Aaarr matey! Life on a 17th century pirate ship was less chaotic than you think


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There’s rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we’re once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2020, each day from December 25 through January 5. Today: Pirates! Specifically, an interview with historian Rebecca Simon on the real-life buccaneer bylaws that shaped every aspect of a pirate’s life.

One of the many amusing scenes in the 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl depicts Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) invoking the concept of “parley” in the pirate code to negotiate a cease of hostilities with pirate captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules,” he informs her. Rebecca Simon, a historian at Santa Monica College, delves into the real, historical set of rules and bylaws that shaped every aspect of a pirate’s life with her latest book. The Pirates’ Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ship.

Simon is the author of such books as Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever and Pirate Queens: The Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Her PhD thesis research focused on pirate trails and punishment. She had been reading a book about Captain Kidd and the war against the pirates, and was curious as to why he had been executed in an East London neighborhood called Wapping, at Execution Dock on the Thames. People were usually hung at Tyburn in modern day West London at Marble Arch. “Why was Captain Kidd taken to a different place? What was special about that?” Simon told Ars. “Nothing had been written much about it at all, especially in connection to piracy. So I began researching how pirate trials and executions were done in London. I consider myself to be a legal historian of crime and punishment through the lens of piracy.”

Ars sat down with Simon to learn more.

(left) Fanciful painting of Kidd and his ship, <em>Adventure Galley</em>, in New York Harbor. (right) Captain Kidd, gibbeted near Tilbury in Essex following his execution in 1701.
Enlarge / (left) Fanciful painting of Kidd and his ship, Adventure Galley, in New York Harbor. (right) Captain Kidd, gibbeted near Tilbury in Essex following his execution in 1701.

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Ars Technica: How did the idea of a pirates’ code come about?

Rebecca Simon: Two of the pirates that I mention in the book—Ned Low and Bartholomew Roberts—their code was actually published in newspapers in London. I don’t where they got it. Maybe it was made up for the sake of readership because that is getting towards the tail end of the Golden Age of Piracy, the 1720s. But we find examples of other codes in A General History of the Pyrates written by a man named Captain Charles Johnson in 1724. It included many pirate biographies and a lot of it was very largely fictionalized. So we take it with a grain of salt. But we do know that pirates did have a notion of law and order and regulations and ritual based on survivor accounts.

You had to be very organized. You had to have very specific rules because as a pirate, you’re facing death every second of the day, more so than if you are a merchant or a fisherman or a member of the Royal Navy.  Pirates go out and attack to get the goods that they want. In order to survive all that, they have to be very meticulously prepared. Everyone has to know their exact role and everyone has to have a game plan going in. Pirates didn’t attack willy-nilly out of control. No way. They all had a role.

Ars Technica: Is it challenging to find primary sources about this? You rely a lot trial transcripts, as well as eyewitness accounts and maritime logs.

Rebecca Simon: It’s probably one of the best ways to learn about how pirates lived on the ship, especially through their own words, because pirates didn’t leave records. These trial transcripts were literal transcriptions of the back and forth between the lawyer and the pirate, answering very specific questions in very specific detail. They were transcribed verbatim and they sold for profit. People found them very interesting. It’s really the only place where we really get to hear the pirate’s voice. So to me that was always one of the best ways to find information about pirates, because anything else you’re looking at is the background or the periphery around the pirates: arrest records, or observations of how the pirate seemed to be acting and what the pirate said. We have to take that with a grain of salt because  we’re only hearing it from a third party.

Ars Technica: Some of the pirate codes seemed surprisingly democratic. They divided the spoils equally according to rank, so there was a social hierarchy. But there was also a sense of fairness.

Rebecca Simon: You needed to have a sense of order on a pirate ship. One of the big draws that pirates used to recruit hostages to officially join them into piracy was to tell them they’d get an equal share. This was quite rare on many other ships. where payment was based per person, or maybe just a flat rate across the board. A lot of times your wages might get withheld or you wouldn’t necessarily get the wages you were promised. On a pirate ship, everyone had the amount of money they were going to get based on the hierarchy and based on their skill level. The quartermaster was in charge of doling out all of the spoils or the stolen goods. If someone was caught taking more of their share, that was a huge deal.

You could get very severely punished perhaps by marooning or being jailed below the hold. The punishment had to be decided by the whole crew, so it didn’t seem like the captain was being unfair or overly brutal. Pirates could also vote out their captain if they felt the captain was doing a bad job, such as not going after enough ships, taking too much of his share, being too harsh in punishment, or not listening to the crew. Again, this is all to keep order. You had to keep morale very high, you had to make sure there was very little discontent or infighting.

"The code is more like guidelines than actual rules": Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa in <em>Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl</em> (2003).
Enlarge / “The code is more like guidelines than actual rules”: Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).

Walt Disney Pictures

Ars Technica: Pirates have long been quite prominent in popular culture. What explains their enduring appeal? 

Rebecca Simon: During the 1700s, when pirates were very active, they fascinated people in London and England because they were very far removed from piracy, more so than those who traded a lot for a living in North America and the Caribbean. But it used to be that you were born into your social class and there was no social mobility. You’re born poor because your father was poor, your grandfather was poor, your children will be poor, your grandchildren will be poor. Most pirates started out as poor sailors but as pirates they could become wealthy. If a pirate was lucky, they could make enough in one or two years and then retire and live comfortably. People also have a morbid fascination for these brutal people committing crimes. Think about all the true crime podcasts and  true crime documentaries on virtually every streaming service today. We’re just attracted to that. It was the same with piracy.

Going into the 19th century, we have the publication of the book Treasure Island, an adventure story harking back to this idea of piracy in a way that generations hadn’t seen before. This is during a time period where there was sort of a longing for adventure in general and Treasure Island fed into this. That is what spawned the pop culture pirate going into the 20th century. Everything people know about pirates, for the most part, they’re getting from Treasure Island. The whole treasure map, X marks the spot, the eye patch, the peg leg, the speech. Pirate popularity has ebbed and flowed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was a smash hit. And I think during the pandemic, people were feeling very confined and upset with leadership. Pirates were appealing because they cast all that off and we got shows like Black Sails and Our Flag Means Death.

Ars Technica: Much of what you do is separate fact from fiction, such as the legend of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. What are some of the common misconceptions that you find yourself correcting, besides buried treasure?

Rebecca Simon:  A lot of people ask me about the pirate accent: “Aaarr matey!” That accent we think of comes from the actor Robert Newton who played Long John Silver in the 1950 film Treasure Island. In reality, it just depended on where they were born. At the end of the day, pirates were sailors. People ask about what they wore, what they ate, thinking it’s somehow different. But the reality is it was the same as other sailors. They might have had better clothes and better food because of how often they robbed other ships.

Another misconception is that pirates were after gold and jewels and treasure. In the 17th and 18th centuries, “treasure” just meant “valuable.” They wanted goods they could sell. So about 50 percent was stuff they kept to replenish their own ship and their stores. The other 50 percent were goods they could sell: textiles, wine, rum, sugar, and (unfortunately) the occasional enslaved person counted as cargo. There’s also a big misconception that pirates were all about championing the downtrodden:they hated slavery and they freed enslaved people. They hated corrupt authority. That’s not the reality. They were still people of their time. Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, did capture a slave ship and he did include those slaves in his crew. But he later sold them at a slave port.

Female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read were a deadly duo who plundered their way to infamy.
Enlarge / Female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read were a deadly duo who plundered their way to infamy.

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Thanks to Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails, people sometimes assume that all pirates were gay or bisexual. That’s also not true. The concept of homosexuality as we think of it just didn’t exist back then. It was more situational homosexuality arising from confined close quarters and being very isolated for a long period of time. And it definitely was not all pirates. There was about the same percentage of gay or bisexual pirates as your own workplace, but it was not discussed and it was considered to be a crime. There’s this idea that pirate ships had gay marriage; that wasn’t necessarily a thing. They practiced something called matelotage, a formal agreement where you would be legally paired with someone because if they died, it was a way to ensure their goods went to somebody. It was like a civil union. Were some of these done romantically? It’s possible. We just don’t know because that sort of stuff was never, ever recorded.

