What can pirates teach us about democracy? Well, read on…
The “Golden Age of Piracy,” as historians call it, lasted about 80 years from the 1650s to the 1730s. While piracy was a worldwide phenomenon the area I want to comment on is, most appropriately, here in Florida and the near-by Caribbean, where many Floridians go on cruises (beware!). In Florida we had our share of notorious pirates including Black Caesar, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, and my personal favorite Captain Calico Jack (inspiration for the Johnny Depp character Jack Sparrow and designer of the iconic black and white skull and crossbones flag we have come to associate with pirates).
The popular image of classic pirates is either that of blood-thirsty plunderers with eye patches or misunderstood swashbuckling psychopaths with peg-legs and parrots clinging to their shoulders. But what do we really know about the pirate life? How did they work together to plunder and loot? How did they organize their ships? Is there anything the life of pirates can inform us about in our own lives?
Thanks to a substantial body of “Pirateological” research and written accounts of some notorious pirates themselves we have a fairly good understanding of pirate life. While there is no doubt that much pirate behavior was brutal and disgusting there was one aspect of their lives that may surprise you: Oddly enough pirates were active participants in democratic systems, systems that in some respects were more democratic than our present-day version of representative democracy.
On board the pirate ship the pirates elected their own officers including the captain, the quartermaster, boatswain, gunner and other officers. Not only were they elected, but they could also be ousted by majority vote. While the captain had absolute authority during attacks (a recognition of expertise) many other decisions—such as which ships to attack and which direction to head after attacks—were made by vote of the crew. The quartermaster functioned as a chief executive and, in effect, a check on the power of the captain. He was in charge of arbitrating disputes and acted as an intermediary between the captain and the crew. What’s more, the quartermaster functioned as a judge, deciding what punishments would be handed out for rule violations (yes, they had rules) and, perhaps even more importantly, deciding how the loot would be distributed.
On most ships the booty was distributed fairly equally with the captain and quartermaster receiving between 1½ to 2 shares, other officers receiving 1¼ shares, and crew members receiving one share each. Compare that with the income distribution in present-day America. The quartermaster also determined how much of the stolen loot would be set aside in a “common fund” to support a health care system that compensated pirates for injuries obtained during battle (universal health care!). Injured men would receive varying amounts depending upon the injury incurred. If a pirate lost a right arm he would receive 600 pieces of eight, a left arm brought him 500 pieces, a finger or an eye brought him 100 pieces, the right leg was worth 500 pieces, but the left leg was only worth 400. It seems that they discriminated against lefties. Given that a piece of eight comes in at about $96, these could amount to fairly tidy sums. A pirate who lost his right leg might receive enough to retire from pirating and he could hire someone to carve him a designer wooden peg-leg.
While the United States was still years away from creating a constitution, pirates created their own written codes, in effect, constitutions. Every man had to swear to abide by them and sign them (or put his “X”) or he would not be accepted. The codes were posted on the ship for all to see. Although the codes varied slightly from ship to ship they all contained common elements. Among them were rules about how the “prizes” would be distributed, what the punishments (from lashes to marooning to death) were for stealing, cowardice, desertion, smoking in the hold, rape, drunkenness during battle, or cheating at games of chance. These were dangerous ideas in the 17th Century and some scholars have speculated that one of the reasons European governments wanted to crush the pirates was precisely because of the democratic ideas they lived by which were seen as a threat to aristocratic societies. The looting of ships was fairly common during this time, but democracy was a radical idea!
Why is it that pirates turned to democracy to run their ships?
Most pirates came from merchant or naval ships operated by the British or the American colonies. These ships were brutally run by authoritarian captains and owners concerned primarily about profit. The captains controlled all aspects of life on the ships. Most ships were understaffed and the crews were overworked. A seaman’s life was difficult and dangerous and punishments were harsh and arbitrary. Thus, the option to adopt the life of a pirate was seen by many as desirable to working in these oppressive authoritarian systems.
It should not be surprising then that pirates would reject such a system and turn to one that gave them more say in their own destiny. Democracy became a way to improve one’s lot and, within the context of the times, humanize them by giving them a way to control their own fate. Since the ships they used for pirating were stolen they were owned not by some distant investor interested in maximizing profit, but by the crew themselves. All on board had a real stake in the pirate endeavor.
Furthermore, in many respects the pirates resolved the democratic dilemma of how one reconciles the need for expertise and decisive leadership while still maintaining democratic checks on authority. Expertise and democracy need not be at odds. We simply need to figure out when expertise is appropriate and what role democratic procedures should play in selecting and holding authority accountable. The pirates seem to have figured that out.
So mix some grog and guzzle some bumboo, and sing along for the pirate in all of us:
We’re rascals and scoundrels, we’re villains and knaves.
Drink up me ‘earties, yo ho.
We’re devils and black sheep, we’re really bad eggs.
Drink up me ‘earties, yo ho.