It was on board a pirate ship! Yes indeed. A hundred years before the French Revolution, pirates ships were run on the principles in which liberty, equality, and brotherhood were the rule, rather than the exception. I’m sure that surprises you as much as it did me, but it’s true. These treasure-craving roving thieves actually lived and breathed under a democracy.
Here’s how it worked. The captain was elected by a majority vote. Which also meant it was easy for him to be “unelected” by a majority mob! AKA Mutiny or “Walk the plank, Captain!” Major decisions such as the destination of each voyage or whether to attack a particular ship or raid a port were made by the crew. The only time the captain was in complete control was during battle, or when “fighting, chasing, or being chased”. During battle, the crew swore obedience to the captain in all things. Which made sense. I mean even pirates know you have to have a leader during the tough times!
In addition, before the voyage set sail, a set of articles were drawn up by crew and captain which every pirate was required to sign. These articles regulated certain behaviors on board, listed punishments for crimes, stated the distribution of plunder as well as a scale of compensation for injuries received during battle. Some regulations were even so specific as to state a daily food allowance for each crewmen. It may be surprising to note that often the allowance for the captain was no more than that of the humblest sailor.
Pirate articles worked on the principle of “No prey. No pay” Everyone worked hard to capture ships and plunder ports or nobody got paid! Only officers received a normal salary. The captain received the largest amount (determined by the sailors) plus usually five or six shares of the booty. One of the really surprising and humane aspects of these articles is their provision for injuries and the value they placed on certain body parts.
One particular account lists the following:
- Right arm: 600 pieces of eight
- Left arm: 500 pieces of eight
- Right leg: 500 pieces of eight
- Left leg: 400 pieces of eight
- Loss of eye or finger: 100 pieces of eight
Once the injured were paid, the remainder of the plunder was divvied out with the master’s mate receiving two shares and the rest of the crew receiving one share. Young boys received ½ a share. Pirates were very strict about everyone getting their fair share and if anyone was caught hiding treasure or keeping extra for himself, well… does the term Keelhaul mean anything to you?
And just in case you’re interested , here’s an actual list of articles drawn up by the crew of Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts (1720).
Every man has a vote in the affairs of the moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because over and above their proper share they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes; but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment.
No person to game at cards or dice for money
The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night if any of the crew, after that hour still remained included for drinking they were to do it on the open deck.
To keep piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.
No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning
No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol
No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared 1000 pound. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb or become cripple in their service, he was to have 800 dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.
The Captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize, the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and a quarter.
The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.