Democratic Outlaws DEMOCRATIC OUTLAWS ? Pirates, the outlaws of the sea. If like me, the first idea that comes to mind regarding pirates is a group of raiding and plundering individuals. This is due to today’s society glamorizing the pirates as fascinating characters. Historically, not much written information has been left behind. The pirates did not leave ship logs or accounts of plunders, because it could be used to incriminate them.
Society today has invented the pirates to fit a romantic mold. Therefore, we grew up thinking of treasure hunts, sea battles, sword fights and plank walkers, when in actuality the pirates of old were loathed by society. During the Golden Age of Piracy, during the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates were regarded as common criminals of the seas without thought to democracy/justice or civility. In short, the pirates had no decency. However, is there some truth to the glamorized legends? Could the legendary characters have upheld the same ideals? In the course of the semester, we have learned some of the truths behind the glamorized pirate facade.
Throughout life I have seen that good is more often than not overshadowed by bad. I decided to give these characters the benefit of the doubt and do some investigating. In this essay, I will attempt to prove that human decency among the pirates could have existed. Civility is one trait rarely associated with pirates. Why should civility be associated as a trait of pirates? After all, pirates raid, plunder, steal, rape, drink and swear.
Civilized people do not participate in lowly, unlawful behavior. Pirates were know to be excessive drunks, ruthless killers, indulgers of women and unruly individuals. In defense of pirate civility, I must point out a few examples. Lord Byron’s “The Corsair” is an excellent example of pirate decency. Conrad, Byron’s hero and captain of a pirate crew, shows remarkable civility for a pirate.
While “The Corsair” is a fictional work, many of the pirate tales, as in other fictional works, derive from actual occurrences. While Conrad’s crew is toasting spirts and carousing about, he remains composed. “Ne’er for his lip the purplng cup they fill, That goblet passes him untasted still . . .
But while he shuns the grosser joys of sense, His mind seems nourished by that abstinence” (Byron 152). Conrad does not overindulge and does not become unruly. Conrad does not kill unnecessarily and when forced to kill, it is in defense. Conrad does not ravage women. He is married but loves only one.
Jean Lafitte is a factual example of civility. Lafitte was a pirate masked in gentleman’s clothing. It is said, Lafitte hobb-knobbed with high society. The majority of the descriptions of Lafitte portray him as well dressed, well mannered and well spoken, as a gentleman should be. Lafitte was also a patriot playing a significant role in the Battle of New Orleans, in which he received honors. Democracy/Justice among the pirates is another unlikely topic to ponder when thinking of pirates. How can outlaws be democratic or just? The pirates bluntly disregarded the law when raiding and plundering.
However, within the pirate community, was a democratic structure. The community had its own way of government and enforcing justice. Life amongst the pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries was more democratic than those of most countries. Esquemeling’s Buccaneers of America, gives an account of pirate democracy. Each ship had a code they lived by. The crew aboard a pirate vessel selected their captains by casting votes.
Although the captain is an elected position, the captain of the vessel was in complete control and was to be obeyed and respected. However, if a captain loses the favor of his crew, mutiny occurs and he is voted out. The replacement captain is then voted in usually coming from within crew. The quartermaster is the chief authority save in battle. He acts as ship’s magistrate for small offenses.
Serious offenses are tried before a pirate jury. In addition, the quartermaster served “as the trustee for the whole ship’s company” in Defoe’s words, “for the captain can do nothing which the quartermaster does not approve of . . . for he speaks for and looks after the interests of the company” (Mark 202). Before setting off on a voyage, the pirates called a council to delegate duties in preparation for departure.
The council delegated a duty to each crew member such as getting needed provisions. Another council was put together to create a list of laws (or code of conduct) for the voyage in which everyone had to adhere to. This code was to be enforced upon the ship and stated: protection for equal votes for each member, delegation of equal work for each member, restricted gambling, restricted sexual relations, and provided monetary compensation for injuries (pirates web site). The best noted code of conduct is that of Bartholomew Roberts’. At that time, all of the world’s nations were mainly monarchies.
Men often deserted their military to join pirate crews looking for better treatment. Democracy aboard a pirate vessel provided the crew with freedom many did not have. The pirates may have been outlaws but there were those who had human decency. Not all pirates are the drunken villains set out for us in today’s society. The pirates disregarded the laws of the world and followed their own. The governments of the world during this time offered little democracy to its citizens.
The pirates had the right to choose their leaders. The well being of the crew was always most important. For a society as the pirates to be deemed uncivilized is not fair. I am not disputing that there existed ruthless madmen terrorizing the sea, I want to show that pirate life does not require a lack of human decency. The pirates had their own version of workman’s compensation insurance fund.
Before a loot was evenly divided amongst the crew, an amount was deducted to provide monetary compensation to those injured during battle. Each injury carried a different monetary value. An uncivilized society does not provide monetary compensation for an injury received on duty. This form of compensation was not prevalent in the so called “civilized” society of the time. Sure, in today’s “civilized” society, we have a worker’s compensation structure and live under the sprite of democracy but who is to say we did not adopt it from the pirates.
The pirates may have been outlaws, but they were one step ahead of the rest of the world within governing their own societies. The way in which the pirate community governed their society is an example of pirate human decency. History.