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.


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