A pirates code was democratic, inviolable, and precise; the consequence for breaking it was brutal

Ian Harvey
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Pirates, those men and women that sail the sea and prey on other ships, have been around since the first caveman floated across a river on a log and another tried to steal the log from him.  Pirates have been romanticized, with Hollywood films such as Pirates of the Caribbean portraying them as a benevolent, if slightly incompetent bunch with hearts of gold, while the truth is they were nothing like that at all.  They were murderous thugs that lived by their own code and by no other.

In 1492, Columbus discovered America and shortly thereafter Spain conquered large tracts of South America, resulting in the sending of fabulous treasures from the New World back to Europe.  This was too much of a temptation for the lawless members of society, and soon the seas abounded with pirate ships and their bloodthirsty crews, giving rise to the Golden Age of Piracy.  In addition to those who were happy to attack any ship they came across, there were also many state-sponsored pirates known as privateers.  These ships sailed under the flag of a particular nation, carrying Letters of Marque that gave them permission to attack ships of a specific enemy nation (for example, British privateers attacked the Spanish regularly) in an effort to weaken that nation and steal treasure destined for its treasury.  The privateer would then share any loot with their host nation.   In addition to pirates and privateers there were also a number of countries that encouraged their ships to attack those of a different religion, and thus Muslim corsairs regularly attacked Christian ships and enslaved the sailors and anyone else on board.  Aristocrats caught up in this were routinely ransomed back to their families at huge expense to the relatives.

A pirate abandoned to his fate – painting by Howard Pyle.

When did The Code emerge?

The Pirate Code emerged during the Golden Age of Piracy from around 1620 to 1720, a time when great riches were being transported across the sea from the New World and the captains of pirate ships had to find a way to keep the peace aboard their vessels.  Clearly, pirates were a bloodthirsty, violent bunch; to ensure that they all fought for the ship and not against one another, a set of rules (The Code) was drawn up by each captain, and everyone on board that vessel lived by that code.  Contraventions to the code were dealt with very harshly but, surprisingly enough, the code was amazingly forward thinking in an age when, on land, only the aristocracy had any rights.

Unfortunately, not many examples of the Code have survived as pirates tended to burn them or throw them overboard in the event of capture.  This prevented a code from being used as evidence at trial.

Who signed the Code?

All new recruits were expected to sign the code, but as many could neither read nor write they simply made a mark.  This meant that they would adhere to the code, and since many recruits came from plundered ships, a little coercion was sometimes required to get them to sign and agree.  Skilled sailors such as navigators were in great demand and were often abducted and forced to sign on.

Having signed the articles, the man would then get a vote in all “affairs of moment”, votes for the appointment of officers, the right to bear arms, and a share of the plunder.  The articles were then posted for all to see.

What would be in The Code?

The Code was remarkably democratic for the age in which it existed.  The following are some of the provisions that might appear in a code.

A book about pirates, ‘De Americaensche Zee-Roovers’ was first published in 1678, in Amsterdam

Rank has its privileges!

Every prize would be assessed by the Quartermaster and the Captain, and the prize would be divided as fairly as possible into an equal number of “shares”.  Those shares would then be distributed depending on the rank of the seaman.  These would vary from ship to ship, but the basic idea would be that the Captain received two shares, the Quartermaster, Master Gunner, and Boatswain would each get one and a half shares, any other officers on board (such as the doctor) would get one and a quarter shares, and then everyone else would get one share.

One man, one vote

Every pirate got an equal vote when it came to matters of the ship (known as “affairs of moment”), including the appointment of officers.

This did not mean that discipline aboard ship was lax and everyone went about things in their own way.  Discipline was harsh, and the Captain’s word was law.

Food and drink was for all

Any fresh provisions would be shared equally among all the men, as was any alcohol that was plundered.

Treasure being divided among pirates in an illustration by Howard Pyle.

Theft was punishable by death or marooning

Theft was considered a heinous crime and was punishable by death or by being marooned.  Once a prize (the captured ship) had been plundered of anything of value, the men were allowed on board the prize to select clothing or other personal items.  But if they found anything that should be added to the prize pot (such as gold, precious jewels, etc.) and they did not turn it over, they were considered to have stolen from the entire crew.

No fighting allowed

Fighting among the crew was strongly discouraged.  Some captains issued lashes, usually numbering forty, for fighting.  But others permitted the two crew members to fight it out when they reached land and where they could use pistols and cutlasses to settle their disagreements.

Keep your arms ready

All crew members had to keep their pistol clean and loaded, and their swords, daggers, and axes nearby at all times, sharp and ready for use.

Workmen’s Compensation

If any crewman lost a limb fighting for the ship, he would be granted 800 pieces of eight; a lesser mutilation would attract a proportionally smaller amount.

No Sex on board

Women and boys were not permitted on board, and anyone caught smuggling one on board would be guilty of a grievous offense.

Everyone fights

Cowardice was frowned upon.  If you were guilty of cowardice, then the crew could vote on what punishment you were to receive.  The very least would be to lose your share, but the punishments were often much more severe.

The traditional “Jolly Roger” of piracy. Photo Credit

Gambling was prohibited

Gambling with cards or dice was strictly prohibited.The provisions of a code were adhered to by all members of the crew and contraventions were dealt with swiftly and often brutally.  The life of a pirate was often very short, and statistically, the risk of being seriously wounded or killed was very high.

Here is another story from us: During the “Golden Age of Piracy,” hundreds of pirate ships plagued the seas of the world

The dream of many modern treasure hunters of finding pirate treasure is just that, a dream, as most pirates spent every piece of eight they plundered on women and the high life when they reached port.  They were well aware of their extremely short life expectancy, so they enjoyed every visit to port to its fullest.