The Pirate Code


The Pirate Code – Article I

“Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment.  He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized, and shall use them at pleasure unless a scarcity may make it necessary for the common good that a retrenchment may be voted.”


The celebrated pirate, Thomas Tew, along with his friends Captain James Misson and an Italian Dominican priest named Caraccioli, founded the legendary pirate haven, Libertalia. According to Captain Charles Johnson’s book, A General History of the Pyrates,  Libertalia was situated on a remote area of Madagascar. Here, pirates, ex-slaves, and other outcasts from society supposedly lived a life of ease in harmony with nature and each other.  Most believe this to be an utter fabrication; however, there is evidence that pirate communities did exist and were organized and operated in a comparatively democratic style.

The Pirate Code – Article III

“None shall game for money either with dice or cards.”

On a pirate ship, the captain and his second-in command, the quartermaster, were generally duly elected.  The treasures were divided according to their rank.  They even had a social net to compensate for disability sustained in action.  A loss of an arm qualified for 600 pieces of eight, while the loss of an eye was valued at 100, and so on.

The Pirate Code – Article IXA Pirate Ship

“No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living till each has a share of 1,000.  Every man who shall become a cripple or lose a limb in the service shall have 800 pieces of eight from the common stock for lesser hurts proportionately.”

Pirate recruits, whether willing or not, were required to sign their name or make their mark, as a sign of allegiance and loyalty to their captain. Once signed, the pirate was given a vote as well as a set of rules to follow. Many of these pirate codes were lost when pirates, on the threshold of capture, destroyed them knowing they would be used as evidence against them.  The most famous code was written by Bartholomew Roberts in 1721, which has eleven articles, four of which are included in this post.

The Pirate Code – Article XI

“The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day only by right.  On all other days by favour only.”

Bartholomew Roberts, 1721


Even pirates had need of music.


The Buccaneers


“Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” 
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island


Buccaneers, the very name conjures up visions of daring feats and bold adventures. These were men who attacked the treasure-laden Spanish ships in the Caribbean during the 17 century. Yet, buccaneers had their own rather unusual history.  When Spanish residents moved from the north-eastern coast of Hispaniola in 1605, they left all their livestock behind.  Before long, huge herds of pigs, goats and cattle roamed the countryside attracting hunters. A small group of Arawak Indians taught these hunters how to cure strips of meat over a wooden grate called a boucan. The word became bourcanier in French and eventually buccaneers in English.  Most buccaneers called themselves privateers; indeed, some did sail under the protection of a letter of marque granted by British, French or Dutch authorities.  However, most had little concern over trivial legal matters.

Sir Henry MorganThe Welshman, Henry Morgan, was one of the most successful pirates of the 17th century.  He had the protection of the British government which gave him carte blanche to make raids at his discretion. He amassed enormous personal wealth and lived a life of roguish escapades.  For his efforts, Charles II rewarded him with a knighthood and the title of Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.  Even so, the tides were turning against Sir Henry Morgan. Reports of his unsavoury brutality were spread abroad, but he adamantly maintained they were vicious rumours. He even sued a publisher for suggesting that he was an uncivilized, ordinary pirate.  His last days were anything but an adventure. The life of a dignitary was boring and not to his liking.

With Henry Morgan’s passing, Captain William Kidd took over his mantle as the world’s most infamous pirate. Born in Scotland, 1645, there is evidence to suggest he was the son of a Presbyterian minister.  Captain Kidd will be always remembered as the pirate with a map and buried treasure.  A pirate’s life was uncertain.  There were twists and turns, betrayals and treachery. Captain Kidd was tried as a common thief and suffered the fate of a pirate’s end.  Even now, many believe that he was unfairly treated.

Piracy is a risky business, with endings that may not be foreseen at the beginning of the adventure.

 “It’s better to swim in the sea below
Than to swing in the air and feed the crow,
Says jolly Ned Teach of Bristol.”

