An-arrgh-chy! What pirates of lore can teach us about politics

Pirates — like gangsters, highwaymen and other colorful outlaws — have always carried a certain romantic appeal with them upon the high seas.

Thanks to a certain movie series — Pirates of the Caribbean — they are among the most appealing of the outlaws. And the language… y’arrgh! But exemplars of democracy?


Swashbuckling self-governments

In a swashbuckling and daring article for the Journal of Political Economy, “An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization,” Peter Leeson explored the fascinating “golden age” of piracy during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and found that these criminal organizations were able to establish a remarkably stable form of self-government.

While economists have long been fascinated with the financial organization of criminal enterprises, the impact of their political structure has long been overlooked.

Piracy was a capital crime, so both the costs and benefits were quite high. But, as Leeson shows, pirates never lacked for “Brethren in Iniquity.”

Plumbing the (often entertaining) court records of pirate trials, Leeson allows the pirates to speak for themselves as to why the pirate’s life was for them.

Piracy exploded along with trade to the far-flung colonies. A captain of a trading ship was the representative of land-based merchants, and thus wielded complete authority — which was often abused — over the crew.

Although a captain of a pirate ship wielded absolute authority in battle the pirates, in the words of one of their own, “constituted other Officers besides the Captain; so very industrious were they to avoid putting too much power into the hands of one Man.”

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Foremost among these officers was the quartermaster, who oversaw the distribution of provisions, division of booty, and general order aboard the ship.

Pirates from many nations, united by “articles”

According to the paper, pirates were a diverse lot.

“A sample of 700 pirates active in the Caribbean between 1715 and 1725, for example, reveals that 35 percent were English, 25 percent were American, 20 percent were West Indian, 10 percent were Scottish, 8 percent were Welsh, and 2 percent were Swedish, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Others came from Portugal, Scandinavia, Greece, and East India.”

Pirates entered into an agreement called the chasse-partie that dictated the division of booty. But they also drew up articles for a voyage, most of which were institutionalized as the “Custom of the Coast” or the “Jamaica Discipline,” that covered all aspects of government, and life aboard a ship “for the better Conservation of their Society, and doing Justice to one another.”

Records of these articles still exist, and Leeson reproduces one within his article. (See an example from Black Bart’s pirate ship here.) Even a court that stood in judgment gave the pirates the backhanded compliment that they were “wickedly united, articled together.”

Modern piracy, Leeson notes, is a different affair. Mainly land-based and short term in its commitments, it no longer requires the same sort of organization. The days of “an-arrgh-chy” have passed.

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