The articles were a set of rules that everyone on board the ship had to abide by. Discipline is not a luxury at sea; it is a requirement. The rules were agreed upon by every member of the crew for their own safety. There were many situations and potential problems that were covered by the ship's articles. It was to everyone's benefit that the rules of the ship be well known to everyone. The articles covered such important issues as the treasure split, ship safety, and disability pay. In effect, by unanimously agreeing to and signing the ship's articles, pirates formed limited corporations. The articles served not only as the rules of the ship, but also as the business papers for the ship's company. Now that we know what the articles were and why they were needed, let's move on to how they were created.
Most often pirates became pirates after a successful mutiny. This was not always the case, but it was a common enough occurrence that it serves well for our example. When the crew of a ship decided to go on the account, in other words to give up their legitimate lives to take up piracy, they would elect their captain. (Sometimes the other officers were elected as well, but this was not common). Usually the man chosen as captain was the most experienced sailor among the crew. The captain would pick his officers, then the captain and the officers would draw up the articles. After the articles had been drawn up, they were read to the crew so that every man could understand them. Any articles that the majority of the crew had a problem with were struck and perhaps more would be added until the majority of the crew was happy with them. Finally the articles were read to the crew in their final form and presented to be signed. To be a member of the crew, every man had to make his mark on the articles thus declaring that he would abide by the rules of the ship. Those that did not wish to go on the account were often marooned, but sometimes they were just shot and thrown overboard. When new recruits were taken from a prize ship, they were offered the same choices: sign or die. Thus, while the creation of the ship's articles might be judged a fair and democratic process, their application was often anything but. Let's take a close look at a set of ship's articles and see what sorts of rules pirates lived by.
The articles below were written in 1723 by Captain John Phillips and the officers of the sloop Revenge after she was stolen from port by five men. John Phillips proved a poor pirate captain as he was tossed into the sea when his crew mutinied, but regardless of his fate, his articles provide us a good example for analysis.
I. Every Man shall obey civil Command; the Captain shall have one full Share and a half in all Prizes; the Master, Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner shall have one Share and a quarter.
The first article deals with two issues found in almost every set of articles. First, everyone agreed to take orders from their superiors, as chain of command is a necessity when a crew goes to sea. Second, the division of shares is listed. The shares differed with every ship, but the officers always received more than a single share because of their responsibilities.
II. If any Man shall offer to run away, or keep any Secret from the Company, he shall be marroon'd, with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm, and Shot.
The second article deals with desertion and treachery. Typically when pirates marooned a former member of their crew, they searched for a small sandbar that would be awash at high tide. The punishment was a death sentence. The bottle of powder, the pistol and the single shot were not for hunting. The crew offered this as a mercy to the marooned man, instead of starving to death or drowning, he could choose to take his own life.
III. If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game, to the Value of a Piece of Eight, he shall be marroon'd or shot.
The third article covers theft and gambling. In relation to gambling this may seem harsh until you know the value of a piece of eight. A piece of eight was equivalent to roughly 1/3 of a standard sailor's yearly pay. As with many of the rules that show up in ship's articles, this one is meant to prevent fighting among the crew.
IV. If at any Time we should meet another Pyrate that Man that shall sign his Articles without the Consent of our Company, shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.
This article is unique to Captain Phillip's articles as far as my research has seen. Simon does not know how this differs from desertion covered in the second article, except that the guilty party would be under another pirate captain's protection.
V. That Man that shall strike another whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses's Law on the bare Back.
The fifth article addresses fighting directly. Moses's Law is 39 lashes with a whip or a cat of nine tails. It differs from "kissing the gunner's daughter" only in its severity. It is, historically, one lash short of a death sentence. However, this fact did not comfort the many who died from this punishment. As I stated previously, discipline is not a luxury aboard a ship, it is a necessity.
VI. That Man that shall snap his Arms, or smoak Tobacco in the Hold, without a Cap to his Pipe, or carry a Candle lighted without a Lanthorn, shall suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.
This article deals with fire safety. The worst disaster that could happen on a ship from this period was to have their powder magazine catch fire and explode. Fire is not a joke on a ship, it is a very serious matter. Doing something that threatened the ship with fire, threatened everyone on board the ship.
VII. That Man that shall not keep his Arms clean, fit for an Engagement, or neglect his Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer such other Punishment as the Captain and the Company shall think fit.
Article seven is a common article seen in different forms in different ships' articles. Simply put: Do your job or lose your pay and be judged by your peers who depend upon you to do your job.
VIII. If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement, shall have 400 Pieces of Eight; if a Limb, 800.
Article eight is the insurance policy. This article is also a common feature in many ships' articles. Basically, the loss of a hand, foot, lower arm, or lower leg is the loss of a joint. A crewman who lost a joint or a limb was lucky to live, but if he did he would retire a rich man.
IX. If at any time you meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer present Death.
Article nine shows that the captain and his officers were gentlemen. This type of article often appears, but it usually refers to the harassment of any sort of any prisoner the pirates take. Again, this is just a matter of good sense. It prevents fights and protects prisoners that may be able to be ransomed back to their own.
Now you know about the ship's articles. Be careful to know what you are signing up for before you sign them though. Next issue we will look at the different crew positions on a ship and their responsibilities.
Copyright 2001, Mark S. Cookman