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.