The Culture of the West Indo Europeans
Incentives: The Democratic Governance of Seafarers, Pirates, Vikings, and Raiders
“You British are pirates. You were founded by pirates. You grew rich on piracy. You invent new forms of piracy. Your culture is still full of piracy.” That insight casts a light on so much of what passes for our economic culture. Get rich quick without thought of the consequences and run off with the loot. Tomorrow there will be another prize to plunder. This goes for the hedge-fund pirates who plunder the wealth created by other businesses, and for the corporate robber barons who empty out business assets while imposing Victorian conditions on their workers. But it also goes for ordinary lottery players. Grab the prize and get out.
Business, not Kinship Interests: Pirates were a diverse group. A sample of 700 pirates active in the Caribbean between 1715 and 1725, for example, reveals that 35 percent were English, 25 percent were American, 20 percent were West Indian, 10 percent were Scottish, 8 percent were Welsh, and 2 percent were Swedish, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Others came from Portugal, Scandinavia, Greece, and East India. Pirate crews were also racially diverse. Based on data available from 23 pirate crews active between 1682 and 1726, the racial composition of ships varied between 13 and 98 percent black. If this sample is representative, 25–30 percent of the average pirate crew was of African descent. Contrary to most people’s images of pirate crews, they were quite large. On the basis of figures from 37 pirate ships between 1716 and 1726, it appears that the average crew had about 80 members. A number of pirate crews were closer to 120, and crews of 150–200 were not uncommon. Several pirate crews were bigger than this. For example, Blackbeard’s crew aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge was 300 men strong. Even a sixth-rate Royal Navy ship in the early eighteenth century carried more crew members than the average pirate vessel (about 150). But compared to the average 200-ton merchant ship, which carried only 13–17 men, pirate ships were much larger. Some pirate crews were too large to fit in one ship, and so they formed pirate squadrons. Captain Bartholomew Roberts, for example, commanded a squadron of four ships that carried 508 men.
However, the absence of the owner-crew principal-agent problem on pirate ships does not mean that pirates did not need captains. They certainly did. Many important piratical decisions, such as how to engage a potential target, how to pursue when “chasing” a target or being chased by authorities, and how to react if attacked, required snap decision making. There was no time for disagreement or debate in such cases, and conflicting voices would have made it impossible to undertake the most essential tasks. Furthermore, pirate ships, like all ships, needed some method of maintaining order, distributing victuals and payments, and administering discipline to unruly crew members. The office of captain overcame such difficulties by vesting autocratic control over these matters in the hands of an authority. In this sense, although pirate ships differed from merchant ships in requiring captains to solve an owner-sailor principal-agent problem, pirate ships were similar to merchant ships in requiring some kind of authority for their undertaking’s success. Although a pirate ship’s activity—violent plunder—was wholly different from a merchant ship’s, both kinds of vessels shared the need to create internal order to achieve their ends.
The need for captains posed a dilemma for pirates. On the one hand, a captain who wielded unquestioned authority in certain decisions was critical for success. On the other hand, what was to prevent a captain with this power from behaving predatorily toward his crew? Since pirates did not have absentee owners but instead jointly owned the stolen ships they sailed on, although they required captains, unlike merchant ships, they did not require autocratic captains.
Pirate democracy ensured that pirates got precisely the kind of captain they desired. Because pirates could popularly depose any captain who did not suit them and elect another in his place, pirate captains’ ability to prey on crew members was greatly
constrained compared to that of merchant ship captains. Similarly, because pirates were both principals and agents of their ships, they could divide authority on their vessels to further check captains’ ability to abuse crew members without loss. Unlike merchant ships, which could not afford a separation of power since this would have diminished the ability of the absentee owners’ acting agent (the captain) to make the crew act in the owners’ interests, pirate ships could and did adopt a system of democratic checks and balances.
The men (Army, Militia) elected captains (Kings, Generals) and quartermasters (Judges, Sergeants) and reserved for themselves voting (senate, jury), and drew up an agreement (constitution), and swore an oath to abide by it (citizenship) – by universal consent. And if any rejected it, disbanded him, and welcomed him to look for other opportunities instead.
Piratical Checks and Balances: The Separation of Powers
The institutional separation of powers aboard pirate ships predated its adoption by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century governments – fr that matter, it predated writing.
The threat of captain predation meant pirates “were adamant in wanting to limit the captain’s power to abuse and cheat them”. To do this they instituted a democratic system of divided power, or piratical checks and balances, aboard their ships. As the pirate Walter Kennedy testified at his trial,
“Most of them having suffered formerly from the ill-treatment of Officers, provided thus carefully against any such Evil now they had the choice in themselves . . . for the due Execution thereof they constituted other Officers besides the Captain; so very industrious were they to avoid putting too much Power into the hands of one Man”.
