I’ve mentioned before that I’m working on a novel about space pirates. Because let’s face it; pirates are pretty awesome and space is pretty awesome so putting them together is a recipe for awesome. In any case, during my worldbuilding phase I’ve been reading about the historical variety of pirates and it turns out they were even more awesome than I thought. So here are some surprising facts I’ve learned about pirates during my research. If you’re interested, I would definitely recommend The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson which discusses the economics of historical piracy.
Pirates were democratic
There’s this popular notion that pirates were mutineers and pirate captains were despots ruling with an iron fist when actually the opposite is true. On merchant and navy ships of the time the captain’s word was indeed law which led to some breathtakingly awful punishments for any perceived slights. And while many pirate crews had laws against rape there are numerous records of merchant ship captains raping crew members for fun and punishment. And all for lousy wages and no share of profits. But the penalty for piracy being death, it was a big risk for anyone to take especially if it was to exchange one tyrant for another.
So the historical pirates solved the dilemma by having democratic elections; one crewman, one vote. Often this included former slaves, although not always. On ships that allowed women on board, women had an equal vote. Some three hundred years before any official government did the same. A pirate captain could be ousted at any time for any reason. There’s a record of one crew ousting thirteen captains during one voyage.
Pirates implemented checks and balances decades before any country
The trouble with a poorly thought out democratic system is that there’s nothing to prevent a ruler from simply taking everything and assuming absolute control of the ship and its crew. Since pirates can’t be trusted, they took measures to remove the element of trust out of the equation all together. Each ship functioned much like a government all onto their own and that meant there had to be a democratically elected someone who could counteract the captain’s power. Behold the position of quartermaster.
The quartermaster was, essentially, in charge of loot and its distribution as well as overseeing punishments. He in turn was constrained by fairly strict, written down guidelines of how he should be distributing the loot and what punishment fit which crime. Interestingly although, if you think about it, not that surprisingly things like gambling and stealing were strictly forbidden aboard pirate vessels. Basically anything that could interfere with unit cohesion/the crew getting along was often punished upon pain of death and/or torture.
The fact that a pirate’s life was inherently dangerous should come as no surprise to anyone. Many pirate crews portioned a part of the loot taken into a common fund, from which people who did get maimed were compensated. From the articles attributed to an unknown Caribbean crew:
Thus they order for the loss of a right arm six hundred pieces of eight, or six slaves ; for the loss of a left arm five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves ; for a right leg five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves ; for the left leg four hundred pieces of eight, or four slaves ; for an eye one hundred pieces of eight, or one slave ; for a finger of the hand the same reward as for the eye.
The compensation for a lost limb or eye could easily be more than the captain’s share of any loot, another incentive to piracy. A captain’s share on pirate ships was pretty uniformly much less than ten times the share of an ordinary sailor, whereas on merchant ships the ratio was often hundreds to one. Sailors on merchant vessels often received no or very little compensation if they got maimed during their duties on the ship, leaving them very nearly destitute and unable to work.
Pirates were indeed worthy of their bloodthirsty reputation
Ah, don’t mention it. Seriously, don’t mention it…you know reputations, lifetimes to build, seconds to destroy.
– Captain Shakespeare, Stardust
All of the above doesn’t mean that pirates were actually cute and cuddly do-gooders. The things is that no matter the compensation, nobody actually wants to get maimed or killed in the line of duty. And that is where the reputation as well as the skull and crossbones comes into play. Pirates quickly got a reputation of killing everyone on ships where any resistance was offered. On the other hand, if the ship surrendered willingly, they only lost their valuables. As a result, most merchant ships found surrender much more enticing.
Still, total surrender seems to have been undesirable, since captains and crew still did try to hide their valuables from the pirates they had just surrendered to. Commence torture! Interestingly though, on quite a few of the laws/articles of pirate ships, rape was strictly prohibited toward both men and women. At least at sea.
Many pirate captains and crew purposely sought a reputation of being completely mad. Blackbeard, for example, was known to keep burning candles in his purposely massive, shaggy and unkempt beard for shits and giggles apparently. If they were seen as crazy, ruthless and scary, pirates were offered less resistance when taking a ship which resulted in less injuries which led to more loot to be going around.
Of course, I started world building off the myth of historical pirates instead of the reality so I had to redo a lot of my work but it’s also much stronger for having to go “Why WOULD someone resort to piracy in the future?”