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Democracy Among Thieves

Though no universal code of conduct was acknowledged by all, many pirate captains established a set of rules with which each crew member was expected to comply while on board.

Many of these social contracts were remarkably democratic for their time and place in the world. As pirates, sailors had an unprecedented level of control of their destiny. In an assault to the traditional command structure at sea, pirate captains allowed the crew to vote in a new captain if a dispute warranted it. Good leaders gathered the support of their men and many well-known pirates achieved their stature not by force, but by majority vote.

Another revolutionary concept was the pirate welfare system. Crew members injured in battle were given compensation for their injuries on a sliding scale of severity. A leg, for example, would have been worth more than an eye.

But this freedom and financial security did not come without a price. More often than not, violation of the articles set forth in the contract would mean death.

The 11-article contract below was used by Black Bart Roberts. It must have been effective, for he was one of the most successful pirates of all time, capturing more than 400 ships over the 30-month span of his career.

The Pirate Code of Black Bart Roberts

I. Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment. He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized.

II. Every man shall be called fairly in turn by the list on board of prizes. But if they defraud the company to the value of even one dollar, they shall be marooned. If any man robs another, he shall have his nose and ears slit and be put ashore where he shall be sure to encounter hardships.

III. None shall game for money either with dice or cards.

IV. The lights and candles shall be put out at eight at night and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour, they shall sit upon the open deck without lights.

V. Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass, and pistols at all times clean and ready for action.

VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man shall be found seducing any of the latter sex and carrying her to sea in disguise he shall suffer death.

VII. He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.

VIII. None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man's quarrel shall be ended on shore by sword or pistol.

IX. No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living till each has a share of 1,000. Every man who shall become a cripple or lose a limb in the service shall have 800 pieces of eight from the common stock and for lesser hurts proportionately.

X. The captain and quartermaster shall each receive two shares of a prize, the master gunner and boatswain, one and one half shares, all other officers one and one quarter, and private gentlemen of fortune one share each.

XI. The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day.

Pirate of the Month

Mary Read was a seaman on a ship that was captured by pirates and she turned then to a life of piracy.

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Did you know?

  • The Jolly Roger was a black flag flown to identify the vessel as a pirate ship. While the skull and crossbones is the most common of these flags, many great pirate captains designed custom symbols to identify exactly who is attacking.

  • "Shiver me timbers" is an expression of excitement or awe. Its origin has to do with sailing in heavy seas, when the ship is lifted up and pounded down so hard that the timbers are said to shiver.

  • Although pirates have been around since the Romans and Vikings, most pirating happened during the Golden Age of Piracy between 1680 and 1730.

  • Pirates believed that whistling on a ship would cause the weather to turn stormy. Consider the phrase 'to whistle up a storm.'

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