Democratic Election of Captains
They democratically elected Captains, “the Rank of Captain being obtained by the Suffrage of the Majority”. The combination of separated powers and democratic elections for captains ensured that:
—“[pirates] only permit him to be Captain, on Condition, that they may be
Captain over him”.—
Crews could vote captains out of office for any number of reasons. Predation was one, but so was cowardice, poor judgment, and any other behavior a crew did not feel was in its best interest. In this way pirates could be sure that captainship “falls on one superior for Knowledge and Boldness, Pistol Proof, (as they call it)”.
Crews sometimes elected quartermasters who displayed particular valor or keen decision making to replace less capable or honorable captains. For example, when one pirate crew “went to Voting for a new Captain . . . the Quarter-Master, who had behaved so well in the last Affair . . . was chosen”. This helped create competition among pirate officers that tended to check their abuses and encouraged them to serve the interests of their crews.
Democratice Election of The Quartermaster (Judge)
The Quartermaster was the primary “other officer” pirates “constituted” for this purpose. Captains retained absolute authority in times of battle, enabling pirates to realize the benefits of autocratic control required for success in conflict. However, pirate crews transferred power to allocate provisions, select and distribute loot (there was rarely room aboard pirate ships to take all they seized from a prize), and adjudicate crew member conflicts/administer discipline to the quartermaster, whom they democratically elected:
—“For the Punishment of small Offences . . . there is a principal Officer among the Pyrates, called the Quarter-Master, of the Men’s own choosing, who claims all Authority this Way, (excepting in Time of Battle:) If they disobey his Command, are quarrelsome and mutinous with one another, misuse Prisoners, plunder beyond his Order, and in particular, if they be negligent of their Arms, which he musters at Discretion, he punishes at his own dare without incurring the Lash from all the Ship’s Company”—
This Officer is Trustee for the whole, is the first on board any Prize, separating for the Company’s Use, what he pleases, and returning what he thinks fit to the Owners, excepting Gold and Silver, which they have voted not returnable.
—-“the Captain of a Pirate Ship, is chiefly chosen to fight the Vessels they may meet with. Besides him, they chuse another principle Officer, whom they call Quarter-master, who has the general Inspection of all Affairs, and often controuls the Captain’s Orders”.— William Snelgrave
This separation of power removed captains’ control over activities they traditionally used to prey on crew members, while empowering them sufficiently to direct plundering expeditions.
—“the Captain can undertake nothing which the Quarter-Master does not approve. We may say, the Quarter-Master is an humble Imitation of the Roman Tribune of the People; he speaks for, and looks after the Interest of the Crew”.—
The only exception to this was “in Chase, or in Battle” when crews desired autocratic authority and thus, “by their own Laws,” “the Captain’s Power is uncontrollable”
Democratic Decision Making: The Jury (Senate)
For minor infractions, crews typically delegated punishment power to the ship’s democratically elected quartermaster. The quartermaster “acts as a Sort
of civil Magistrate on board a Pyrate Ship”.
In the case of more severe infractions, crew members voted on punishments. In both cases pirate crews tended to follow the punishments for various infractions identified in their articles. By specifying punishments in their articles, crews were able to limit the scope of quartermasters’ discretion in administering discipline, checking quartermasters’ power for abuse. Punishments for article violations varied from physical torture, such as “slitting the Ears and Nose of him that was Guilty,” to marooning— a practice Captain Johnson described as the “barbarous Custom of putting the Offender on Shore, on some desolate or uninhabited Cape or Island, with a Gun, a few Shot, a Bottle of Water, and a Bottle of Powder, to subsist with or starve”
Since pirate articles tended to be short and simple, they could not cover all possible contingencies that might affect a crew. In this sense they were always incomplete. To deal with this, when a significant issue emerged, the crew gathered to act as a kind of judiciary to interpret or apply the ship’s articles to situations not clearly stipulated in the articles
themselves: “In Case any Doubt should arise concerning the Construction of these Laws, and it should remain a Dispute whether the Party had infringed them or no, a Jury was appointed to explain them, and bring in a Verdict upon the Case in Doubt”. Through this “judicial review” process, pirate crews were able to further limit quartermasters’ discretionary authority, restraining the potential for quartermaster abuse.
Equality Under The Law
Captains were unable to secure special privileges for themselves at their crews’ expense. Their lodging, provisions, and even pay were nearly the same as that of ordinary crew members. As Johnson described it, aboard pirate ships “every Man, as the Humour takes him . . . [may] intrude [the captain’s] Apartment, swear at him, seize a part of his Victuals and Drink, if they like it, without his offering to find Fault or contest it”. In other cases, “the Captain himself not being allowed a Bed” had to sleep with the rest of the crew in far less comfortable conditions. Or, as one pirate fellow-traveler marveled, “even their Captain, or any other Officer, is allowed no more than another Man; nay, the Captain cannot [even] keep his own Cabin to himself”.
