the perils of autocracy.

As a result, Leeson argues, pirate ships developed models that in many ways anticipated those of later Western democracies. First, pirates adopted a system of divided and limited power. Captains had total authority during battle, when debate and disagreement were likely to be both inefficient and dangerous. Outside of battle, the quartermaster, not the captain, was in charge—responsible for food rations, discipline, and the allocation of plunder. On most ships, the distribution of booty was set down in writing, and it was relatively equal; pirate captains often received only twice as many shares as crewmen. (Woodward writes that Privateer captains typically received fourteen times as much loot as crewmen.) The most powerful check on captains and quartermasters was that they did not hold their positions by natural right or blood or success in combat; the crew elected them and could depose them. And when questions arose about the rules that governed behavior on board, interpretation was left not to the captain but to a jury of crewmen." (http://www.newyorker.com/online/2007/07/09/070709on_onlineonly_surowiecki)


From an article on Pirate Utopias:

"Having escaped the tyranny of discipline aboard merchant vessels the most striking thing about the organisation of pirate crews was their anti-authoritarian nature. Each crew functioned under the terms of written articles, agreed by the whole crew and signed by each member.

The articles of Bartholomew Roberts' crew begin:

- "Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and may use them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the Good of all, to vote a Retrenchment."

Euro-American pirate crews really formed one community, with a common set of customs shared across the various ships. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity thrived at sea over a hundred years before the French Revolution. The authorities were often shocked by their libertarian tendencies; the Dutch Governor of Mauritius met a pirate crew and commented: "Every man had as much say as the captain and each man carried his own weapons in his blanket." This was profoundly threatening to the order of European society, where firearms were restricted to the upper classes, and provided a stark contrast to merchant ships where anything that could be used as a weapon was kept under lock and key, and to the navy where the primary purpose of the marines stationed on naval vessels was to keep the sailors in their place.(16)

Pirate ships operated on a 'No Prey, No Pay' basis, but when a vessel was captured the booty was divided up by a share system. This sort of share system was common in mediaeval shipping, but had been phased out as shipping became a capitalist enterprise and sailors wage labourers. It still existed in privateering and whaling but pirates developed it into its most egalitarian form - there were no shares for owners or investors or merchants, there was no elaborate hierarchy of wage differentiation - everyone got an equal share of the booty and the captain usually only 1 or 1 1/2 share. The wreck of Sam Bellamy's pirate ship the Whydah, which was discovered in 1984, provides good evidence of this - among the artefacts recovered was rare West African gold Akan jewellery which "had been hacked apart with clear knife marks, which suggested that there had been an attempt to divide it equally."(17)

The harshness of life at sea made mutual aid into a simple survival tactic. The natural solidarity of fellow tars was carried over into pirate organisation. Pirates often went into 'consortship' with one another, where if one died the other got his property. Pirate articles also commonly included a form of mutual aid where injured shipmates unable to participate in the fighting would receive their share as a pension. Pirates took this sort of solidarity very seriously - at least one pirate crew compensated their wounded only to discover they had nothing left. From the articles of Bartholomew Roberts' crew: "If... any Man should lose a Limb, or become a Cripple in their Service, he was to have 800 Dollars, out of the publick Stock, and for lesser Hurts, proportionably." And from those of George Lowther's crew: "He that shall have the Misfortune to lose a Limb, in Time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of one hundred and fifty Pounds Sterling, and remain with the Company as long as he shall think fit."(18)

Pirate captains were elected and could be de-elected at any time for abuse of their authority. The captain enjoyed no special privileges: He "or any other Officer is allowed no more [food] than another man, nay, the Captain cannot keep his Cabbin to himself." Captains were deposed for cowardice, cruelty and revealingly, for refusing "to take and plunder English Vessels" - the pirates had turned their backs on the state and its laws and no lingering feelings of patriotism were to be allowed. The captain only had right of command in the heat of battle, otherwise all decisions were made by the whole ship's company. This radical democracy was not necessarily very efficient; often pirate ships tended to wander rather aimlessly as the crew changed its mind.(19)

The crew of Thomas Anstis ridicule the law by holding a mock trial. The judge, using an old tarpaulin as a robe and a mop-end as a wig, sits in a mangrove tree and declares: "I'll have you know, Raskal, we don't sit here to hear Reason - we go according to Law."

The original buccaneers had called themselves the 'brethren of the coast' - an apt term as pirates swapped ships, met up at rendez-vous points, joined together with other crews for combined raids and met up with old ship mates. Although it might seem surprising that over the whole expanse of the world's oceans the pirates kept in touch and met up with each other, they continually returned to the various 'free ports' where they were welcomed by black market traders who would buy their goods. Pirate crews recognised each other, didn't attack each other and often worked together in large fleets. For example in 1695 the crews of Captains Avery, Faro, Want, Maze, Tew and Wake all met up for a combined raid on the annual Muslim pilgrim fleet to Mecca, the six ships containing at least 500 men. They also met up and had parties together; like the "saturnalia" when the crews of Blackbeard and Charles Vane joined forces on North Carolina's Ocracoke Island in 1718 (see picture on page 71). There is even evidence that there was a unique pirate language, which is a real sign the pirates were evolving their own distinct culture. Philip Ashton, who spent sixteen months among pirates in 1722-3, reported that one of his captors "according to the Pirates usual Custom, and in their proper Dialect, asked me, If I would sign their Articles". There is also a hilarious account of how a pirate captive "sav'd his life [by] meer Dint of Cursing and Damning" - suggesting that one feature of this pirate language was the liberal use of blasphemy and swearing. Through splitting and coalescing and men jumping from ship to ship a great continuity existed amongst the various pirate crews, sharing the same cultures and customs and over the course of time developing a specifically 'pirate consciousness.' The prospect that this pirate community might take a more permanent form was a threat to the authorities who feared that they might set up "a Commonwealth" in uninhabited regions, where "no Power in those Parts of the World could have been able to dispute it with them." (http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no8/pirate.html)