Benjamin Franklin on Blackbeard, the Pirate

The Legend of a Lady


“She knew that this was happiness, this was living as she had always wished to live.”
 Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

 Safe Harbour

The setting: Cornwall, England in the 16th century.

The players: Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew

The plot:  Lady Elizabeth vs. Queen Elizabeth I

The Killigrews were rich members of the English aristocracy.  In their spare time, they were pirates who used their distinctive coastal location to operate as outlaws.  From their prestigious home, Arwenack House, which overlooked Falmouth Harbour, Sir John directed fleets of pirates. Even Queen Elizabeth I kept her distance, turning a blind eye to their family business on the condition that they never bothered anyone who had her ear.

The Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, was caught in a tempestuous gale one fateful day in 1581.  The crew barely managed to navigate the ship to safety in Falmouth harbour.  The Killigrews, observing the storm battered ship, rushed to their assistance.  They magnanimously offered the captain and his first mate all the comforts of their home.  Indulged by Lady Elizabeth’s hospitality, the captain decided to prolong their stay for a few days.

Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth was assessing the ship and its contents to determine whether it was worth looting. Yes indeed, it was!  She set her plan into action.  One evening, while Sir John entertained their guests, Lady Elizabeth rounded up her staff, which doubled as her pirate crew, and led them down a secret tunnel that connected the house to the shore.  The noise of the gale force winds allowed them to take the ship and unload the cargo.  Lady Elizabeth returned home while her pirates sailed the ship out of sight.   The operation took less than two hours. The Spaniards suspected the Killigrews, but no one could prove anything.  The Queen overlooked this episode.

The Queen did not overlook the 1582 incident, however, involving the German merchant ship loaded with gold, silver, and jewels.  Lady Elizabeth could not resist the temptation.  How was she to know that the Germans had close ties to Queen Elizabeth I?  The fury of a Queen came down on Lady Elizabeth.  Alas, she was to be hanged.

There is a happy ending.  The Queen changed her mind.  The sentence was changed to imprisonment.  And before long, Lady Elizabeth was set free.  She rejoined her husband at Arwenack House. Whether they continued their pirate ways, is unknown.  One thing is certain; her legend still lives on… 

“This is our day, our moment, the sun belongs to us, and the wind, and the sea, and the men for’ard there singing on the deck. This day is forever a day to be held and cherished, because in it we shall have lived, and loved, and nothing else matters but that in this world of our own making to which we have escaped.”
Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

All The Queen’s Men


“If England had not used the services of privateers and pirates during its long struggle with Spain, there is some likelihood that people today in North America would be speaking Spanish rather than English.” 
Robert Earl Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate

A Ship

They were called the “Sea Dogs.”

Queen Elizabeth I was surrounded by dynamic, brilliant, intrepid and creative men.  They were her privateers, independent, but used as an auxiliary navy to plunder Spanish ships. If the Spanish took exception, the Queen could deny that she had any hand in the mischief.

Sir John Hawkins, the leader of the Sea Dogs, engaged with the Spanish ships in the Caribbean. His résumé included slave-trading pioneer, treasure-hunting pirate, high-ranking naval commander, spy and war hero.  He reformed the navy and improved the pay and conditions for sailors.

Sir Francis Drake, sea captain, slaver, and politician, is usually remembered as a hero, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him with a knighthood.  He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588.  On the other side of the channel, the Spanish knew him as the ferocious pirate, El Draque – the Dragon.  Perhaps his greatest feat was to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Sir Walter Raleigh was destined to be one of the most celebrated figures in British history. A privateer, explorer, poet and favourite of the Queen, he was the first to attempt colonization in  North America.  He was unsuccessful, but his efforts opened the way for others to follow.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth I, peace was made with Spain.  The Sea Dogs continued their piratical activities on the Barbary Coast, to the embarrassment of the English Crown.  The time of the Privateers was coming to an end.  Once the force behind British imperialism and expansion, they became, in the end, a threat to national security.  As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil.”

