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The Pirates’ Code: Law and Life Aboard Ship

01 Aug 23


(Reaktion Books – £14.35)

ISBN 978 1 78914 711 7

304 pages

The ‘Pirates Code’ is repeatedly mentioned in the film the Pirates of the Caribbean as if its existence was an established fact. While it is difficult to think of pirates having a code, as historically they were violent murderous outlaws, a moment’s thought would lead to the realisation that ships, even pirate ships, can only function with a disciplined structure. In actuality, there was no single ’Pirates Code’, individual captains set out their ‘articles’ as an agreement between the captain and the ships’ company, always remembering that the captain was captain only with the continuing consent of his crew. These articles had to be signed on joining the ship. This became a fertile source for lawyers, having signed the articles made the signatory a pirate, and a lot of defences in court concerned the degree of compulsion.

The articles set out the basic governance of the vessel, the meat of this book, which in a series of chapters looks at every aspect of the pirate’s life. Despite the large numbers of independent operators, there were a large number of common features; including the manner of division of any booty, responsibilities of the crew, compensation for injury, etc. Most notably was the need for a majority of the ships company to agree to any punishment, indeed in some ways, ships appear to have functioned as democracies. There is even a chapter on Health and Safety! The latter is mainly concerned with health, pirates were very keen to have a doctor as a member of the crew, and articles often included what would now be termed compensation packages according to injury severity.

The ‘golden age’ of piracy (roughly, the first half of the 18th century) only happened because pirates had safe havens from which to operate, repair their ships and recuperate, and above all dispose of their ill-gotten gains. These havens extended well beyond the Caribbean; the author shows the extent to which some American colonies actively supported pirates, in part the result of there being three different kinds of American colonies. Royal colonies had crown appointed governors, while proprietary colonies, which were essentially business ventures, and charter colonies, which while using English law, established their own system of government. The first were hostile to pirates, the latter two tended to see them as business opportunities, to the extent that one governor of Rhode Island permitted and actually encouraged what was illegal trade with pirates, the city of Philadelphia traded supplies with the famous Captain Kidd and South Carolina provided provisions for pirates for cash.

Not surprisingly, a significant portion of the book deals with the legal aspects of piracy and its consequences. Initially, all pirates captured by British authorities were brought for trial in England, by the Admiralty Court. If guilty and sentenced to death, they were executed on Execution dock, being hanged below the high water mark and thus within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty Court (‘ordinary’ felons were hung at Tyburn). Interestingly, an appended ‘short list of pirates’, suggest that many escaped the rope.

While this is a work of scholarship with an extensive list of references and a 23 page bibliography, it is very readable and is strongly recommended to members of The Naval Review.