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Pirates had “democratic” ways

Feb. 22, 2008
World Science staff

Pi­rates, like gang­sters and oth­er col­or­ful out­laws, have al­ways held a cer­tain ro­man­tic ap­peal for many. Three cen­turies af­ter pi­ra­cy’s “gold­en age,” tales of these sea­go­ing ban­dits still cap­ture ima­gina­t­ions.

But could pi­rates have al­so offered models of de­moc­ra­tic, con­sti­tu­tion­al go­vern­ment?

Sur­pris­ing­ly, that’s not very far from the truth, a new study sug­gests. Al­though real-life pi­racy was and is a vi­cious form of or­gan­ized crime, the study found that pi­rates in that era some­how over­came their viler in­stincts to rule them­selves ef­fect­ive­ly through mini-de­mo­cracies.

The cap­ture of the pi­rate Black­beard, 1718 by Jean Le­on Gerome Fer­ris (1863–1930)


“Pi­rates could and did dem­o­crat­ic­ally elect their cap­tains,” writes the author, eco­nom­ist Pe­ter Lee­son of George Ma­son Uni­ver­s­ity in Vir­gin­ia. In fact, he adds, pi­rates were bet­ter off in this re­spect than the crews of the mer­chant ships they plund­ered. Those men la­bored under un­elect­ed, dic­ta­tor­ial and some­times se­vere­ly ab­us­ive cap­tains.

His­to­ri­cal sources also sug­gest pi­rates tended to be scru­pu­lously fair to each oth­er, Lee­son adds.

Lee­son ascribes these dif­fer­ences in the re­gimes on dif­fer­ent types of ships to dis­tinct sets of in­cen­tives in the situa­t­ions, not to the mor­als of the peo­ple in­volved.

Lee­son pored over old, of­ten en­ter­tain­ing rec­ords of pi­rate tri­als to un­der­stand pi­rate self-go­vernance through the ban­dits’ own words. The study adds to a small body of re­search ex­am­in­ing the po­lit­i­cal struc­tures of crim­i­nal or­gan­iz­a­tions, Lee­son said. 

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, when pi­rates were at their strongest, they were “a loose con­federa­t­ion of mar­i­time ban­dits” whose num­bers ex­plod­ed along with the trade to the far-flung col­o­nies, Lee­son wrote. Be­cause pi­ra­cy was a cap­i­tal crime, he wrote, it was risky busi­ness—and in­creas­ingly so, as the Brit­ish crown be­came more suc­cess­ful at catch­ing pi­rates. The hang­ings that re­sulted were a reg­u­lar af­fair by the late 1700s. 

But a ca­reer steal­ing valu­ables from oth­er ships could al­so be a luc­ra­tive one. The ques­tion arises: how did gangs of thugs man­age to share these prof­its with­out cheat­ing or kill­ing each oth­er?

Pirates found a solution in dem­o­crat­ic-style in­sti­tu­tions, Lee­son wrote in his stu­dy, which ap­pears in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the Jour­nal of Po­lit­i­cal Econ­o­my. Part of this so­lu­tion involved “separa­t­ion of pow­er,” he wrote, a prin­ci­ple al­so key to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion: di­vid­ing pow­er among se­pa­rate auth­ori­ties to pre­vent any one get­ting too much. The pi­rates did this dec­ades be­fore the Amer­i­can and French rev­o­lu­tions en­shrined those ideas in mod­ern West­ern gov­ern­ments, Lee­son added.

Pi­rates did make use of all-pow­er­ful cap­tains when they needed to, he wrote: when a pi­rate ship was in­volved in a hos­tile en­coun­ter, the cap­tain wielded ab­so­lute au­thor­ity, to avoid de­ci­sion­mak­ing de­lays. 

But for oth­er situa­t­ions, Lee­son wrote, pi­rates in­stalled of­fi­cers be­sides the cap­tain to han­dle key de­ci­sions. This was part of their “in­dus­tri­ous” ef­forts to “avoid put­ting too much pow­er in­to the hands of one Man,” as Lee­son quo­ted one pi­rate say­ing. Fore­most among these oth­er offi­cers was the quar­ter­mas­ter, who oversaw the ship’s food dis­tri­bu­tion and gen­er­al or­der, Lee­son wrote—two ar­eas of au­thor­ity no­to­ri­ously sub­ject to abuse by reg­u­lar cap­tains. Put­ting these de­ci­sions out­side the cap­tain’s hands was in­tend­ed pre­cisely to avoid that, he wrote. The quar­ter­mas­ter al­so oversaw di­vi­sion of boo­ty.

