Masterless men

Maritime history from the bottom up
Marcus Rediker

Between 1716 and 1726 Atlantic pirates created an imperial crisis with their relentless and successful attacks upon merchants’ property and international commerce. Accordingly, these freebooters occupy a grand position in the long history of robbery at sea. Their numbers, near 5,000, were extraordinary, and their plunderings were exceptional in both volume and value … How did piracy look from the inside and what kinds of social order did pirates forge beyond the reach of traditional authority? Beneath the Jolly Roger, ‘the banner of King Death’, a new social world took shape once pirates had, as one of them put it, ‘the choice in themselves.’  It was a world profoundly shaped and textured by the experiences of work, wages, culture, and authority accumulated in the normal, rugged course of maritime life and labor in the early eighteenth century.

Shipboard order remade

Contemporaries who claimed that pirates had ‘no regular command among them’ mistook a different social order – different from the ordering of merchant, naval, and privateering vessels – for disorder.  This social order, articulated in the organization of the pirate ship, was conceived and deliberately constructed by the pirates themselves. Its hallmark was a rough, improvised, but effective egalitarianism that placed authority in the collective hands of the crew. A core value in the broader culture of the common tar, egalitarianism was institutionalized aboard the pirate ship.

A striking uniformity of rules and customs prevailed aboard pirate ships, each of which functioned under the terms of written articles, a compact drawn up at the beginning of a voyage or upon election of a new captain, and agreed to by the crew. By these articles crews allocated authority, distributed plunder, and enforced discipline.  These arrangements made the captain the creature of his crew. Demanding someone both bold of temper and skilled in navigation, the men elected their captain. They gave him few privileges. He ‘or any other Officer is allowed no more [food] than another man, nay, the Captain cannot keep his Cabbin to himself.’  Some pirates ‘messed with the Captain, but withal no Body look’d on it, as a Mark of Favour, or Distinction, for every one came and eat and drank with him at their Humour.’ A merchant captain held captive by pirates noted with displeasure that crew members slept on the ship wherever they pleased, ‘the Captain himself not being allowed a Bed.’  The determined reorganization of space and privilege aboard the ship was crucial to the remaking of maritime social relations.

The crew granted the captain unquestioned authority ‘in fighting, chasing, or being chased,’ but ‘in all other Matters whatsoever’ he was ‘governed by a Majority.’  As the majority elected, so did it depose. Captains were snatched from their positions for cowardice, cruelty, or refusing ‘to take and plunder English Vessels.’  One captain incurred the class-conscious wrath of his crew for being too ‘Gentleman-like.’  Occasionally, a despotic captain was summarily executed. As pirate Francis Kennedy explained, most sea robbers, ‘having suffered formerly from the ill-treatment of their officers, provided carefully against any such evil’ once they arranged their own command. The democratic selection of officers echoed similar demands within the New Model Army in the English Revolution and stood in stark, telling contrast to the near-dictatorial arrangement of command in the merchant service and the Royal Navy.

To prevent the misuse of authority, pirates delegated countervailing powers to the quartermaster, who was elected to represent and protect ‘the Interest of the Crew.’  The quartermaster, who was not considered an officer in the merchant service, was elevated to a valued position of trust and authority. His tasks were to adjudicate minor disputes, to distribute food and money, and in some instances to lead the attacks on prize vessels. He served as a ‘civil Magistrate’ and dispensed necessaries ‘with an Equality to them all’, carefully guarding against the galling and divisive use of privilege and preferment that characterized the distribution of the necessaries of life in other maritime occupations.  The quartermaster often became the captain of a captured ship when the captor was overcrowded or divided by discord. This containment of authority within a dual and representative executive was a distinctive feature of social organization among pirates

The decisions that had the greatest bearing on the welfare of the crew were generally reserved to the council, the highest authority on the pirate ship. Pirates drew upon an ancient custom, largely lapsed by the early modern era, in which the master consulted his entire crew in making crucial decisions. Freebooters also knew of the naval tradition, the council of war, in which the top officers in a ship or fleet met to plan strategy. But pirates democratized the naval custom. Their councils called together every man on the ship, to determine such matters as where the best prizes could be taken and how disruptive dissension was to be resolved. Some crews continually used the council, ‘carrying every thing by a majority of votes’; others set up the council as a court. The decisions made by this body were sacrosanct, and even the boldest captain dared not challenge a council’s mandate.