“And what is the sea?” asked Will. 
“The sea!” cried the miller. “Lord help us all, it is the greatest thing God made!”
Robert Louis Stevenson


Letters of Marque


“The sun shines on me just the same as on the other; and I should like to see the clause in Adam’s will that cuts me out of my share in the New World!”

Francis I of France, 1494

 The Sail

Christopher Columbus may have been the discoverer of the New World in 1492, yet his previous employment was that of a pirate under the French flag, looting Venetian galleys that sailed from Lisbon to England.  His jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean opened the window to the riches of a freshly discovered continent.  In 1519, Hernán Cortés laid claim to the gold belonging to the Aztec Empire and packed it into three ships to take back to his king, Charles V of Spain.  His grandiose gesture was foiled near the Azores when his ships were attacked by French privateers under Jean Fleury of Honfleur.  It was Jean Ango of Dieppe, Fleury’s patron, not the court of Madrid, that was the first to share in the wealth of the New World.  To Spain’s chagrin, France said that since they were at war, the seizure was legitimate. After all, the licensing of armed private vessels, also known as privateers, was an internationally recognized and accepted practice.

With a letter of marque from their government, privateers were given permission to attack the ships of any other country.  It was a profitable partnership, in a high stakes game. France, Spain and England participated with enthusiastic expectation.  In reality, the privateer system worked only for a few, and was nothing more than a state-sanctioned form of piracy.  We all know their names from our school days, but behind their titles of “sir” were men who sought fame and fortune.  In the end, privateers were only pawns in the great chess game of a global power struggle. Perhaps we should leave the last word to Sir Francis Bacon, a famous critic of the privateer system.

“Money is a great servant but a bad master.” 
 Francis Bacon

A Merry Life, But Short


“In honest service, there are commonly low wages and hard labour; in this – plenty, satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power.  Who would not balance credit on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two on choking?  No, a merry life and a short one, that’s my motto.”

Bartholomew Roberts, Welsh Pirate, 1722


John Roberts, born in 1682 in Pembrokeshire Wales, went to sea at the young age of thirteen. By 1719, the year his life changed, he was third mate on the slave ship, Princess, under Captain Abraham Plumb.  The Princess was anchored at Anomabu, along the Gold Coast of West Africa (Ghana), when she was captured by two pirate vessels, the Royal Rover and the Royal James, led by Captain Howell Davis, a fellow Welshman.  John Roberts was forced into piracy, but soon recognized the benefits of his new position. In the merchant navy, his wage was less than £3 per month.

John Roberts had several advantages.  Besides being confident, outspoken and opinionated, he was an excellent navigator and a natural leader.  He understood Welsh, which allowed Captain Davis to speak with him in confidence. As fate would have it, a captaincy would be his within six weeks of his capture, when Captain Davis was ambushed and fatally wounded during a layover on the island of Principe off the coast of West Africa.

John Roberts, duly elected as the new captain, changed his name from John to Bartholomew.  Bravery and success earned the loyalty of his crew. Unlike other pirates, he planned his attacks in detail, disliked drunkenness (preferring tea over beer) and maintained absolute discipline on his ships.

On February 5, 1722, he met destiny, swiftly, by a broadside of grape-shot on his deck, in the heat of battle with two Royal Navy ships.  Tall, dark-haired, he wore his legendary red damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a diamond and gold necklace and ornamented pistols and swords.  When he fell, his crew wrapped his body in a ship’s sail, weighing it down before assigning their captain to the sea.

Black Bart, as he became known years after his passing, was the most successful pirate of the 17th century taking over 470 prizes in his three-year career.  He was legendary and considered invincible. His death shocked the Royal Navy and the pirate world, marking a tipping point in history.  Many believe his passing signaled the end to the Golden Age of Piracy.

“The defeat of Roberts and the subsequent eradication of piracy off the coast of Africa represented a turning point in the slave trade and even in the larger history of capitalism.”

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age