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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Pirates were adept at acquiring a ship to serve their needs.  On rare occasions they purchased one, such as Stede Bonnet did when he decided to go a pirating.  Some acquired their vessel through mutiny.  Most just took them, whether while anchored at a port or after attacking another vessel on the open sea, which was how Blackbeard acquired the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Once pirates had a ship, they formed a council comprised of every member of the crew and drew up a Code of Conduct outlining what rules they would obey and the consequences for ignoring them.  As a group they decided everything, and no one--even the captain--dared go against the wishes of the council, a radical concept in the maritime world where captains held total sway over the ships and crews they commanded.

The next step in the venture was to elect officers, but experience had taught the pirates to limit the power these men had.  Since every pirate was equal to every other pirate, these measures insured no single person could usurp power and become a tyrant.  Any officer deemed unsuitable was replaced with someone else the crew elected, thus creating a democratic means for governing the ship.

The Captain

Pirate captainIn electing the captain, pirates looked for one amongst them who led by example.  He must be “superior for knowledge and boldness, pistol proof they call it.”(Botting)  Popularity played little role in the election.  Instead, a captain should command the pirates’ respect, demonstrate boldness and cunning, be capable of handling and navigating the ship and crew, and know how to fight.  Bartholomew Sharp, for example, was a skillful navigator and a “man of undaunted courage and of excellent conduct.”(Cordingly)  Another valuable asset for the captain was to know how to chase and capture a vessel while inflicting the least amount of damage to her and her cargo.

The man chosen as captain, however, acquired few privileges.  According to The General History of the Pyrates, Bartholomew Roberts became captain “on Condition, that they [the pirates] may be Captain over him; they separate to his Use the great Cabin, and sometimes vote him small Parcels of Plate and China…but then every Man, as the Humour takes him, will use the Plate and China, intrude into his Apartment, swear at him, seize a Part of his Victuals and Drink, if they like it, without his offering to find Fault or contest it.”  The captain did, however, receive the greatest shares of captured treasure.

Sea battleThe only time the pirates heeded the captain’s orders without question occurred during the pursuit and taking of a prize or in evading capture.  “The Captain’s Power is uncontroulable in Chase, or in Battle, drubbing, cutting, or even shooting any one who dares deny his Command.”(Defoe)  Walter Kennedy, one of Bartholomew Roberts’s lieutenants, concurred during his trial at Old Bailey in London in 1721.  “They choose a captain from amongs themselves, who in effect held little more than that title, excepting in an engagement, when he commanded absolutely and without control.”(Botting)  At all other times, the captain heeded the wishes of his crew.

If pirates deemed their captain incompetent, a coward, extremely cruel, too lenient, tyrannical, or unlucky, they kicked him out and elected someone else to lead them.  One pirate ship had thirteen successive captains in the space of only a few months.  In January 1681, the pirates aboard Sharp’s vessel deposed him after enduring several weeks of stormy seas and dire hardships.  They replaced him with John Watling, a former privateer and veteran sailor.  When he was killed during an attack on a coastal fort three weeks later, though, Sharp persuaded his fellow pirates to reelect him as captain.

The Quartermaster

Boarding pirateCaptain William Snelgrave, a prisoner of pirates, described the quartermaster as having “the general Inspection of all Affairs, and often controuls the Captain’s Orders: This Person is also to be the first Man in boarding any Ship they shall attack…”(Rediker)  Often the most trusted member of the crew, he mediated arguments between pirates, selected members of the boarding party, oversaw captured booty, kept an accounting of and disbursed each man’s share of the treasure and any food and drink taken, and took command of any prize the pirates opted to keep for themselves.  Calico Jack Rackham was a quartermaster before he became a pirate captain.

Like every other officer, the quartermaster was elected to the position.  He was akin to a sheriff, maintaining the peace.  “If they disobey his Command, are quarrelsome and mutinous with one another, misuse Prisoners, plunder beyond his Order, and in particular, if they be negligent of their Arms, which he musters at Discretion, he punishes at his own Arbitrement, with drubbing or whipping, which no one else dare do without incurring the Lash from the Ship’s Company…”(Defoe)  He possessed the authority to punish minor infractions of the Code of Conduct, but only the pirate council decided the fate of those who committed serious offenses.  Although he could flog a pirate, he usually did not unless he had the council’s blessing.

TreasureThe quartermaster often possessed some education.  Since he had to keep track of the booty and who earned what amount, at the very least he needed to know how to count and write.


Other Positions

Pirate ships sometimes had additional officers, some of which were elected and others the captain or quartermaster chose.  A few crews had a lieutenant, but unlike his naval counterpart, he had no specific function other than to assume command if the captain was killed.  Pirates did, however, have first and second mates.  The sailing master oversaw navigation and the setting of sails.  The boatswain maintained the ship, supervised the day-to-day work aboard the ship, and oversaw the dispersal of food and drink.

GunnerThe gunner (or master gunner) was essential aboard any pirate ship.  He possessed the skills needed to employ the guns to their best efficiency when capturing prizes and warding off attacks.  He cared for the guns, controlled the ordnance, trained the pirates who worked the guns, and commanded these gun crews during battle.

Wooden ships required constant maintenance, so carpenters were also important members of the crew.  If no one possessed carpentry skills, the pirates might force a man from a captured prize to join their ranks to fulfill those duties.  Carpenters built furniture and masts and made repairs to the ship.  When the pirate ship lacked a surgeon, the carpenter fulfilled those duties because the two used similar tools.

Another crewmember was the cook, although he needn’t possess any skills in this quarter.  Often, he was an older member of the crew or one with a disability.

Injured pirateSurgeons were in short supply, but essential aboard a pirate ship.  Oftentimes, pirates acquired a surgeon through force.  He treated diseases as best as he could, mended injuries, dressed wounds, and amputated limbs.  The pirates might also consult with him as to whether food was fit to eat or not.  The best known of the pirate surgeons was Alexander Exquemelin, who wrote about his adventures in Buccaneers of America.  He served under Sir Henry Morgan, as did Richard Browne.  Lionel Wafer, another surgeon chronicler, served aboard pirate ships captained by Edmund Cook, Edward Davis, and John Hingson.  Bartholomew Sharp’s surgeons were Mr. Bullock, Peter Seudamore, and George Wilson.  Thomas Dover sailed with Woodes Rogers, and later became the captain of the Bachelor.  Samuel Bellamy’s surgeon was James Ferguson.

Equally prized among pirates were musicians.  They entertained and played during battles, in part to encourage their mates and in part to demoralize their prey.  Often, musicians aboard captured vessels found themselves forced to join the pirate crews.

As in most facets of their lives, pirates safeguarded themselves from the less appealing features of ordinary society.  They elected their officers rather than having someone else appoint them.  They limited the authority of the captain and added a representative, the quartermaster, to stand up for each member of the crew, thus negating the potential of overbearing or autocratic officers dictating their lives.  Pirates abolished the policy of class distinctions.  Each pirate was equal to every other pirate, and each pirate had a say in all matters of importance.


For more information, I suggest the following:

Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. 1978.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. 1995.

Damashi of Tora. “Fun Facts about Quartermasters,” No Quarter Given. January 2003.
Defoe, Daniel. The General History of the Pyrates. 1999.

Lampe, Christine Markel. “Surgeons in the Sweet Trade,” No Quarter Given. July 1999.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. 2004

Stewart, Wesley. “Sea-Going Surgeons,” No Quarter Given. July 1999.


© 2005 Cindy Vallar

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