What is the Pirate Code?

Pirates remain one of our most romanticized groups of villains, from Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” to Long John Silver in “Treasure Island,” pirates have become a part of our stories and our cultural mythology. Even in this modern day buccaneers have taken center stage thanks to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, bringing back the legends of Davy Jones, the Flying Dutchman and other common myths that were found in general sailing culture and specifically in the golden age of piracy during the 1600s. Of course perhaps one of the biggest myths that’s come back around is the idea of a pirate code. However, while it might sound laughable, there is some factual basis for this idea.

Pirates weren’t just sea going reavers, though that was certainly a part of their reputation. If you really look at pirates though, they’re a crew; and as a crew they required discipline in order to actually get things done. Pirates, from their appearance to their command structure, were like a lawless mirror of legitimate crews both military and civilian. And as piracy sailed into the golden age flying the Jolly Roger high these ships began to establish articles of conduct and a code of behavior.

When you joined a ship it was the same as joining an army or a gang. You were expected to carry your own part of the load and to do as you were told for the good of the group. During the 17th century this evolved past just doing whatever the captain or the first mate told you to do and became a contract that you were expected to sign. These articles laid out how a particular crew member was to behave, what actions would be rewarded and which ones would be punished, as well as with how much reward and punishment. It listed everything, from how much treasure the captain could claim down to what amount of gold would be given a crew man who lost a limb as a result of service.

Now, much like a flag, these articles were different from one ship to another and there was no such thing as a universal pirate code. One captain might have a punishment of 40 lashings, while another might demand a crewman be shot. However these articles held all members to a common cause and it stopped arguments when you could point at the articles and see whether or not an action against them had been committed. Of course it also let you know more or less what you were in for when you signed that document, and the articles prevented any captain from just ruling like a tyrant. A smart captain knew that keeping his crew happy was the real key, because a ship was only as strong and virile as the morale on board.

“Pirate Code,” by Anonymous at Bon Adventure
“Pirate Code,” by Anonymous at Pirate’s Realm

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