In the second half of the 17th century, buccaneers began operating under a set of rules variously called the Chasse-Partie, Charter Party, Custom of the Coast, or Jamaica Discipline. These eventually became known as Articles of Agreement, or the pirate’s code. Pirate articles varied from one captain to another, and sometimes even from one voyage to another, but they were generally alike in including provisions for discipline, specifications for each crewmate’s share of treasure, and compensation for the injured.
Each crew member was asked to sign or make his mark on the articles, then swear an oath of allegiance or honor. The oath was sometimes taken on a Bible, but legend suggests that other pirates swore on crossed pistols, swords, or axes, or on a human skull, or astride a cannon. This act formally inducted the signer into the pirate crew, generally entitling him to vote for officers and on other “affairs of moment,” to bear arms, and to his share of the plunder. The articles having been signed, they were then posted in a prominent place, often the door of the grand cabin.
When pirates plundered a ship, captives sometimes volunteered to join the pirate crew, and if the pirates were in need of men they might be accepted and allowed to sign the articles. If the pirates were very short-handed, they might force crewmen into piracy against their will. Valuable sea artists, such as carpenters and navigators, were especially prone to being forced to join in this way. However, contrary to some popular beliefs, pirates did not routinely compel large numbers of prisoners to join, as doing so would quickly overburden their supplies and reduce the value of each man’s share of plunder; even willing recruits might be turned away if not needed.
“Forced men” who had been dragooned into piracy were told to sign the articles, and might be tortured or threatened with death to make them comply. Refusal often meant continued bullying, torture, and deprivation, but men who had not signed the articles had a much better chance of acquittal at trial if captured by the law.
A Pirate Code:
We, the Captain, Offycers and crew of ________________________ hereby agree on certain articles, which are put in writing, by way of bond or obligation, which every one is bound to observe, and all of them, or the chief, set their hands to it.
- Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity (not an uncommon thing among them) makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment. He that sees a Sail first, shall have the best Pistol or Small Arm aboard of her.
- Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. Any Gold, Jewels, Silver, &c. be found on Board of any Prize or Prizes to the value of a Piece of Eight, & the finder do not deliver it to the Quarter Master in the space of 24 hours he shall suffer marooning with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm, and Shot. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.
- No person to game at cards or dice for money. He that is found Guilty of Gaming, or Defrauding one another to the value of a Royal of Plate, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the Majority of the Company shall think fit.
- The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck
- To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service. That Man 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. He that shall be found Guilty of Cowardice in the time of Engagements, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and the Majority of the Company shall think fit.
- No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death; [so that when any fell into their hands, as it chanced in the Onslow, they put a sentinel immediately over her to prevent ill consequences from so dangerous an instrument of division and quarrel; but then here lies the roguery; they contend who shall be sentinel, which happens generally to one of the greatest bullies, who, to secure the lady’s virtue, will let none lie with her but himself.] 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.
- To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning. If any Man shall offer to run away, or keep any Secret from the Company, he shall be marooned with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm, and Shot.
- No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol. [The quarter-master of the ship, when the parties will not come to any reconciliation, accompanies them on shore with what assistance he thinks proper, and turns the disputant back to back, at so many paces distance; at the word of command, they turn and fire immediately, (or else the piece is knocked out of their hands). If both miss, they come to their cutlasses, and then he is declared the victor who draws the first blood.]
- No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have for the loss of a right arm six hundred pieces of eight, or six slaves ; for the loss of a left arm five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves ; for a right leg five hundred pieces of eight, or five slaves ; for the left leg four hundred pieces of eight, or four slaves ; for an eye one hundred pieces of eight, or one slave ; for a finger of the hand the same reward as for the eye.
- The Captain and Quartermaster is allotted five or six portions to what the ordinary seamen have; the Master’s Mate only two; and Officers proportionate to their employment Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner shall have one Share and quarter . After whom they draw equal parts from the highest even to the lowest mariner, the boys not being omitted. For even these draw half a share, by reason that, when they happen to take a better vessel than their own, it is the duty of the boys to set fire to the ship or boat wherein they are, and then retire to the prize which they have taken. Compensation is provided the Captain for the use of his ship, and the salary of the carpenter, or shipwright, who mended, careened, and rigged the vessel (the latter usually about 150 pieces of eight. A sum for provisions and victuals is specified, usually 200 pieces of eight. A salary and compensation is specified for the surgeon and his medicine chest, usually 250 pieces of eight.
- The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.
- 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 receive Moses’ Law (that is, 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare Back.
- If any time we shall meet another Mariner and that Man shall sign his Articles without the Consent of our Company, shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.
- The fund of all payments under the articles is the stock of what is gotten by the expedition, following the same law as other pirates, that is, No prey, no pay.