Pirates exercised greater cruelty in maintaining discipline among themselves than in their treatment of prisoners”. Pirates considered theft aboard their ships especially heinous (a moral or common crime against all). Their articles reflected this and frequently punished theft with torture, marooning, or death. To help keep themselves honest, some crews used random searches to hunt for anyone who might be holding back loot. To ensure that the quartermaster did not hide booty from the crew, some pirates prohibited their valuable plunder from being kept under lock and key. As pirate Peter Hooff described the situation on Captain Sam Bellamy’s Whydah, for instance, the “money was kept in Chests between Decks without any Guard, but none was to take any without the Quarter Masters leave”
Terms of the Exercise of Power: Contracts (Constitutions)
This system of checks and balances prevented captains from preying on their crews. But by granting many of the powers captains in quartermasters instead, they had opportunity to prey on crews. As with captains, pirate crews elected quartermasters and could depose them if they overstepped their authority. And that limit of authority was established by contract (constitution).
Shareholders: The Commons Before Self
They determined by common vote where they would cruise; what fee the captain shall have for himself and for the use of his vessel; the wage for skilled roles like carpenters and surgeons – who were paid sligthly more than other men. The wounded were paid bonuses next. Then the remainder of the ‘booty’ was divided equally among the men. The captain received four or five men’s portions for the use of the ship, perhaps even more, and two portions for himself. The rest of the men share uniformly, and the boys get half a man’s share. No one must plunder and keep his loot to himself. Everything taken—money, jewels, precious stones and goods—must be shared among them all. To prevent deceit, before the booty is distributed everyone has to swear an oath that he has not kept for himself so much as the value of a sixpence, whether in silk, linen, wool, gold, silver, jewels, clothes or shot, from all the capture. And should any man be found to have made a false oath, he would be banished from the rovers, never more be allowed in their company.
Individual Sovereignty and Self Determination
Articles of agreement required unanimous consent. Consequently, pirates democratically formed them in advance of launching pirating expeditions. ” The crew forged its articles alongside the election of a captain, quartermaster, and occasionally other smaller officers. Pirates sought agreement on their articles ex ante “to prevent Disputes and Ranglings afterwards”. In the event a pirate disagreed with their conditions, he was free to search elsewhere for more satisfactory terms.
Norms: The Market Calculated And Settled The Optimum Constitution
Over time, they institutionalized their articles of agreement and social organization. The basic elements of pirate constitutions displayed remarkable similarity across crews. The result was a system of customary law and metarules called the “Custom of the Coast,” or the “Jamaica Discipline.” Eighteenth-century pirates built on this institutional framework in developing their own constitutions. Pirates created them “for the better Conservation of their Society, and doing Justice to one another”. In describing the articles on Captain Roberts’ ship, for instance, Johnson refers to “the Laws of this Company . . . principle Customs, and Government, of this roguish Commonwealth; which are pretty near the same with all Pyrates”
High Trust: The Social and Political Consequences
The evidence also suggests that piratical articles were successful in preventing internal conflict and creating order aboard pirate ships. Pirates, it appears, strictly adhered to their articles. According to one historian, pirates were more orderly, peaceful, and well organized among themselves than many of the colonies, merchant ships, or vessels of the Royal Navy (Pringle 1953; Rogozinski 2000). As an astonished pirate observer put it, “At sea, they perform their duties with a great deal of order, better even than on the Ships of the Dutch East India Company; the pirates take a great deal of pride in doing things right”
Though it is strange to think about such order prevailing among pirates, the peculiarity fades when one recognizes that their organized criminal enterprise’s success depended on it. The remark of one perceptive eighteenth-century observer indicates precisely this. As he put it, “great robbers as they are to all besides, [pirates] are precisely just among themselves; without which they could no more Subsist than a Structure without a Foundation”.
The fact that pirate crews unanimously consented to the articles that governed them, ex ante, also plays an important role in explaining their success. Pirates recognized that “it was every one’s Interest to observe them, if they were minded to keep up so abominable a Combination”. Since pirates agreed to these rules before sailing, rules were largely self-enforcing once in place
Merit Attracted Merit
This success helps explain why, counterintuitively, “the People [pirates overtook] were generally glad of an opportunity of entring with them”. Pirates frequently “strengthen’d themselves with a great many fresh Hands, who most of them enter’d voluntarily”.
A Via Negativa System of Government (Contractualism, Constitutionalism)
As we shall see throughout the course of western history, this group strategy of entrepreneurial raiders continues with us to the present day – and for good reason. It’s the set of incentives that served as the source of european exceptionalism.
The Officers and the Sargeants. A General and the Officers. A King and The Judges.
The West Indo European (Aryan) Europeans
Hierarchical and egalitarian only among the elite.
From Pirates to Privateers and Bucaneers to Marines