Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
By Cindy Vallar
Before a pirate ship set sail upon the High Seas, the crew elected their captain and drafted a document that outlined the division of plunder and intolerable behaviors and their punishments, many of which were designed to forestall squabbles between pirates. Once these Articles of Agreement or Codes of Conduct were set down on paper, each pirate made his mark and swore an oath to abide by them.
These revolutionary documents resulted from the sailing experiences of these men prior to their turning to piracy. Governments and institutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were autocratic and tyrannical. Life in general, but aboard naval and merchant ships in particular, was often harsh and short-lived. Insufficient food supplies, low wages, high death rates, and strict discipline led to frequent desertions. To prevent a recurrence of these experiences, those who chose piracy crafted a more equitable set of rules to follow in which no one person was above another. A pirate captain and possibly the quartermaster (whose powers equaled or surpassed those of the captain) might receive 1¼ to 2 shares of the loot taken, while the master gunner, boatswain, and carpenter might receive 1¼ shares. The remaining pirates received one share each.
Pirates belonged to a brotherhood, and as such, they instituted an early form of medical insurance within their Articles of Agreement. Each crew decided the worth of each injury, assigning the right arm the most worth since many pirates were right-handed. Compensation was also given for the loss of the left arm, the legs, a finger, and one or both eyes. Sometimes a wooden leg or a hand hook would also be valued because a pirate who utilized either was as dependent on its use as the man who lost a leg or arm. At other times a pirate who survived his wounding but was disabled became a cook, carpenter, or sail maker, which enabled him to share in any treasure because he provided a valuable service to the ship and its crew. Recompense for injuries and dismemberment came from the booty prior to its being divided amongst the pirates.
When a pirate affixed his signature or mark to this document, he pledged his honor to obey each rule. While uttering this solemn oath, he placed his hand on a Bible or a pair of crossed pistols or axes. Occasionally he sat astride a cannon or held a human skull. No offense ever went unpunished. The most serious violations called for marooning or death. Lesser infractions might entail having his nose and ears split. Any pirate who sailed under John Phillips suffered Moses’ Law if caught smoking belowdeck or carrying a lighted candle without the protection of a lanthorn. Why? Fire was an ever-present danger on board wooden sailing vessels.
Articles of Agreement evolved from Charte-Partie, a legal document used by buccaneers in the late seventeenth century. These charters, which Jamaican courts used to settle disagreements, served three functions: to explain terms of service, to provide fixed compensation in case of death or injury, and to divide plundered goods amongst the crew. Eventually the legality of these documents lessened to the point where they became merely secret charters under which pirate crews sailed. One of the first descriptions of such a code appeared in 1678 in The Buccaneers of America, an account written by Alexandre Oliver Exquemelin about his years as a pirate surgeon. Few of these documents survive today. Perhaps the Articles of Agreement most cited and most comprehensive are those under which Bartholomew Roberts and his crew sailed. These prohibited gambling, forbade the presence of women, set forth punishments, explained procedures for the settlement of quarrels, provided for those injured in battle, delineated the division of booty, and assured musicians that they had at least one day of rest. According to those under which George Lowther’s crew sailed, the first pirate who sighted a ship to plunder received the best pistol seized in the raid.
Violence and treachery were bywords of piracy. Yet those same pirates plied their trade under Articles of Agreement that were revolutionary social charters of their day. These men believed in equality, and if no prey was sighted, then no pay was earned. They took care of their own by making restitution when injuries were suffered. While they sailed under one captain, they did not allow that man to be a tyrannical dictator. Command power was shared between the captain and the quartermaster, and these officers could be demoted if the crew no longer wished to follow their chosen leaders. These rights were forerunners of the principles on which democracies are founded.
© 2000 Cindy Vallar
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