The very earliest ‘buccaneers’ living around Campeche (Honduras) employed a system known as matelotage to govern the equal sharing of all things - originally sharing everything with a messmate, the system grew to cater for the equal sharing of all things by a pirate crew aboard ship. Pirate crews aboard ship developed this system of ‘government’ from around 1670 due to the situation aboard sailing ships prevalent at the time in that the Captain or Master was in sole command - but the discipline inflicted on crews by commanders was often said to be so severe it created great disaffection. Unlike a Commander appointed by the Royal Navy and a Master appointed by the owners of a merchant ship, the Captain aboard a pirate ship would be elected by the crew and could lose his position through the dissatisfaction of the crew. A Royal Navy captain was God when aboard his vessel - a Master of a merchant ship could inflict such terrific discipline on his crew that his bad behavior or shortcomings could go unreported. On both vessels it could be years before the vessel concerned reached a home port and official complaints be made ; by that time, the matter could have been resolved through the death of perpetrator, claimant or witnesses.

Matelotage developed into ‘The Jamaica Discipline’. From around 1680, each man in a pirate crew signed ‘Articles’ which laid out the general and specific rules and guidelines covering the intended voyage or cruise. This was not an uncommon practice ; in the merchant service a seaman would ask questions about the ship, commander, destination, cargo and the proffered pay and conditions before listing aboard as a crewman - and a Privateer captain and ship enlisting seamen would state the monetary amount or financial percentage of the captures that a seaman would be due at then end of the voyage, and in addition agree ‘No Purchase, No Pay’ ; if no prizes were taken by the privateer for any reason, then the crew would receive no pay (beyond that agreed) or any percentage of the prize when the vessel returned to port. Once at sea, the crew on both a merchant and a privateer vessel were subject to the captain’s will, desires and practices. On both vessels, any complaint by the crew could lead to an accusation of mutiny ; and yet the threat of a mutiny by the crew was the only check on any and all excesses inflicted by commanders on them at sea.

Most arguments within pirate crews all centred around the division of money or what to do with ‘prisoners’. A Pirate Quartermaster would see a daunting array of valuables aboard ship, all requiring an equal division into ‘shares’. The easiest division  - though it should really be done by weight rather than quantity - was of coins : (top left, clockwise) gold Spanish ‘doubloons’, a silver ‘piece of eight’, a British Crown (Queen Anne), a Dutch ‘shilling’, an English shilling (James II) , two Spanish crowns and two French crowns. A pirate who received one large diamond when his companions received a handful of smaller ones smashed it into small pieces and as they outnumbered the diamonds his friends had been given then claimed he’d got the best of the deal !  The modern USA dollar sign ($) originated in the two Pillars of Hercules encompassing both worlds’ shown on a period Spanish coin.

There are several instances of pirate crews’ dismissing their captain for various reasons. Incompetence, cowardice, brutality, bad navigation, suspicion, committing too many errors - and including fear and two incidents where the captain was made the scapegoat for natural events ; the deposed captains concerned were dropped off at a port,
‘marooned’ or cast adrift in a boat. Where the Captain was the sole navigator aboard, the decision by the crew to depose him could be very dangerous for them and their ship.

The Pirate ‘Articles’

To avoid putting too much power in the hands of a single man - as in the Navy or Merchant service - pirate crews designed ‘Articles’.  Restricting and regulating the power of a captain aboard a pirate ship did not require a mutiny - every pirate aboard knew and understood the ‘Articles’ under which the cruise would take place. Firstly, the Captain was elected by the crew at the start of the voyage ; secondly, all his decisions on the voyage such as destination, course or dropping anchor were subject to the approval of the crew ; thirdly, only in battle was he free in terms of an unlimited authority to make command decisions and back these decisions up if necessary with force to achieve the object : the seizure of as many prizes as possible. Discipline was still required - for cowardice in battle or breaches of the ‘Articles’, punishment would be necessary - but - pirates did not wish the pirate captain to be the one aboard to judge or inflict the punishment as that would be too similar to the merchant, privateer or navy service. A different plan was created to suit the pirate philosophy ; in order to distribute both power and responsibility, the pirate ship had ‘Lords’, experienced seamen who took responsibility such as the sailing-master (or ‘sea-artist’), the boatswain, surgeon, gunner, etc as aboard any other ship. These men aboard a pirate ship received more than a single share of the amount of plunder - it could be an extra share, but more likely an extra half or quarter-share. Though a Quartermaster might be present aboard other ships, by 1690 aboard a pirate ship his duties were very different.

