The Pirates’ Code

James Surowiecki writes:

…pirate ships limited the power of captains and guaranteed crew members a say in the ship’s affairs.  The surprising thing is that, even with this untraditional power structure, pirates were, in [Peter] Leeson’s words, among “the most sophisticated and successful criminal organizations in history.”

There is more:

Leeson is fascinated by pirates because they flourished outside the state–and, therefore, outside the law. They could not count on higher authorities to insure that people would live up to promises or obey rules. Unlike the Mafia, pirates were not bound by ethnic or family ties; crews were as remarkably diverse as in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Nor were they held together primarily by violence; while pirates did conscript some crew members, many volunteered. More strikingly, pirate ships were governed by what amounted to simple constitutions that, in greater or lesser detail, laid out the rights and duties of crewmen, rules for the handling of disputes, and incentive and insurance payments to insure that crewmen would act bravely in battle.

Read the whole thing.


Basically, none of the above os true for the Qawasim pirates of the Indian Ocean.

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Makes me wonder if the founding fathers considered the governing of pirates ships into the Constitution of the U.S. They had to be familiar with the pirate code since they at most were only a generation or two removed from being pirates and scoundrels.

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But it's not communism. Fair share is based on how much each pirate contributed and the incentive/reward system in place. It is not based merely on their existence, blind to their performance.

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crews were as remarkably diverse as in the “Pirates of the Caribbean† films.

What, like with undead hands, Cephalopod captains and everything?

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I guess it then makes sense that perhaps the world's most infamous pirates are those sourounding Somalia,, being that many of them lived in a country without government or formal institutions,

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Free market in ships? A bad Captain would find himself without a crew, and a lousy crewman would find himself without a crew to sail with, assuming his incompetence/cowardice didn't doom his ship. In the Royal Navy, there was no jumping ship, and they were so strapped for sailors that an incompetent couldn't really be fired (plus, he likely would rather quit).

Again, from the little I've read, the 'no jumping ship' - in the sense that the crewmen did not have their choice of a captain - was not instituted until the Napoleonic Wars. Before that individual crewman could transfer between ships and captains when in port and this Tiebout-competition minimized abuses by the Captains and guaranteed the sailors some basic rights.

So the institutional transformation went something like this:
Napoleonic Wars --> Greater need for crews and guarantee of crews for all captains --> removal of the privilege of choosing one's own captain --> No competition between captains --> Rights of sailors get eroded and the ships start resembling the dictatorial/brutal ideas we have of them now. Also mutinies get more frequent.

But, again, this didn't really get underway until late, maybe mid, 1700's.

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