The Pirate Code – How Order was Kept Among the Lawless

Katie Vernon
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Despite the image of reckless and toothless men with peg legs, eye patches, parrots on their shoulders, and the flag of Jolly Roger on their ships, real-life pirates were highly organized criminals.

Mainly thanks to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and everyone else who recreated the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the same fashion, we have a somewhat confused knowledge about who they were.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, originally published in 1883.

According to Peter T. Leeson from George Mason University, who studied the law, economics, and organization of pirates, they used democratic constitutions that helped them minimize crew conflicts and maximize practical profit. At the same time, they prevented captain predation through systems of “practical checks and balances crews.”

There was hierarchy on the ship. Piracy was organized crime, and it was a job, so there were rules. Everyone was expected to obey those rules and those who wouldn’t, got punished. Historical evidence suggests there weren’t many punishments, if any at all, that condemned the victim to walk the plank. It seems that the pirates preferred keel-hauling as a punishment.

The Pirate Code emerged during the Golden Age of Piracy from around 1620 to 1720.

It is fascinating that pirates prospered outside the state and the law, meaning there was no authority over the pirate ships in the open sea, for good or for bad.

They were the legal entities when necessary, while at the same time each individual was supposed to know their place. The crew on the pirate ships wasn’t bound by family or ethnic ties like the Mafia. They were just as diverse as in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Leeson calls them one of “the most sophisticated and successful criminal organizations in history.” It was expected of everyone to respect the hierarchy on the ship. There was the Captain, the Quartermaster, Master Gunner, the Boatswain, officers (such as the doctor for example), and the rest of the crew.

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

So, the pirates created a Pirate Code that emerged during the Golden Age of Piracy (1620-1720). It was the time when a great deal of treasure was transported from India and the New World, and a lot of it ended up on the pirate ships.

The pirates were violent, bloodthirsty and greedy. To keep the peace on the vessels, the captains created a code of 11 rules that were similar on each ship or eventually adopted one from another.

Captain Kidd in New York Harbor, in a c. 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

First of all, surprisingly democratic for the time, each member of the crew had an equal vote in important affairs. The captain had the ultimate word to make a decision, but not without considering the vote of the crew.

Each member also had an equal share of strong liquors or fresh provisions. But when it came to sharing the gold and other worthy items, rank had its privileges. The captain would receive the biggest portion of any acquired goods, the ranks below him just a little bit less, the officers just a little bit less, and so on.

However, even that was organized as fairly as possible, so there wasn’t such an enormous difference — if the Captain received two shares, every member of the crew got one.

The worst sin a pirate could commit was to steal. According to the code, theft was forbidden and punishable by marooning or death.

A marooned pirate, according to Howard Pyle.

The men were allowed to select clothing or items they liked from the prizes acquired from a captured ship.

However, it was expected for the entire haul to be turned in so that everyone could see it. If someone was caught stealing precious jewels or gold, they were considered to have robbed the entire crew, and that was unforgivable.

Believe it or not, excellent discipline was expected from the pirates. Fights among the crew were strongly discouraged. Some captains punished those who disrupted the peace on the ship with a fight, and it could be forty lashes. No fight is worth forty lashes. On the other hand, there were captains who permitted two crew members to settle their disagreements once they reached land.

Capture of the pirate Blackbeard, 1718.

At eight in the evening, all the lights and candles were put out and the crew could rest. If anyone was in the mood for drinking, they could do so upon the open deck without lights.

Everyone was expected to be ready for action at any time with their pistols clean and loaded, and their swords, axes, and daggers sharp and ready for use.

Artist’s conception of walking the plank – illustration by Howard Pyle for Harper’s Magazine, 1887.

Sexual intercourse was forbidden on the ship. There were cases when members of the crew would smuggle a woman in disguise on board. But, since women weren’t allowed on the ships, breaking the rule was punishable with death.

There was even compensation for a pirate who lost a limb or become a cripple during their service. He was given 800 coins out of the Public Stock. Lesser mutilation was followed by a proportionally smaller amount.

The pirate cemetery at Île Ste-Marie (St. Mary’s Island), Madagascar.

It was expected of everyone to participate in a battle and cowardice was frowned upon. Those guilty of cowardice could be part of the vote on what punishment they were to receive. The best option for them was losing their share, but more often their punishment was death or being marooned.

Read another story from us:From Prostitute to Pirate: How a Brothel Owner Commanded 80,000

Musicians on the ship were permitted to play days or nights, except on sabbath, when they were allowed to rest.