Pirate’s Agreement

Did you know pirates had a compensation package for injuries, profit sharing and equal voting rights? Below is an excerpt from Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson.

Pirate’s AgreementPirate Hunter's

BEFORE EVERY VOYAGE, PIRATES gathered together to commit an unthinkable act: They made every crewman an equal. From the greenest of lookouts to the captain himself, no one would own rights over any other or possess privileges unavailable to all. The men would eat the same meals, earn similar wages, share the same quarters. The captain would exercise absolute authority only in battle; at other times, he would guide the ship according to the pleasure of the crew.

And that was just the start of the madness.

Having made everyone equal, the pirates now put almost everything to a vote. To choose where to stalk prey, they voted. To decide whether to attack a target, they voted. To determine the rules of the ship, the punishment for wrongdoers, division of booty, to maroon or shoot traitors, they voted. And every man’s vote counted the same.

One might have expected these men, who lived lawless lives in the shadow of gallows, to cast their ballots in unpredictable ways. Yet, time and again through the decades that spanned their Golden Age, the pirates seemed to vote exactly alike. Mattera could see the patterns right away. Using his orange highlighter, he began underlining rules that seemed to govern every pirate ship that sailed in the era:

  • Captains were to earn no more than two or three times that of the lowliest deckhand.
  • Every man was to have an equal share of food, liquor, and other provisions.
  • Battle injuries would be compensated according to body part. On one pirate ship, damages were paid as follows:
Lost right arm 600 pieces of silver or six slaves
Lost left arm 500 pieces of silver or five slaves
Lost right leg 500 pieces of silver or five slaves
Lost left leg 400 pieces of silver or four slaves
Lost eye (either one) 100 pieces of silver or one slave
Lost finger 100 pieces of silver or one slave
Internal injury up to 500 pieces of silver or five slaves
Lost hook or peg leg Same as if original limb was lost
  • Anyone caught stealing from the ship’s plunder would be punished, including by being marooned on an uninhabited island.
  • Anyone caught cheating another crewman would have his ears and nose slashed by the aggrieved party, then turned out at the next port.
  • No women were allowed on board. Anyone sneaking a woman onto the ship would be killed.
  • Disputes between crewmen would be settled onshore by duel.
  • Bonuses would be awarded for courage in combat, the sighting of prey, boarding a target ship first, and other heroics.
  • Punishments would be inflicted for cowardice, drunkenness, insolence, disobedience, rape, and any other action that undermined the ship’s primary purpose-to steal.
  • Any unsettled issues would be put to a vote.
  • Every man’s vote carried equal weight.
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