Not the Greatest Villains Then Living in the World

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The other week, The New Yorker published an excellent article by Caleb Crain about the peculiar economics and politics of life aboard a pirate ship in the 17th and 18th centuries. When the captain of an English slave ship was captured by pirates in 1719, his crew begged the pirates to spare his life, since they “never were with a better man.” Thus he lived to tell the tale (and write it up). He was puzzled and intrigued by their strange ways:

The pirates indulged themselves immoderately — literally washing the decks with claret and brandy — yet they declined to take luxury seriously; one called [the former captain’s] gold watch “a pretty Foot-ball” and gave it a kick. They insisted that their true motive was not greed but justice. One pirate captain asserted that “their Reasons for going a pirating were to revenge themselves on base Merchants, and cruel Commanders of Ships.” Moreover, the pirate captains had almost no special privileges, and slept on deck like their men, not in beds. Pirate life seemed a medley of indulgence and strict equity, mockery and idealism, anarchy and discipline. [The former captain] regretted that his observations of them were “not so coherent as I could wish,” and could not decide what they added up to.

What if they added up to a picture of working-class heroes?

It turns out that when you joined a pirate ship, you had to agree to a contract known as the Articles of Piracy, which was drawn up by the captain and differed from ship to ship:

Because criminal agreements have no legal force, it’s tempting to think of pirate articles as quaint… Leeson is at pains to show the articles as a rational choice, enabling pirates to create a voluntary association that was stable and orderly. By setting terms in advance, punishing embezzlement harshly, and keeping the pay gap between captain and men low, the articles reduced conflict over property claims. By limiting drinking and requiring clean weapons, they curbed individual behaviors that might otherwise have damaged the crew’s fighting ability. And by rewarding special achievements and providing health insurance they encouraged enthusiasm and risk-taking. The results were impressive. “As great robbers as they are to all besides,” a sea cook observed in 1709, they “are precisely just among themselves.”

At the end, Crain draws some parallels between the pirates of Caribbean legend and modern Somalian pirates — and their relation to the investment bankers of their respective ages:

In several ways, Somalia’s contemporary pirates resemble those of three centuries ago. Violent and dangerous, they nonetheless are careful not to hurt coöperative hostages; they look to piracy to take them from poverty to a life of leisure; they have been known to regulate their own behavior with written rules; and they believe that their cause is just. The timing of their end, too, will probably be similar, coming whenever a major power decides that a crackdown costs less than the nuisance.

Are pirates socialists or capitalists? Lately, it’s become hard to tell the categories apart. Toward the end of his book, Leeson suggests that pirate self-governance proves that companies can regulate themselves better than governments can, as if he sees the pirate ship as a prototype of the modern corporation, sailing through treacherously liberal waters. Such arguments haven’t aged well over the past year, but even in piracy’s golden age people were aware that an unregulated marketplace invites predators. During the South Sea Bubble of 1720, speculators claiming to be able to make wealth out of debt fleeced British investors and ruined many banks. Pirates who spent that year killing and plundering, Nathaniel Mist grumpily wrote, could salve their guilty consciences, if they had any: “Whatever Robberies they had committed, they might be pretty sure they were not the greatest Villains then living in the World.”

Here’s another link to the full article.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →