Pirates Culture > The Pirate Code
The Pirate Code
Before a pirate ship left port all pirates collaborated and signed a document called the articles of agreement, also known as the pirate code. The pirate code was a group of rules that all pirates had to follow aboard a ship. Some of these included things like keeping ones weapons at ready at all times and not smoking near gunpowder. Others were curfews for drinking and partying below deck and efforts to curtail gambling which created internal conflicts. Overall, pirates were pretty democratic but the punishments for breaking the agreed upon articles was often severe.
The ships articles would determine what shares each pirate got along with regulations for inter-group fighting and discipline. They would also regulate what happened when things like loss of limb or eyes occurred. It was more or less an extension of the broader pirate governments that they all resided under. While it may seem unfathomable today in the age of nations and superpowers, there was a very real possibility that existed in the 18th century during the Post Spanish Succession Period for the Flying Gang pirates to actually establish their own republic in the West Indies if they chose to, expounding on the fledgling Republic of Pirates that was started on Nassau.
In fact, this idea scared the ruling classes of the imperial powers so much it was the driving reason behind the extermination of their former soldiers and privateers. Branded as pirates by the world governments, these men were secretly loved by the community due to their pursuits against the tyranny and oppression of the time. It is also hard to imagine a pirate government as well, a complete libertarian society ruled by a much different and decentralized structure that stood in start contrast to the monarchy model that even persists today.
While pirates championed the ideas of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness long before the founding fathers of America they also lived one of the most grueling and toughest lifestyles. Life aboard a wooden sailing ship was little better in the 18th century as it was in the 16th century and your home could one day become your tomb. Therefore while the pirate captain was elected by his crew there was also a level of strictness incorporated with life aboard the ship. This was necessary for survival and while the pirates surely enjoyed themselves in port they needed a code in order to survive on the high seas.
Before leaving each crew member would sign the articles and then swear an oath of allegiance to the crew and the captain. The oath was usually conducted on a Bible, but other objects including pistols, swords, axes, skulls or even cannons have been used. After signing the articles, a pirate was formally inducted into the crew, giving him a vote for officers and his share of the loot. Once the articles were signed they were often placed in a visible location like outside of the cabin door.
Sometimes when pirates captured a ship the crew would chose to join the pirates. If the pirates were in need of sea-ready hands and required skilled artisans such as carpenters or doctors they would recruit them into their ranks. However some of these skilled tradesman, and others who were not became conscripted into piracy if they refused. This did not happen all of the time and was actually only a practice done by the gang of Bartholomew Roberts when they were running low on men after the King's Pardon (1718).
These pirates would be forced to sail with the pirates and if they did not sign the articles they may be tortured, however in a few cases they mutinied against their captors and turned themselves into the authorities. Most of the time they were granted amnesty and given complete pardons if they did not sign the pirate code articles. The pirate code outlines such concepts as follows.
There was, however, a division of power on a pirate crew between the captain, the quartermaster, the governing council for the vessel, and the regular crewmen; but in battle the pirate captain always retained all power and the ultimate decision-making power to insure an orderly chain of command.
When it came time to split the captured wealth into shares, profits were normally given to the person in each rank as follows: captain (5-6 shares), individuals with a senior position like the quartermaster (2 shares), crewmen (1 share), and individuals in a junior position (1/2 a share).
See Pirate Crew
See Pirate Captain
The pirate captain position was an elected position. Due to most pirates being disenfranchised privateers, most were highly intolerant of autocratic captains. It must be noted that while the captain and the higher officials were given a higher share of their treasure due to the risk they were taking with the exposure to the authorities, the pirates were all classified as equal aboard a pirate ship.
Whenever a captain proved not to be one of the crew, he was often replaced and sent on his merry way in a small sloop or mutinied on an abandoned island. Many pirate captains have been deposed and quickly mutinied throughout their reign some of the most famous being Charles Vane and 'Calico' Jack Rackham.
Other pirate captains such as Benjamin Hornigold were mutinied and deposed of because they did not want to attack ships not aligned with their nation. Edward Low was famously mutinied and died of a tropical fever on an island in the Indian Ocean mostly because he was a psychopathic murderer and terrified his own people. Overall there were many reasons a pirate could get mutinied and leaders were often the men who genuinely meant it and inspired moral in their fellow pirates.
