Again my curiosity with pirates has surfaced. I was curious, after seeing that they did actually operate under some form of order, with the Pirate Chain of Command.
What I found interesting was that the chain of command had more to do with a situation than someone’s rank. And your skill at seamanship might not make you eligible for the rank of Captain.
So what was the Pirate Chain of Command? Here is the typical roster on a pirate ship.
Pirate Chain of Command – Captain:
The Captain was usually democratically elected by the crew. The Captain was someone that was seen to be able to keep the rowdy bunch of crew members in check on a daily basis and in particular in battle. The Captain more often than not delegated most of the daily operational decisions to a junior officer such as the Quartermaster.
The only time a Captain’s decisions were outright unchallenged were in battle. Otherwise, his or her decisions could be question to the extent that even a new Captain could be elected by majority vote to replace them.
Captains were often ousted, marooned or killed if they were thought to be to meek in pursuing booty or if they were found to be particularly cruel and aggressive.
Pirate Chain of Command – Quartermaster:
The Quartermaster was usually the crew member that would be responsible for the distribution of things such as provisions, gun powder, punishment, daily tasks and most importantly, booty.
The Quartermaster was usually the lead in a boarding party and held all booty in his possession for distribution. He made the decision as to what booty would be taken aboard based on value and space availability and what would be destroyed and forsaken. He might also become Captain of the captured ship depending on the circumstances.
The Quartermaster was also the referee in settling disputes between crew members or required to witness duels to ensure fairness.
The Quartermaster was often also the First Mate and entitled to a double share of the booty the same as the Captain. He was also responsible for keeping the “books” for the ship. A sea CFO and Sheriff all in one.
Pirate Chain of Command – Boatswain/Bosun:
The Boatswain or Bosun was responsible for the maintenance of the ship. The Bosun would inspect the ship from top to bottom daily and then report on its condition to the Captain.
The Bosun led onshore parties for ship supplies or repairs. He would be responsible for all wood on the ship, the rigging, sails, lines, ropes and anchors.
He was expected to keep the decks clear and clean and would weigh and drop anchor. He would have crew assigned to him and would typically get a share and a half of any booty.
Pirate Chain of Command – Ship/Sailing Master:
This crew member was responsible for navigation. This was a crew member that was very valued for obvious reasons and was typically forced into becoming crew.
The Sailing Master would determine the course to be sailed and responsible for the charts and instruments.
Pirate Chain of Command – Master Carpenter:
Another valued crew member on a pirate ship. Considered an artisan warranting private quarters with a workshop and an apprentice.
The Master Carpenter was responsible for keeping the ship free from leaks and for repairs to anything damaged in battle such as a mast, yardarm, or hatch.
The Master Carpenter was typically under the direction of the Bosun or Quartermaster.
Pirate Chain of Command – Master Gunner:
As the title would imply, this crew member was responsible for the guns and ammunition on board. This meant sifting the gun powder to make sure it did not clump and kept dry, making sure none of the cannon balls rusted, and that all guns and cannons were in good working order.
Pirate Chain of Command – Sailmakers:
Another obvious title. The crew member in charge of mending and maintaining all the canvas on board.
Pirate Chain of Command – Surgeon:
Another highly valued member of the crew responsible for keeping the crew well and for repairing them after battle injury. The medicine chest was also highly valued as it could mean the difference between life or death.
This was another member of the crew that was typically forced to enlist. In the event there was no surgeon on board then the Master Carpenter or the cook were expected to perform the duties. Yikes!
Cutting a yardarm is one thing but a human arm quite another, and the cook’s skill at butterflying a piece of meat is certainly in no way comparable to slicing a human for surgery.
Pirate Chain of Command – Cook:
The cook was typically a disabled crew member, that as long as they didn’t kill any one with their cooking, was allowed to stay aboard. Mind you this could also be the stand in for the surgeon. Scary stuff in those days.
Pirate Chain of Command – Cooper:
Ahh now were getting to rum. Barrels were the most used method for storage on a ship. Used for storing gun powder, food, water, and of course, rum.
Because of the motion on a ship, the barrels’ copper bands and wooden staves often needed servicing to prevent leaking.
The barrels were dismantled when empty and the cooper would have to restore them once any provisioning or other supply replenishment called for their use again.
Pirate Chain of Command – Musicians:
Musicians were the Pirates’ MTV. They broke up the monotony of sea life and were valued members of the crew.
Expected to help raise morale by playing before, during and after a battle. They also could get out of working as a privilege as long as they were playing music.
Pirate Chain of Command – Able Seaman:
The true salty beings expected to know how to steer, read the winds the seas and the stars, and all of the rigging. The backbone of any ship.
Pirate Chain of Command – Striker:
The hunter essentially. This was a crew member from the West Indies skilled in hunting both on land and sea and who possessed a keen knowledge of local plants used for both food and medicinal purposes.
They were also keen haters of the Spaniards and were kept aboard for the purpose of killing Spaniards in addition to their hunting duties.
Pirate Chain of Command – Cabin Boys:
The Cabin Boys were typically aboard as a privilege for them to learn the ways of the sea. They would typically wait on the Captain and carried messages and performed errands for the officers.
Pirate Chain of Command – Powder Monkeys:
These would be crew members that had the worst job aboard and were typically only between eleven and thirteen years old. They were the gun crew aboard.
They were known for being treated very poorly, paid unfairly and were the most like to desert ship if they lived long enough to do so.
Wow, that last group was quite the downer. I can’t imagine eleven, twelve or thirteen year olds working in the kind of environment they had to endure. Bless their hearts.
The life aboard was seemingly quite democratic. Most things were voted on by all crew including punishment that was not minor in nature. Actually pirates were surprisingly fairly civilized despite their reputation as an unruly bunch of savages.
Even captured prisoners were to remain unharmed if they declared “Parley”. This Pirate Code essentially gave one the right to be heard by the Captain to state their case for survival. They still might be out to death, but at least they would get a chance to speak their case.
Well that’s all on pirates for today. If you know of any positions I missed in the Pirate Chain of Command, let me know.
See you on the water,
Sail Away Girl