Articles… What’s that? Stories written about pirates in popular newspapers or magazines? I mean, they did have magazines back in the early 1700’s, right?
No, wait a minute. Ship’s articles were an employment contract between sailors and the ships they crewed. It was a basic system between workers and employers, naming work times and conditions, payment and pay frequency. Simple as that.
So then what’s the big deal? And why did pirates even need these things. They weren’t employees of anybody, after all.
To begin with, people rarely build things from nothing. Pirates were doing radical stuff, but they still built upon the structure that they were used to, and as sailors they were used to having a work contract. So they based their pirating Articles upon those they has used before they “went on the account.”
Merchant ships wanted to lock sailors into work contracts for as long as possible. Sailors, by definition, traveled, and that meant stopping in ports where wages may have been higher than those at the port where they signed on. Employers didn’t want them to leave the ship just because someone else was offering more money. Forcing an employee to sign a work contract was supposed to stop this kind of self-serving behavior.
Also, locking a sailor into a months-long contract gave the merchant captain more flexibility in where the ship would sail to. There were places where sailors simply didn’t want to go. Parts of Africa were known to harbor infectious diseases, which might kill 90% of a European crew. Some European ports harbored a “hot press” – enthusiastic press gangs that kidnapped sailors and forced them to serve in the country’s navy – often for years and often without pay.
Sailors, rightly, wanted to avoid such places. Merchant captains wanted to go where the money was. At the time we’re talking about, there were hardly any shipping schedules or regular trade routes. Ships took on what cargo they could find, and traveled to places where there was a market for the goods. When sailor signed on, they received a promise not to sail to certain ports.
Interestingly, in much the same way huge companies today get away with sketchy business practices, the authorities considered it okay for merchant captains and merchant consortiums to renege on these contracts. It was “the vagaries of the business” that caused sub-standard food to be served, or the ship to change course and sail to a disease-ridden coast.
For their own, sailors often “jumped ship” and took off for better pay or better working conditions. Sometimes they were jailed for this, if they could be caught.
Still, pirates signing onto a pirate ship expected some kind of contract.
Unlike the merchant articles, the pirate version was a “bottom up” document. While merchant captains dictated terms to the crew, pirate crews dictated terms to their captains. Pirate articles listed the things the crew wanted. Everybody signed, and captain, officers and crew were all held to it equally.
Some things were universal. Pirates operated on a “no prey no pay” basis. Participants took shares of plunder, not wages. A certain percentage was set aside for purchase of supplies and maintenance of the boat. After that, plunder was broken into “shares” based on the number of individuals in the crew, though this was not quite a one-on-one ratio.
Pirates agreed that their officers, work specialists (such as gunnery master or carpenter) and captain were highly skilled individuals worthy of a higher percentage of plunder. However, while privateer and merchant captains made 20 to 80 times the amount of a single member of their crews, pirate captains usually made 1 ½ to 2 times as much. Articles specified the amount – a breakdown that often looked something like this: Captain 2 shares, commissioned officers (first mate, navigator) 1 ½ shares, non-commissioned officers (bosun, carpenter) 1 ¼ shares, all sailors (at any skill level) 1 share, and landsmen and servants (people with no sailing skills, such as the ship’s fiddler) ½ share. Notice that no one makes more than 4 times the rate of the lowest-paid, unskilled worker.
Pirate articles did not generally mention where the ship was bound for. That was decided by vote on a day-to-day basis.
Pirate articles required that each member of the crew keep weapons clean and ready to use. This was in contrast to merchant crews, who were not encouraged to use or own weapons. In pirate crews terror, not cargo, was their stock-in-trade. The ability to fight, or to at least appear ready to fight, was primary.
On merchant ships liquor was regulated and drunkenness highly discouraged. On most pirate ships it was the opposite. Liquor was one of the few ready pleasures in a world where life was often short and brutish. Pirate articles specified that liquor was freely available to anyone who wanted it. Being drunk was okay, as long as you could do your job.
Interestingly, honesty was required on a pirate ship. Stealing from a fellow pirate was a definite no-no. Spoils were divided in the open, to prevent any hanky-panky, and witnesses say that pirates didn’t guard their treasure while on board ship. Instead, money was held in common until called for.
However, pirate articles often carried rules that were designed purely for the comfort of the crew and to provide better working conditions for all. “Lights out after 8:00 pm” meant people who wanted to sleep would be able to, while “Those who want to sit up and drink must do it on the open deck” made provisions for these who had other ideas. Pirates enjoyed music and employed musicians, but ships’ articles specified that these people only had to work 6 days a week, not 7, like everyone else.
Lastly, rules were made to keep peace among pirates. Pirates were allowed to gamble. No one said that was wrong. But “gambling with cards or dice” – the sort of thing that racked up heavy debts in a short time, were usually forbidden. It was also usually forbidden to hide women aboard, though the wording of some of these clauses leaves some question of whether women were allowed to work openly as pirates or prostitutes.
What happened if these rules were broken? Theft from another pirate might mean that the thief had his nose slit, or was marooned. Simply dropping a man off at the next port seems to have been the most common punishment. Not so much punishment at all, but a simple parting of the ways when someone wasn’t willing to follow the rules.
If a captain didn’t follow the rules he would face the rage of his crew. Pirate captains who borrowed clothing or jewels from the common fund in order to make a show in port would be taken to task, even if they returned these goods promptly. Captains were required to follow the rules exactly, and if they didn't many pirate captains were deposed, and simply dropped off the side with a boat and some provisions.
When pirate ships traveled together, they did so under “Articles of Consort.” These more informal rules might be jotted down on a scrap of paper, but they were important to make clear who got what in the disbursement of treasure. (Did a smaller ship get as much treasure as a large one? Or was it based on crew size? Did ships get a share if they didn’t actively fight, but participated in the chase of a merchant and fell behind? And what happened to the crew of a ship that was sunk?)
Articles lasted for years, with new members signing on as they joined a crew. Articles of Consort lasted a few months at most, as flotillas of pirates came together and broke up.
The point was for everyone to agree.