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.
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.