The distribution of plunder was regulated explicitly by the ship’s articles, which allocated booty according to skills and duties. Pirates used the precapitalist share system to allocate their take. Captain and quartermaster received between one and one-half and two shares; gunners, boatswains, mates, carpenters, and doctors, one and one-quarter or one and one-half; all others got one share each.  This pay system represented a radical departure from practices in the merchant service, Royal Navy, or privateering. It leveled an elaborate hierarchy of pay ranks and decisively reduced the disparity between the top and bottom of the scale. Indeed, this must have been one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the early eighteenth century. The scheme revealingly indicates that pirates did not consider themselves wage laborers but rather risk-sharing partners. If, as a noted historian of piracy, Philip Gosse, suggested, ‘the pick of all seamen were pirates’, the equitable distribution of plunder and the conception of the partnership were the work of men who valued and respected the skills of their comrades. But not all booty was dispensed this way. A portion went into a ‘common fund’ to provide for the men who sustained injury of lasting effect.  The loss of eyesight or any appendage merited compensation. By this welfare system pirates attempted to guard against debilities caused by accidents, to protect skills, to enhance recruitment, and to promote loyalty within the group.


The best description of pirates’ notions of justice comes from merchant captain William Snelgrave’s account of his capture in 1719. On April 1, Snelgrave’s ship was seized by Thomas Cocklyn’s crew of rovers at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. Cocklyn was soon joined by men captained by Oliver LaBouche and Howell Davis, and Snelgrave spent the next thirty days among 240 pirates.

The capture was effected when twelve pirates in a small boat came alongside Snelgrave’s ship, which was manned by forty-five sailors. Snelgrave ordered his crew to arms. They refused, but the pirate quartermaster, infuriated by the command, drew a pistol and then, Snelgrave testified, ‘with the but-end [he] endeavoured to beat out my Brains’ until ‘some of my People . . . cried out aloud “For God sake don’t kill our Captain, for we never were with a better Man”.’ The quartermaster, Snelgrave noted, ‘told me, “my Life was safe provided none of my People complained against me”. I replied, “I was sure none of them could”.’

Snelgrave was taken to Cocklyn, who told him, ‘I am sorry you have met with bad usage after Quarter given, but ‘tis the Fortune of War sometimes. . . . [I]f you tell the truth, and your Men make no Complaints against you, you shall be kindly used.’ Howell Davis, commander of the largest of the pirate ships, reprimanded Cocklyn’s men for their roughness and, by Snelgrave’s account, expressed himself ‘ashamed to hear how I had been used by them. That they should remember their reasons for going a pirating were to revenge themselves on base Merchants and cruel commanders of Ships. . . . [N]o one of my People, even those that had entered with them gave me the least ill-character. . . . [I]t was plain they loved me.’

Snelgrave’s men may not have loved him, but they surely did respect him. Indeed, Snelgrave’s character proved so respectable that the pirates proposed to give him a captured ship with full cargo and to sell the goods for him. Then they would capture a Portuguese slaver, sell the slaves, and give the proceeds to Snelgrave so that he could ‘return with a large sum of Money to London, and bid the Merchants defiance.’  Pirates hoped to show these merchants that good fortunes befell good captains. The proposal was ‘unanimously approved’ by the pirates, but fearing a charge of complicity, Snelgrave hesitated to accept it. Davis then interceded, saying that he favored ‘allowing every Body to go to the Devil in their own way’ and that he knew that Snelgrave feared for ‘his Reputation.’ The refusal was graciously accepted, Snelgrave claiming that ‘the Tide being turned, they were as kind to me, as they had been at first severe.’

Snelgrave related another revealing episode. While he remained in pirate hands, a decrepit schooner belonging to the Royal African Company sailed into the Sierra Leone and was taken by his captors. Simon Jones, a member of Cocklyn’s crew, urged his mates to burn the ship, since he had been poorly treated while in the company’s employ. The pirates were about to do so when another of them, James Stubbs, protested that such action would only ‘serve the Company’s interests,’ since the ship was worth but little. He also pointed out that ‘the poor People that now belong to her, and have been on so long a voyage, will lose their Wages, which I am sure is Three times the Value of the Vessel.’ The pirates concurred and returned the ship to its crew, who ‘came safe home to England in it.’ Captain Snelgrave also returned to England soon after this incident, but eleven of his seamen remained behind as pirates.  Snelgrave’s experience revealed how pirates attempted to intervene against – and modify – the standard brutalities that marked the social relations of production in merchant shipping. That they sometimes chose to do so with brutalities of their own shows how they could not escape the system of which they were a part.