Pi­rates al­so en­tered in­to an agree­ment called the chasse-partie that dic­tated the di­vi­sion of boo­ty, ac­cord­ing to Lee­son. In ad­di­tion, they drew up “con­sti­tu­tions” for a voy­age, most of which were in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized as the “Cus­tom of the Coast” or the “Ja­maica Dis­ci­pline” and which were usu­ally fol­lowed scru­pu­lously. These co­vered all as­pects of gov­ern­ment and life on board.

Self-gov­ern­ment was not for mer­chant ships, Lee­son wrote. These were usu­ally owned by some­one on land, who faced the prob­lem of en­sur­ing that wor­k­ers far from his watch didn’t slack off or steal. The typ­i­cal so­lu­tion was to ap­point a cap­tain with two char­ac­ter­is­tics: some per­son­al in­vest­ment in the ven­ture, and the pow­er to fright­en the day­lights out of would-be shirk­ers. Brit­ish law backed up cap­tains’ ab­so­lute au­thor­ity, in­clud­ing the right to phys­ic­ally pun­ish sailors at will, Lee­son wrote.

Pirates faced a dif­fer­ent set of in­cen­tives than mer­chant sea­men, Lee­son argued, for one sim­ple rea­son: “pi­rates did not ac­quire their ships le­git­i­mately. They stole them.” With­out be­ing re­spon­si­ble to a land-based ship­own­er, pi­rates were rel­a­tively free, and used that free­dom to en­sure cap­tains did­n’t abuse or cheat them. 

Many pi­rates were ac­tu­ally form­er le­git­i­mate-ship crew­men who had walked away from cap­tain­ly abuse, and were keen not re­peat the ex­pe­ri­ence, Lee­son wrote. “Most of them hav­ing suf­fered form­erly from the ill-treatment of Of­fi­cers, [they] pro­vid­ed thus care­fully against any such Evil now they had the choice in them­selves,” Lee­son quot­ed the pi­rate Wal­ter Ken­ne­dy as tes­ti­fy­ing at his tri­al.

Al­though pun­ishments for er­rant sailors could be bru­tal on pi­rate ships as well, Lee­son added, they were cod­i­fied and, for larg­er in­frac­tions, sub­ject to crewmem­bers’ vote.

The way Lee­son de­scribes it, these im­pres­sive or­gan­iz­a­tional achieve­ments seem to have pen­e­trated right in­to the spir­it of pi­rates, af­fect­ing their whole way of do­ing things. Lee­son quot­ed his­tor­i­cal sources in­di­cat­ing that pi­rates showed a lev­el of mu­tu­al fair­ness, hard work and “pride in do­ing things right” sel­dom seen on le­git­i­mate ships. 

“Though it is strange to think about such or­der pre­vail­ing among pi­rates,” Lee­son wrote, there was a sim­ple rea­son for it: they had little choice, as suc­cess de­pended on it. That ex­plana­t­ion is noth­ing new, as Lee­son point­ed out—con­tem­po­rary writ­ings note the same irony, and the same ex­plana­t­ion.

Mod­ern pi­ra­cy is rath­er dif­fer­ent, Lee­son wrote, and not only be­cause be­cause the ships are no long­er tall and grand. Mainly land-based and short-term in its com­mit­ments, he said, pi­ra­cy no long­er re­quires the same sort of or­gan­iz­a­tion as be­fore. If pi­rates ever had at least one thing that was gold­en to of­fer, it would seem that is no more.


