Daily Archives: 14 December 2006

Pirate Communes in the Late 1600s

The buccaneers are better documented than the pirates of the early seventeenth century, there being several surviving books and journals written by people who had themselves sailed with them, such as the buccaneer surgeon Alexander Exquemelin and the great navigator and travel writer William Dampier, as well as much comment from their captives and by observers ashore, especially the French who were fascinated by these early denizens of their West Indian colonies. This material shows that there had been several interesting developments in pirate customs and mentality. What has most intrigued the modern observer is the evidence of a degree of democracy and egalitarianism which ran quite counter to the norm anywhere else in the late seventeenth-century world. This is perhaps most striking among the true hunting buccaneers, a community of exiles who scorned the laws of all nations but honoured their own rules, ‘the custom of the coast’, and were so determined to forget the social hierarchy of the outside world that it was forbidden to speak of a man’s origins, and surnames which might have given those origins away were replaced by noms de guerre or nicknames.

The privateers did not go so far as this, but they were still remarkably egalitarian by the standards of their day. They respected the governments of Jamaica and Tortuga from which they drew their commissions and were prepared to pay a share of their prizes for the right to operate from these safe ports, just as the corsairs of the Mediterranean did. They were also sufficiently capitalistic in their mentality to recognise the rights of the owners of their vessels, most of which were owned and fitted out by investors ashore. But they did this with reluctance and the Jamaican privateers were notorious for cheating the owners of their ships, refusing to count as spoil to be shared with investors much that would have been shared by a privateer operating from a European port. Significantly, this included the goods, money and slaves seized in raids ashore, their most important source of booty, but they also had a very liberal interpretation of what was known as ‘free enterrance and plunder’, goods seized from a prize at sea and divided at the mast before the privateer returned to port? And, once they had become out-and-out pirates, as most of them had by the 1680s, they of course no longer recognised owners at all and shared everything among themselves.

This share was ‘a very exact and equal dividend’, ‘man for man’, with the exception that boys got half a share and slaves got nothing, for the buccaneers were not so egalitarian that they would forgo the opportunity to retain ‘negroes to do our work’, as one of them noted in the journal he kept of his voyage. Captains and other senior officers got more than a man, but not very much more, ‘five or six portions’ for a captain according to one account, ‘a double lot’ according to another, while the French missionary Jean-Baptiste Labat reported that even this was not a right but ‘a gift which is given them by the rest of the crew’? There were also arrangements for compensation for those who had been wounded or maimed, such as 500 pieces of eight (about £100) or five slaves for the loss of an arm or a leg, slightly more if it should be the right arm or leg, and 100 pieces of eight or one slave for an eye or a finger, while one account says that ‘if a man has a wooden leg or a hook for his arm and these happen to be destroyed, he receives the same amount as if they were his original limbs’. Extra payments were also made to those who first sighted a ship later taken, the first to board or the first to storm a fortification, rewards for the sharp-eyed and the brave which were very similar to those accorded by the ‘Custom of the Corsairs’ in the Mediterranean.

The management of a privateer ship was as egalitarian as its division of prizes. Captains were chosen by the vote or acclamation of their men, and articles of association or chasse parties were agreed between captains and crew. In Morgan‘s time the crew elected two representatives to speak for them, but later there evolved an elected officer whose function was to speak on the men’s behalf, to see that they were treated correctly and that the division of booty was really equal. This was the quartermaster, described by Dampier as ‘the second place in the ship, according to the Law of Privateers’, though a minor office on a merchant ship, and this was a position that the quartermaster would retain among the pirates of the early eighteenth century. Consultations in which decisions on the next move would be made by majority vote were frequent, every day according to one account, and there were also meetings to determine collective codes of behaviour, as on the occasion recorded by the French buccaneer Raveneau de Lussan in his journal. ‘We then drew up regulations condemning anyone to forfeit his share of our loot if convicted of cowardliness, rape, drunkenness, disobedience, larceny, and failure to obey orders.’ Both ships and men were free to opt out if they so wished, a ship by the collective vote of the men and a man by his own choice. ‘Privateers are not obliged to any ship,’ wrote William Dampier, ‘but free to go ashore where they please, or to go into any other ship that will entertain them,’ a freedom which would certainly not have been accorded by the rules of later pirates who bound a man to the ship once he had joined, whether willingly or unwillingly.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 100-102

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