Snelgrave seems to have been an exceptionally decent captain. Pirates like Howell Davis claimed that abusive treatment by masters of merchantmen contributed mightily to their willingness to become sea robbers. John Archer, whose unusually long career as a pirate dated from 1718 when he sailed with Edward Teach, uttered a final protest before his execution in 1724: ‘I could wish that Masters of Vessels would not use their Men with so much Severity, as many of them do, which exposes us to great Temptations.’  William Fly, facing the gallows for murder and piracy in 1726, angrily announced, ‘I can’t charge myself, – I shan’t own myself Guilty of any Murder, – Our Captain and his Mate used us Barbarously. We poor Men can’t have Justice done us. There is nothing said to our Commanders, let them never so much abuse us, and use us like Dogs.’  To pirates revenge was justice; punishment was meted out to barbarous captains, as befitted the captains’ crimes.


At the Charleston trial over which [Vice-Admiralty Judge Nicholas] Trott presided, Richard Allen, attorney general of South Carolina, told the jury that ‘pirates prey upon all Mankind, their own Species and Fellow-Creatures without Distinction of Nations or Religions.’  Allen was right in claiming that pirates did not respect nationality in their plunders, but he was wrong in claiming that they did not respect their ‘Fellow-Creatures.’ Pirates did not prey on one another. Rather, they consistently expressed in numerous and subtle ways a highly developed consciousness of kind. Here we turn from the external social relations of piracy to the internal in order to examine this consciousness of kind – in a sense, a strategy for survival – and the collectivistic ethos it expressed.

Pirates showed a recurrent willingness to join forces at sea and in port. In April 1719, when Howell Davis and crew sailed into the Sierra Leone River, the pirates captained by Thomas Cocklyn were wary until they saw on the approaching ship ‘her Black Flag’; then ‘immediately they were easy in their minds, and a little time after,’ the crews ‘saluted one another with their Cannon.’ Other crews exchanged similar greetings and, like Davis and Cocklyn who combined their powers, frequently invoked an unwritten code of hospitality to forge spontaneous alliances.

This communitarian urge was perhaps most evident in the pirate strongholds of Madagascar and Sierra Leone. Sea robbers occasionally chose more sedentary lifeways on various thinly populated islands, and they contributed a notorious number of men to the community of logwood cutters at the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1718 a royal official complained of a ‘nest of pirates’ in the Bahamas ‘who already esteem themselves a community, and to have one common interest.’

To perpetuate such community, it was necessary to minimize conflict not only on each ship but also among separate bands of pirates. Indeed, one of the strongest indicators of consciousness of kind is the manifest absence of discord between different pirate crews. To some extent, this was even a transnational matter: French, Dutch, Spanish, and Anglo-American pirates usually co-operated peaceably, only occasionally exchanging fire. Pirate crews consistently refused to attack one another…

Pirates also affirmed their unity symbolically. Some evidence indicates that sea robbers may have had a sense of belonging to a separate, in some manner exclusive, speech community. Philip Ashton, who spent sixteen months among pirates in 1722–3 noted that ‘according to the Pirates usual Custom, and in their proper Dialect, asked me, If I would sign their Articles.’  Many sources suggest that cursing, swearing, and blaspheming were defining traits of this style of speech, perhaps to an even greater extent than among the larger population of seafaring men. For example, near the Sierra Leone River, a British official named Plunkett pretended to co-operate with, but then attacked, the pirates with Bartholomew Roberts. Plunkett was captured, and Roberts

upon the first sight of Plunkett swore at him like any Devil, for his Irish Impudence in daring to resist him. Old Plunkett, finding he had got into bad Company, fell a swearing and cursing as fast or faster than Roberts; which made the rest of the Pirates laugh heartily, desiring Roberts to sit down and hold his Peace, for he had no Share in the Pallaver with Plunkett at all. So that by meer Dint of Cursing and Damning, Old Plunkett . . . sav’d his life.