Captains like Bartholomew Roberts and Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach were really leaders among men and inspired hundreds of pirates to follow their leadership right up until their deaths at the hands of pirate hunters. These captains commanded fleets of ships that rivaled any royal equivalent and commanded hundreds of men. If these two had been able to cooperate together they would have been completely unstoppable.
All of the pirates who signed the articles of agreement knew all of the rules before signing so one could not plead ignorance. Therefore the punishments for violating the rules were often very strict and very harsh.
Despite the common misconception there are almost no instances of pirates making anyone "walk a plank" but a pirate who disobeyed the pirate code could often find himself marooned on an island with nothing more than a bottle of rum, a pistol and one shot. You could also be thrown overboard, but that was done by two crew members holding your hands and feet. Other breaches of the code were met with being whipped 39 times, or even execution by firearm. So despite the belief in popular culture, stories, and movies no one really walked a plank.
However cruel these punishments seem now, all pirates agreed on these before leaving and knew full well of what the rules are. The punishments were designed to be deterrents against behavior that could divide the crew and cause internal conflicts. Most of the rules were common sense ones anyway such as keeping ones weapons ready for combat because you never know when an unsuspecting merchant ship may come along or even the Royal Navy.
Surviving Pirate Codes
There are only a few remaining copies of pirate articles, as most captains used to burn them or throw them overboard in order to destroy evidence of their activities. Possessing pirate articles would almost surely lead to a conviction for piracy for all members on the crew, therefore they were destroyed to prevent them from being used against pirates at trial. However, the articles of Bartholomew Roberts, Edward Low, John Phillips and John Gow have all survived through Captain Charles Johnson's primary source A General History of Pyrates (1724).
See Buccaneering Era
The pirate code was an idea originally conceived in the 17th century by buccaneers for the government of pirates. After the buccaneering era was in full swing in the 1650's, the buccaneers began to live by a set of rules known as Chasse-Partie, Charter Party, Custom of the Coast, or Jamaica Discipline. These eventually all became known as the articles of agreement and the group became called the Brethren of the Coast. Pirate articles were agreements between all pirates aboard a ship before leaving and were the democratic rules to be set forth while at sea. They often were different from captain to captain, however they always included things like shares of loot, compensation for injuries along with disciplinary actions for stupidity and violence.
While none of the original 'pirate code' exists, much of the characteristics and ideas of the code are symbolized in Alexander Exquemelin's accounts of his exploits with Henry Morgan as the pirate surgeon. Published in 1678, The Buccaneers of America is one of the best first hand accounts and primary sources with which to view the buccaneering era and its culture.
While there is no surviving copy of Morgan's actual articles, Alexander Exquemelin writes in his book Buccaneers of America (1678) the following articles. These "articles" were written about more in general terms and may apply to a more specific code of 17th century buccaneering. However Exquemelin sailed as Henry Morgan's physician so it is most likely that these were very similar to Henry Morgan's actual articles. Exquemelin writes that the buccaneers chose to:
"Agree on certain articles, which are put in writing, by way of bond or obligation, which every one is bound to observe, and all of them, or the chief, set their hands to it."
The rest of the articles themselves were as follows.
1. The fund of all payments under the articles is the stock of what is gotten by the expedition, following the same law as other pirates, that is, No prey, no pay.
2. Compensation is provided the Captain for the use of his ship, and the salary of the carpenter, or shipwright, who mended, careened, and rigged the vessel (the latter usually about 150 pieces of eight). A sum for provisions and victuals is specified, usually 200 pieces of eight. A salary and compensation is specified for the surgeon and his medicine chest, usually 250 pieces of eight.
3. A standard compensation is provided for maimed and mutilated buccaneers. "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.
4. Shares of booty are provided as follows: "the Captain, or chief Commander, is allotted five or six portions to what the ordinary seamen have ; the Master's Mate only two ; and Officers proportionate to their employment. After whom they draw equal parts from the highest even to the lowest mariner, the boys not being omitted. For even these draw half a share, by reason that, when they happen to take a better vessel than their own, it is the duty of the boys to set fire to the ship or boat wherein they are, and then retire to the prize which they have taken."
5. "[I]n the prizes they take, it is severely prohibited to every one to usurp anything, in particular to themselves. . . . Yea, they make a solemn oath to each other not to abscond, or conceal the least thing they find amongst the prey. If afterwards any one is found unfaithful, who has contravened the said oath, immediately he is separated and turned out of the society."
