Democracy on the High Seas: How Pirates Rocked the Vote

Sure, they did their fair share of burning and looting. But who knew pirates were ahead of our Founding Fathers when it came to good governance?

Everyone knows that swashbuckling types aren’t exactly known for obeying the rules. But years before the United States gained its independence, democracy was actually thriving aboard pirate ships. Perhaps that’s because they reasoned that a little law and order was better than the alternative. Crammed aboard a ship with 300 unruly sailors, pirates were quick to adopt a government rather than let anarchy ensue.

Democracy Now

Of course, why they chose democracy as their form of government is another matter. As it turns out, buccaneers were leery of absolute authority. Many were escaped slaves or indentured servants who’d suffered under the tyranny of plantation owners in the Caribbean. Others had served under iron-fisted ship captains, who were rarely held accountable for their abuses of power. So, pirates settled on a form of government that recognized the individual without putting too much control in any one person’s hands—democracy.

For a mob of mostly illiterate seadogs, their concepts of governing were pretty evolved. Typically, they divided authority into three branches, complete with checks and balances. The captain, who only ruled absolutely in times of battle, was the executive branch; the quartermaster, who arbitrated disagreements and doled out punishments, was the judiciary; and the entire crew served as the legislature, voting on matters of importance, such as when to attack other vessels and when to elect a new captain.



Another surprise? The crew could be more merciful than you’d expect. Once captains were voted out of office, they could be left at port or deposited on a deserted island. But they could also be reintegrated into the crew. One deposed captain, Howell Davis of the Buck, was downright poetic about being ousted: “I find by strengthening you, I have put a rod into your hands to whip my self,” he told the new captain, “but since we met in Love, let us part in Love.”

The Benefits Package



Government wasn’t the only area in which pirates were ahead of the curve. They also had worker’s compensation plans. Many ships’ charters gave pirates enough gold to last a lifetime if they sustained a career-ending injury. In his 1678 memoir, buccaneer Alexandre Exquemelin, who sailed with the real Captain Morgan, detailed the sums guaranteed to swashbucklers who lost eyes, fingers, or limbs in battle. A lost right arm was worth the most—600 pieces of eight—which is equivalent to more than $100,000 today.

Although pirates governed themselves with an egalitarian spirit, it may be a while before we see a parade or White House ceremony in their honor. There’s no evidence that the Founding Fathers looked to pirates as inspiration for their democratic ideas. That said, pirates did nurture American democracy. They sold food and supplies to the colonies when European powers couldn’t (or wouldn’t). And they often pumped their profits right back into the local economy, spending it on booze, gambling, and “entertainment.” According to some sources, if it weren’t for these rowdy ruffians, some colonies might not have survived to become cradles of democracy.

(Pirate paintings by Howard Pyle)

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The article above, written by Alisson Clark, is reprinted with permission from the March-April 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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