The first Articles drawn up aboard a pirate vessel to cater for the behavior and rights of the crew simply copied those of the merchant and privateer vessels and added a few more details ; pirate Articles then grew and developed to include specifics about drink, women and weapons but notably always included the intention and agreement by the pirates that a share of the plunder would be given to any pirate injured in battle - the loss of an eye or a limb was measured in a lump sum of a stated amount (initially in ‘pieces of eight’, a very common Spanish coin worth about five shillings). Any sums necessary would be deducted from the plunder by the Quartermaster and distributed before any shares were drawn up for the rest of the crew. Breaches of the pirate Articles upon becoming known would fall to the Quartermaster to arrange judgment by a ‘Jury’ aboard the pirate ship - the punishment for a serious crime such as stealing, cowardice or desertion could result in the guilty person(s) being ‘marooned’ on an uninhabited island or in a similar lonely spot with just a bottle of water and a loaded pistol (the intention being that they eventually used the pistol on themselves to end their misery). For less serious crimes - such as being so regularly incapacitated with alcohol they were unable to do any duty or smoking below decks - a ‘flogging’ could occur (known by pirates as Moses Law, being forty strokes of a whip or cane) administered by the Quartermaster and he alone.

A pirate Quartermaster would - like every other Lord aboard a pirate ship - be elected by the crew on a ‘one man, one vote’ basis. His duties would be to represent the interests of the crew and stand betwixt captain and crew in any dispute, to maintain order and discipline, settle all quarrels and distribute food, drink and other essentials. The Quartermaster was responsible for all supplies aboard the ship, which no-one could take or use without his permission. The Quartermaster would take part in all battles and was expected to be the first aboard a prize to find and declare everything to be taken and secure any plunder, which he would divide into equal shares and distribute or supervise distribution. He would have to decide using his knowledge of the available storage space and the nearest market-place which if any of the prizes bulk or cargo to take, and supervise the shipping of any cargo off the prize. In the case of ‘discipline’, a Jury drawn from the crew would decide any case, but in slight cases of infringement of the Articles, only the Quartermaster would be responsible for any punishment. If two or more crewmen had a disagreement with each other, the Quartermaster would attempt to resolve the issue. If no solution could be found, then a duel between both parties would be arranged, supervised by the Captain and the Quartermaster. At ‘first blood’, the matter was considered resolved and to be forgotten ; though a duel might end in the death of one or more of the aggrieved men. A Quartermaster was expected to take command of any boat put off by the pirate ship and if any prize was retained, then the Quartermaster usually became the commander of that vessel (requiring the election of two new Quartermasters : one for the new vessel and a replacement aboard the old.)

The Pirate Quartermaster by 1690 was considered equal to the Pirate Captain in rank by the crew - though in battle or a ‘chase’ the pirate captain’s authority remained supreme. The pirate system aboard ship concerning their elected Quartermaster was relatively unknown until circa 1715, when rumours began to circulate. Rather than all being the psychopathic monsters and the murdering ogres portrayed in feature film, pirates could and did treat with and live in peace with both colonial Governors, traders and merchants, civilians ashore and native villagers - and more importantly, with each other. The unique post of Quartermaster made this possible and through the adoption of Quartermasters aboard their vessels, pirate democracies were founded and became well-established ashore at places such as Port Royal, New Providence, St Mary’s Island at Madagascar and several other bases used by pirates.

It was promoted as general knowledge by pirates that the penalty of instant death was inflicted by pirates to anyone aboard a prize that had not instantly surrendered - or even worse, offered resistance. The Quartermaster would regulate the carrying-out of these deaths in the case where a skilled man aboard the prize (such as a surgeon or a navigator) might be required by the pirate vessel. The Quartermaster would find and threaten anyone such as this with instant death if they did not ‘volunteer’ to go aboard the pirate vessel ; such ‘persuasions’ depended on the Quartermaster’s skill and experience. From a crew that had surrendered at once, if ‘vacancies’ existed the Quartermaster would suggest to the merchant seamen aboard the prize that they might join the pirate crew … but in many cases, crew were ‘forced’ to join.

Such a ‘democracy’ aboard a ship - one man, one vote – and pirates appearing greater numbers (and in some cases, exhibiting pretty efficient organization) was an immediate and dangerous threat to European and Colonial Governments. It’s appeal to any disaffected seamen was obvious : after 1700 the need to eliminate pirates in any way became a ‘prime directive’ for all legal Authorities in the shape of applying the available forces of law and order backed up by sterner legislation.

Continued in … ‘PIRATE-HUNTING


(To read about individual crew members tasks click on their title below)
Captain - Bosun - Gunner - Surgeon - Navigator

All text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.

Back to Pirate Crew     Education

Main Menu