Pirates were born in ancient times, on the day man first loaded cargo onto ships—or maybe the day before. They came from Greece and Rome, China and North Africa, and almost every other country on the map—bandits of a thousand eras who sailed with a single purpose: to steal everything they could from ships too lightly defended, or too terrified, to fight.
The mid-seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century was known as the Golden Age of Piracy. It was these men who swashbuckled and plundered in the books and movies of generations, and who haunted and thrilled the dreams of youngsters.
Many countries considered the pirates to be the “scourge of mankind.” In a letter to the secretary of state, one English witness wrote: “It is a common thing among the privateers . . . to cut a man in pieces, first some flesh, then a hand, an arm, a leg, sometimes tying a cord about his head, and with a stick twisting it until the eyes shoot out, which is called woolding.”
Yet 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 also 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. There were 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 on shore 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, drunken- ness, 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.
The captain served at the pleasure of his crew. He was elected by popular vote and could be deposed by the same. If he were too lenient or too cruel, too aggressive or too passive, if he refused to be guided by the will of the ship, he was out and might be punished, even marooned, for his failures. And this was true even if he owned the ship.
The votes, the equality, the absence of kings—this was democracy, a century before the concept took hold in the United States.