We tend to think of pirates as cutlass-wielding, eye-patch-wearing swashbucklers who raided ships and generally misbehaved. However, whilst that reputation isn’t entirely undeserved, running a successful pirate operation required a more structured approach. Pirate ships were, in fact, businesses that had to be managed effectively. So how did pirate captains maintain discipline and order on a ship full of people who had already thrown law and order out of the window?
Piracy was a risky, sometimes deadly occupation, and strict rules and regulations were necessary for the survival and morale of the crew. These ‘Laws’ covered everything from how much each pirate earned from their loot to compensation for injuries, punishments, and even what kind of entertainment was allowed on board. These rules collectively became known as the ‘Pirates’ Code’, which pirates were required to publicly swear by.
Rebecca Simon’s book, The Pirates’ Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ship – our Book of the Month for May 2023 – uses primary sources such as eyewitness accounts, trial proceedings, and maritime logs, to examine how each code was instrumental in pirates’ success in battle, on sea and on land. Here we explore various aspects of pirate life and delve into some of the codes and rules they lived by.
Who turned to piracy?
Legally speaking, a pirate was someone who committed robbery or murder on any body of water, and did not operate under any jurisdiction (unlike privateers who were authorised to act under a ‘letter of mark’).
The majority of pirates were made up of sailors or marginalised individuals who could not find work elsewhere, including freed or escaped enslaved individuals. Pirates were relatively progressive for their time, disregarding race or nationality. However, during the ‘Golden Age of Piracy‘ and the early 18th century, the majority of pirates were white Europeans. They chose piracy rather than endure the terrible conditions aboard Royal Navy ships, which included harsh treatment, poor quality food, and withheld wages.
Pirate ships were self-governed, but were far from perfect. Many people were coerced into piracy (or so they claimed), including skilled mariners such as carpenters and navigators. Others became pirates to get rich quickly. Successful pirates could plunder for a year and then, if fortunate, go home and live comfortably for a relatively long time.
Regardless, many pirates simply enjoyed the lifestyle of piracy, earning their own money and answering to no one. They would spend their money on land, return to piracy when they needed more, and repeat the cycle.
The Pirate Articles
Pirates were often more organised than other sailors , out of necessity for their own survival. They adhered to a strict set of rules, known as ‘The Pirate Articles’ (more commonly referred to as ‘The Pirate Code’), which was known to be fully operational on at list 4 ships (including Blackbeard’s). It’s safe to assume that even if not using the official Articles, all pirate ships had very strict rules to maintain law and order and safety, in order to effectively attack other ships.
The rules were designed to maintain the delicate balance of law and order and keep everything organised. Goods and wages were shared and distributed equally to ensure loyalty among the crew. Most people who became pirates did so due to a mutiny, therefore pirate captains were careful to keep things fair. Captains who withheld or cheated wages risked causing an uprising on board, so it was not a wise move for any self-respecting pirate captain who wanted to keep their position.
There were rules around health and safety, such as maintaining clean weapons and avoiding snapping guns in the hold to prevent igniting gunpowder or accidentally shooting someone. Pirates were heavily compensated for injuries that required amputation, and food distribution was also regulated. Some pirate captains (such as Bartholomew Roberts) even had rules against drinking on board to avoid crew making mistakes or getting in fights. Gambling was sometimes banned for similar reasons.
Pirates sometimes entered into same-sex unions with fellow pirates, known as a ‘matelotage’, where all belongings and goods gained were shared for protection. These unions were usually legally binding, and if one partner died, the other would inherit their wealth or send it back to the deceased’s family on land, as few pirates ‘retired’. While it is unclear whether some of these arrangements were romantic, a partner would have been someone a fellow pirate deeply trusted.
Stealing money or goods, fighting, or accidentally / deliberately killing another crew member were considered the most serious offences a pirate could commit. To prevent any abuse of power, all punishments were decided unanimously by the crew via the Common Council, making the act of doling out a punishment a significant event. While walking the plank is often depicted in popular culture, it wasn’t that common, and being marooned was actually the most severe punishment a pirate could receive. In this scenario, the offender was left with only a gun containing one or two bullets and a few other supplies. Killing a crew member was highly frowned upon, and pirates generally avoided doing so unless the circumstances were dire.
Most punishments were in the form of floggings or whippings, but keel-hauling was used in severe cases. This brutal practice involved tying the offender to a rope, throwing them overboard, and dragging them underneath the ship’s barnacle-covered hull, often resulting in serious lacerations, head trauma, or drowning. Survivors were usually left with debilitating injuries and a high risk of death.
Contrary to common perceptions, pirate attacks were typically well-organised and strategic. Rather than seeking unnecessary conflict which could result in the loss of their own crew, pirates often preferred to negotiate, working with the other ship’s Quarter Master who oversaw the goods and records of the vessel, in order to complete the raid peacefully. While some pirates did exhibit extreme brutality (burning other ships and capturing everyone on board), most aimed to complete the raid as efficiently as possible.
Most smart sailors under pirate attack would surrender straightaway as they were often not trained fighters unless they were part of the navy, and pirates didn’t usually attack naval ships, instead focusing on merchant ships containing valuable goods and essentials they could plunder.
Surprisingly pirates were generally healthier and less malnourished than other sailors, thanks to their plundering of other ships. Only half of the items stolen by pirates were for monetary gain, while the other half was for their survival, including items to replenish their own supplies, tools and food. This also meant they had access to fresh food more frequently, lowering their chances of contracting scurvy.
However, fresh water was sparse, and injuries often led to infections spreading quickly on ships. Amputations were common, and in rare cases, there may have been a person with medical knowledge on board, acting as a ‘surgeon’. In most cases, the surgeon was simply someone willing to perform amputations. With no anaesthetic, patients were made to get as drunk as possible to pass out, yet obviously this was far from effective.
Rebecca Simon is a Professor of History at Santa Monica College. Her books include Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever (2020) and Pirate Queens: The Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read (2022). The Pirates’ Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ship (2023) is published by Reaktion books, and is available from 1 May 2023.