Pirate Code of Conduct and Pirate Rules

Since the start of the Age of Sail, crew members and the ship officers on merchant ships begun drafting various forms of “handshake deals” that governed various things concerning employment issues such as terms of conducts, job descriptions, payments, and share of wealth after especially successful trading trips or discoveries made during the naval trip. As the age of pirates started spreading from the Mediterranean, Northern/Baltic Sea and Chinese seas into an organized profession where scores of ships and hundreds upon hundreds of people began seeking wealth and glory as pirates, pirate crews started devising their forms of conduct that had to be followed. Pirate codes and rules became romanticized in the future decades and centuries after the height of Golden age of Pirates, but in their original form, they represented the crucial document that enabled many pirate crews to stay organized and operational.

The pirate code was popularized by the early Buccaneers (organized pirate fleets that attacked Spanish shipping and ports in the 17th century the Caribbean) under the names of Custom of the Coast, Jamaica Discipline, Charter Party, Chasse-Partie and its most commonly known form “Articles of Agreement”. To become the full member of the pirate crew, every willing person needed to sign their name on the document that detailed the rules of the particular ship, share of the plunder that each crew member will get, compensation for injuries, and the forms of punishment for disobedient crew members. During signing crew members were obliged to swear an oath of allegiance and honor, often by placing the hand on a Bible or a part of a weapon or ship (most common examples are swords, axes, crossed swords, a human skull or attack cannon). Once all new pirate members signed the pirate code, this paper was often posted in a prominent place on a ship where everyone could quickly get reminded of their oaths.

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In addition to the willing new recruits that pirate crews gathered in ports (and after naval boardings), unwilling members were sometimes forced into piracy. This happened mostly to the skilled artisans such as navigators and artisans that pirate crews were not willing to set free. The big point of controversy in new recruits surrounded the act of the signing of the Pirate Code article. Since authorities had zero mercy against pirates whose names they identified on pirate code article, some pirate members asked to be “forced to sign” so that they could claim innocence, while others just refused to sign their name and chose to leave identifying mark (such as the sign of the cross). Men who were caught on pirate ships had much better chance of surviving law trials when the authorities would ever catch them.

Out of so many pirate codes that were used on the seas during Golden Age of Piracy, only four surviving sets are preserved today. This low number of surviving articles can be traced back to the custom of burning or tossing the pirate code pages overboard when pirates felt threatened by authorities (usually near a surrender of a ship).

These are examples of pirate codes from “A General History of the Pyrates Book” by Charles Johnson.

  • 1. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity (not an uncommon thing among them) makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
  • 2. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.
  • 3. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
  • 4. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
  • 5. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.
  • 6. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death; (so that when any fell into their hands, as it chanced in the Onslow, they put a sentinel immediately over her to prevent ill consequences from so dangerous an instrument of division and quarrel; but then here lies the roguery; they contend who shall be sentinel, which happens generally to one of the greatest bullies, who, to secure the lady's virtue, will let none lie with her but himself.)
  • 7. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
  • 8. No striking one another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol. (The quarter-master of the ship, when the parties will not come to any reconciliation, accompanies them on shore with what assistance he thinks proper, and turns the disputant back to back, at so many paces distance; at the word of command, they turn and fire immediately, (or else the piece is knocked out of their hands). If both miss, they come to their cutlasses, and then he is declared the victor who draws the first blood.)
  • 9. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.
  • 10. The Captain and Quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and quarter.
  • 11. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.
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