Ars Technica:  Your prior book, Pirate Queens, focused on female pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It must have been challenging for a woman to pass herself off as a man on a pirate ship.

Rebecca Simon: You’d have to take everything in consideration, the way you dressed, the way you walked, the way you talked.  A lot of women who would be on a pirate ship were probably very wiry, having been maids who hauled buckets of coal and water and goods and did a lot of physical activity all day. They could probably pass themselves off as boys or adolescents who were not growing facial hair. So it probably wasn’t too difficult. Going to the bathroom was a a big thing. Men would pee over the edge of the ship. How’s a woman going to do this? You put a funnel under the pirate dress and pee through the funnel, which can create a stream going over the side of the ship. When it’s really crowded, men aren’t exactly going to be looking at that very carefully.

The idea of Anne Bonny and Mary Read being lesbians is a 20th century concept, originating with an essay by a feminist writer in the 1970s. There’s no evidence for it. There’s no historical documentation about them before they entered into piracy. According to Captain Charles Johnson’s highly fictionalized account, Mary disguised herself as a male sailor. Anne fell in love with this male sailor on the ship and tried to seduce him, only to discover he was a woman. Anne was “disappointed.” There’s no mention of Anne and Mary actually getting together. Anne was the lover of Calico Jack Rackham, Mary was married to a crew member. This was stated in the trial. And when both women were put on trial and found guilty of piracy, they both revealed they were pregnant.

Rebecca Simon is the author of <em>The Pirates' Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ships</em>/
Enlarge / Rebecca Simon is the author of The Pirates’ Code: Laws and Life Aboard Ships/

University of Chicago Press/Rebecca Simon

Ars Technica: Pirates had notoriously short careers: about two years on average. Why would they undertake all that risk for such a short time?

Rebecca Simon: There’s the idea that you can get wealthy quickly. There were a lot of people who became pirates because they had no other choice. Maybe they were criminals or work was not available to them. Pirate ships were extremely diverse. You did have black people as crew members, maybe freed enslaved or escaped enslaved people. They usually had the most menial jobs, but they did exist on ships. Some actively chose it because working conditions on merchant ships and naval ships were very tough and they didn’t always have access to good food or medical care. And many people were forced into it, captured as hostages to replace pirates who had been killed in battle.

Ars Technica: What were the factors that led to the end of what we call the Golden Age of Piracy?

Rebecca Simon: There were several reasons why piracy really began to die down in the 1720s. One was an increase in the Royal Navy presence so the seas were a lot more heavily patrolled and it was becoming more difficult to make a living as a pirate. Colonial governors and colonists were no longer supporting pirates the way they once had, so a lot of pirates were now losing their alliances and protections. A lot of major pirate leaders who had been veterans of the War of the Spanish Succession as privateers had been killed in battle by the 1720s: people like Charles Vane, Edward Teach, Benjamin Hornigold, Henry Jennings, and Sam Bellamy.

It was just becoming too risky. And by 1730 a lot more wars were breaking out, which required people who could sail and fight. Pirates were offered pardons if they agreed to become a privateer, basically a government-sanctioned mercenary at sea where they were contracted to attack specific enemies. As payment they got to keep about 80 percent of what they stole. A lot of pirates decided that was more lucrative and more stable.

Ars Technica: What was the most surprising thing that you learned while you were researching and writing this book?

Rebecca Simon: Stuff about food, oddly enough. I was really surprised by how much people went after turtles as food. Apparently turtles are very high in vitamin C and had long been believed to cure all kinds of illnesses and impotence. Also, pirates weren’t really religious, but Bartholomew Roberts would dock at shore so his crew could celebrate Christmas—perhaps as an appeasement. When pirates were put on trial, they always said they were forced into it. The lawyers would ask if they took their share after the battle ended. If they said yes, the law deemed them a pirate. You therefore participated; it doesn’t matter if they forced you.  Finally, my PhD thesis was on crime and the law and executions. People would ask me about ships but I didn’t study ships at all. So this book really branched out my maritime knowledge and helped me understand how ships worked and how the people on board operated.


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