The symbolic connectedness, or consciousness of kind, extended to the domain of language.


The pirate was, perhaps above all else, an unremarkable man caught in harsh, often deadly circumstances. Wealth he surely desired, but a strong social logic informed both his motivation and his behavior. Emerging from proletarian backgrounds and maritime employments, and loosed from familial bonds, pirates developed common symbols and standards of conduct. They forged spontaneous alliances, refused to fight each other, swore to avenge injury to their own kind, and even retired to pirate communities. They erected their own ideal of justice, insisted upon an egalitarian, if unstable, form of social organization, and defined themselves against other social groups and types. So, too, did they perceive many of their activities as ethical and justified, not unlike the eighteenth-century crowds described by E. P. Thompson. But pirates, experienced as cooperative seafaring laborers and no longer disciplined by law, were both familiar with the workings of an international market economy and little affected by the uncertainties of economic change. Their experience as free wage laborers and as members of an uncontrolled, freewheeling subculture gave pirates the perspective and occasion to fight back against brutal and unjust authority and to construct a new social order where King Death would not reign supreme. Theirs was probably a contradictory pursuit. For many, piracy, as a strategy of survival, was ill-fated.

Piracy, in the end, offers us an extraordinary opportunity. Here we can see how a sizable group of workers – poor men in canvas jackets and tarred breeches – constructed a social world where they had ‘the choice in themselves.’  The choice did not exist on the merchant ship or the man-of-war. The social order and practices established by pirates recalled several key features of ancient and medieval maritime life. They divided their money and goods into shares; they consulted collectively and democratically on matters of moment; they elected a quartermaster, who, like the medieval ‘consul,’ adjudicated the differences between captain and crew.

Pirates constructed a culture of masterless men. They were as far removed from traditional authority as any men could be in the early eighteenth century. Beyond the church, beyond the family, beyond disciplinary labor, and using the sea to distance themselves from the powers of the state, they carried out a strange experiment. The social constellation of piracy, in particular the complex consciousness and egalitarian impulses that developed once the shackles were off, provides valuable clarification of more general social and cultural patterns among seamen in particular and the laboring poor in general. Here we can see aspirations and achievements that under normal circumstances were heavily muted, if not in many cases rendered imperceptible altogether, by the power relationships of everyday life.

The final word on piracy must belong to Barnaby Slush, the man who understood and gave poetic expression to so many aspects of the common seaman’s life in the early eighteenth century:

Pyrates and Buccaneers, are Princes to [Seamen], for there, as none are exempt from the General Toil and Danger; so if the Chief have a Supream Share beyond his Comrades, ‘tis because he’s always the Leading Man in e’ry daring Enterprize; and yet as bold as he is in all other Attempts, he dares not offer to infringe the common laws of Equity; but every Associate has his due Quota . . . thus these Hostes Humani Generis as great robbers as they are to all besides, are precisely just among themselves; without which they could no more Subsist than a Structure without a Foundation.

Thus did pirates express the collectivistic ethos of life at sea by the egalitarian and comradely distribution of life chances, the refusal to grant privilege or exemption from danger, and the just allocation of shares. Their notion of justice – among themselves and in their dealings with their class enemies – was indeed the foundation of their enterprise. Equally, piracy itself was a ‘structure’ formed upon a ‘foundation’ of the culture and society of Atlantic deep-sea sailors in the eighteenth century.

This article is composed of extracts with kind permission from ‘Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates’, chapter four in Outlaws of the Atlantic: sailors, pirates, and motley crews in the age of sail, by Marcus Rediker, published by Beacon Press (August 2014). Rediker is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of History, University of Pittsburgh. In Outlaws of the Atlantic, he turns maritime history upside down, exploring the dramatic world of maritime adventure, not from the perspective of admirals, merchants, and nation-states but from the point of view of commoners — sailors, slaves, indentured servants, pirates, and other outlaws —whose seafaring experiences are brought together for the first time. Rediker shows that oceanic history is crucial to understanding historical processes like the rise of capitalism and the formation of race and class. Read more about Outlaws of the Atlantic and a further excerpt here.

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Suggested citation
Rediker, Marcus, 'Masterless men', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 7, October 2014.<>