By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
Most lawful ships had articles of governance, and pirate ships behaved similarly. Bartholomew Roberts’s supposed articles are printed in their entirety in A General History of the Pyrates, as a typical example. Even readers who have never seen pirate articles before will find their general principles familiar. Labor historians study them for the strains of democracy that they paradoxically seem to embrace.
Source for the Articles
The General History’s source for the articles is unclear. It’s entirely possible that they were invented or embellished. But the general outline is described often enough among Golden Age pirates, that they’re plausible enough. Similar articles are also described in the Buccaneers of America.
Here’s the first one:
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 makes it necessary for the good of all to vote a Retrenchment.
That is, the ship’s rules are to be decided upon democratically, and everyone has the same right as everyone else, including the captain and officers, to fresh food and drink.
That does seem pretty revolutionary compared to the notoriously horrible fair of common sailors. Scurvy killed far more men than warfare or shipwrecks in this era. However, it’s also worth remembering that ‘every man’ is misleading. Black men on board pirate ships were often servants or slaves.
Bartholomew Roberts—A Welshman, and one of the most famous and successful pirates—took some black men into his crew as free men, but he also enslaved others. Prisoners obviously had no vote. And Roberts’s crew also specifically excluded Irishman, as a symbol of their continued antipathy to the traitor Kennedy.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
All Men Get Their Share of Prizes Fairly
Article two begins with the follwoing:
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, Marooning was their punishment.
Marooning was a favorite threat among pirates, although certainly not the only one. The term evokes the experience of the refugee groups known as Maroons, who sometimes allied with pirates as well. Captain Charles Johnson, writer of A General History of the Pyrates, explains it to his readers as stranding the offender on a desolate island, “with a Gun, a few Shots, a Bottle of Water, and a Bottle of Powder.”
This is one of the few spots where the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, is pretty close to the record. Attempted desertion was also punished by marooning.
More importantly, what we note in Article 2 is that pirates expected an orderly, and equitable division of booty. This is one of the biggest differences between pirates and privateer emergent seamen. An equitable division of spoils was simply unthinkable in any other arrangement, nearly as much as a pirate’s right to vote for and speak against his captain.
No Gambling, No Women, and No Rest for the Musicians Aboard!
Other articles banned gambling aboard the ship, established bedtime at 8 pm, required that weapons be kept clean and ready, banned fighting on the ship but not on shore, and arranged hazard pay for men who were disabled as pirates.
Article 6 and 11 are worth mentioning too. Six famously stated, “No Boy or Woman to be allowed amongst them. If any Man were found seducing any of the latter Sex, and carry’d her to Sea disguised, he was to suffer Death.”
This was not because of Roberts’s tremendous respect for women, but because of the belief that sexual objects on board ships created strife and division. On shore and even on other ships, pirates participated in both consensual relationships and rape with avidity.
Article 11 notes, “The Musicians to have Rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other Six Days and Nights, none without special Favor.” Pirates loved their music, even the devilish Blackbeard reportedly had a captive trumpeter, a black man he kidnapped from a French merchant ship. So there may be some truth to the legend that Roberts advocated for a merry life and a short one. However, for the overworked musicians, it may not have seemed so merry.
Common Questions about the Rules and Articles of Bartholomew Roberts
The first article of Bartholomew Roberts implied that the ship’s rules were to be decided upon democratically, and everyone had the same right as everyone else, including the captain and officers, to fresh food and drink. However, this article didn’t seem to apply to all men, as black men on board pirate ships were often servants or slaves, and thus had no vote.
The sixth article of Bartholomew Roberts notes that pirates weren’t allowed to bring boys and women onboard ships. Of course, this rule wasn’t because of Roberts’s respect for women, but because he believed that the presence of women on the ship could cause division and strife.
The 11th article of Bartholomew Roberts notes that all musicians must play music day and night restlessly except on Sabbath Day. All pirates, even the most devilish ones such as Blackbeard, are said to have been music lovers.