Most of the surviving pirate codes are found in Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (1724). Very few authentic pirate articles are known to have survived due to the inflammatory nature of such evidence at trial. Therefore when on the verge of capture, most pirate captains would toss them overboard. Therefore only three authentic pirate articles from the 18th century exist. These are from the infamous pirate Bartholomew Roberts along with John Phillips and the crew of Edward Low & George Lowther who had the same articles after sailing with one another.
These articles can all be found below.
Bartholomew Roberts Articles
The following is an example of a Pirate Code put forth by Captain Bartholomew Roberts. Black Bart’s code is given because he is probably one of the most successful pirates, capturing over 400 ships in a 3 year span of time. This code most likely enabled many of his successes by keeping everything fair and avoiding mutiny and problems with the crew.
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.
Captain John Phillips of the Revenge set these articles for his ship and crew in 1724. His articles were recovered mostly because his crew of conscripted pirates mutinied against him and turned the rest of the loyal pirates into the authorities along with the ship and evidence. This meant the pirate articles survived long enough to be put into Charles Johnson's A General History of Pyrates, published in 1724.
I. Every Man Shall obey civil Command; the Captain shall have one full Share and a half of all Prizes; the Master, Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner shall have one Share and quarter.
II. If any Man shall offer to run away, or keep any Secret from the Company, he shall be maroon’d with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm, and Shot.
III. If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game, to the Value of a Piece of Eight, he shall be maroon’d or shot.
IV. If any time we shall meet another Marroner that Man shall sign his Articles without the Consent of our Company, shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.
V. That Man that shall strike another whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses’s Law (that is, 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare Back.
VI. That Man that shall snap his Arms, or smoak Tobacco in the Hold, without a Cap to his Pipe, or carry a Candle lighted without a Lanthorn, shall suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.
VII. That Man shall not keep his Arms clean, fit for an Engagement, or neglect his Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer such other Punishment as the Captain and the Company shall think fit.
VIII. If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement, shall have 400 Pieces of Eight ; if a Limb, 800.
IX. If at any time you meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer present Death.
Articles of Edward Low & George Lowther
These articles are known to have been used by Edward Low and George Lowther aboard their ship. They were first seen in the Boston News Letter, and it appears that Low and Lowther had the same articles. This is probably because they sailed together from early January to the end of May in 1722.
I. The Captain is to have two full Shares; the [quarter] Master is to have one Share and one Half; The Doctor, Mate, Gunner and Boatswain, one Share and one Quarter.
II. He that shall be found guilty of taking up any Unlawfull Weapon on Board the Privateer or any other prize by us taken, so as to Strike or Abuse one another in any regard, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the Majoirty of the Company shall see fit.
III. He that shall be found Guilty of Cowardice in the time of Ingagements, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the Majority of the Company shall think fit.
IV. If any Gold, Jewels, Silver, etc. be found on Board of any Prize or Prizes to the value of a Piece of Eight, & the finder do not deliver it to the Quarter Master in the space of 24 hours he shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the Majority of the Company shall think fit.
V. He that is found Guilty of Gaming, or Defrauding one another to the value of a Ryal of Plate, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the Majority of the Company shall think fit.
VI. He that shall have the Misfortune to loose a Limb in time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of Six hundred pieces of Eight, and remain aboard as long as he shall think fit.
VII. Good Quarters to be given when Craved.
VIII. He that sees a Sail first, shall have the best Pistol or Small Arm aboard of her.
IX. He that shall be guilty of Drunkenness in time of Engagement shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit.
X. No Snaping of Guns in the Hould.
This set of articles was written in John Gow's own hand writing and found aboard his ship the Revenge in 1729. Evidence suggests that these articles were written only a few days before he and his crew were captured by the authorities. The articles were as follows.
I. That every man shall obey his commander in all respects, as if the ship was his own, and as if he received monthly wages.
II. That no man shall give, or dispose of, the ship's provisions; but every one shall have an equal share.
III. That no man shall open, or declare to any person or persons, who they are, or what designs they are upon; and any persons so offending shall be punished with immediate death.
IV. That no man shall go on shore till the ship is off the ground, and in readiness to put to sea.
V. That every man shall keep his watch night and day; and at the hour of eight in the evening every one shall retire from gaming and drinking, in order to attend his respective station.
VI. Every person who shall offend against any of these articles shall be punished with death, or in such other manner as the ship's company shall think proper.
The Mayflower Compact