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Pirates, like gangsters and other colorful outlaws, have always held a certain romantic appeal. Three centuries after pirates’ “golden age,” their tales of old still capture the public imagination. But could pirates have also been exemplars of democracy? Basically a form of organized crime, piracy also had its own rather democratic, impressively stable forms of government, according to the economist Peter Leeson of George Mason University in Virginia. “Pirates could and did democratically elect their captains,” Leeson writes in a new study. Indeed, he continues, pirates were better off in this respect than merchant ship sailors, who were subject to an absolute and often brutal authority on board. Moreover, Leeson adds, historians record that most pirates were scrupulously fair to each other. Leeson chalks up these differences in life on pirate ships and legitimate ships to distinct sets of incentives in the two situations, not to the morals of those involved. Pirates were certainly a vicious bunch, known to kill and torture those who resisted their robberies. Leeson pored over old, often entertaining records of pirate trials to understand pirate self-governance through the bandits’ own words. The study adds to a small body of research examining the political structures of criminal organizations, Leeson said. During piracy’s late-17th to early-18th century heyday, when pirates were at their strongest, they “formed a loose confederation of maritime bandits” whose numbers exploded along with the growing trade to the far-flung colonies, Leeson wrote. Because piracy was a capital crime, he said, it was risky business—and increasingly so, as the British crown became more successful at catching pirates. The resulting hangings were a regular affair by the late 1700s. But a career stealing valuables from other ships could also be a lucrative one. It’s not obvious how bands of criminals found it in themselves to share these resources without cheating or killing each other. Pirates developed democratic-style institutions largely to prevent this sort of “internal predation,” Leeson found in his study, which appears appear in the December issue of the Journal of Political Economy. Part of the pirate solution was a system of “separation of power,” he wrote, a principle also key to the U.S. Constitution: dividing authority among different institutions to prevent any one getting too much. The pirates did this decades before the American and French revolutions enshrined those ideas in modern Western governments, Leeson added. Pirates did made use of all-powerful captains when they needed to, he wrote: when a pirate ship was involved in a hostile encounter, the captain wielded absolute authority to avoid decisionmaking delays. But for other situations, Leeson wrote, pirates installed officers besides the captain to handle key decisions. This was part of their “industrious” efforts to “avoid putting too much power into the hands of one Man,” as one pirate put it in the records. Among these other pirate officers, foremost was the quartermaster, who oversaw the shp’s food distribution and general order, Leeson wrote—two areas of authority notoriously subject to abuse by regular captains. Putting these decisions outside the captain’s hands was intended precisely to avoid that, he wrote. The quartermaster also oversaw division of booty. Pirates also entered into an agreement called the chasse-partie that dictated the division of booty, according to Leeson. In addition, they drew up “constitutions” for a voyage, most of which were institutionalized as the “Custom of the Coast” or the “Jamaica Discipline” and which were usually followed scrupulously. These covered all aspects of government, and life aboard a ship “for the better Conservation of their Society, and doing Justice to one another.” Leeson reproduces one of these documents in his paper. Even a court that stood in judgment gave the pirates the backhanded compliment that they were “wickedly united, articled together,” Leeson noted. Self-government was not for merchant ships. These were usually owned by someone on land, who faced the problem of ensuring that jobs got done far from his watch. The typical solution was to appoint a captain with two characteristics: first, some personal investment in the venture; and second, the power to frighten the daylights out of insubordinate or lazy sailors. British law backed up captains’ absolute authority, including the right to physically punish sailors at will. The incentive structure on a pirate ship was different, Leeson wrote, for one simple reason: “pirates did not acquire their ships legitimately. They stole them.” Without being responsible to a land-based shipowner, pirates were relatively free, and used that freedom to ensure captains didn’t abuse or cheat them. Many pirates were actually former legitimate-ship crewmen who had walked away from the abuse, and thus were keenly aware of the need to avoid it, Leeson wrote. “Most of them having suffered formerly from the ill-treatment of Officers, [they] provided thus carefully against any such Evil now they had the choice in themselves,” Leeson quoted the pirate pirate Walter Kennedy as testifying at his trial. Although punishments for errant sailors could be cruel on pirate ships, Leeson added, they were codified and, for larger infractions, subject to crewmembers’ vote. The way Leeson describes it, it seems these impressive organizational achievements seem to have penetrated right into the spirit of pirates, affecting their whole way of doing things. Leeson quoted historical sources indicating that pirates showed a level of mutual fairness, hard work and “pride in doing things right” rarely seen on legitimate ships. “Though it is strange to think about such order prevailing among pirates,” Leeson wrote, there was a simple explanation: they had no choice. That explanation is nothing new, as Leeson wrote—contemporary writings also note the irony, and offer the same reason. Modern piracy is rather different, Leeson wrote, and not only because because the ships are no longer tall and grand. Mainly land-based and short-term in its commitments, he said, piracy no longer requires the same sort of organization as before. If pirates once had at least something golden to offer the world, it would seem that is no more.