A common misconception made by many people is in the role and authority of the pirate captain. Unlike naval captain’s who were appointed by their respective governments and who’s authority was supreme at all times, or merchant captains employed and appointed by a company, most pirate captain’s were democratically elected by the ships crew and could be replaced at any time (except during a battle) by a majority vote of the crewmen. For example some captains were voted out and removed for not being as aggressive in the pursuit of prizes as the crew would have liked. And others were abandoned by their crews for being a little too bloodthirsty and brutal. They were expected to be bold and decisive in battle. And also have skill in navigation and seamanship. Above all they had to have the charisma and skills necessary to hold together a violent and unruly bunch of seamen.
This left the captain of most pirate ships in a rather precarious position and some were in truth little more then a figurehead. Generally speaking, he was someone the crew would follow if he treated them well and was fairly successful. But, he could be replaced if enough of the men lost confidence in him and felt he wasn’t performing his duties as well as he should. However, despite all this the captain was frequently looked upon with respect as a knowledgeable leader of men. Pirate crews historically appeared to have followed his judgement in most matters.
It was the captain’s job to develop a plan or course of action in regards to finding prey and plan and lead the actual attack. He served as the voice and face of the crew when it came to negotiations with prey, government figures and other pirate ships.
Most British and Anglo-American pirates delegated unusual amounts of authority to the Quartermaster making him almost the Captain’s equal. The Captain retained unlimited authority during battle, but otherwise he was subject to the Quartermaster in many routine matters. The Quartermaster was elected by the crew to represent their interests and he received an extra share of the booty when it was divided. Above all, he protected the Seaman against each other by maintaining order, settling quarrels, and distributing food and other essentials.
Serious crimes were tried by a jury of the crew, but the Quartermaster could punish minor offenses. Only he could flog a seaman after a vote from the Crew. The Quartermaster usually kept the records and account books for the ship. He also took part in all battles and often led the attacks by the boarding parties. If the pirates were successful, he decided what plunder to take. If the pirates decide to keep a captured ship, the Quartermaster often took over as the Captain of that ship.
The Quarter Master represented the ship when dealing with merchants and traders purchasing plunder from the pirates and in those transactions where the pirates purchased equipment or supplies.
This was the officer who was in charge of navigation and the sailing of the ship. He directed the course and looked after the maps and instruments necessary for navigation. Since the charts of the era were often inaccurate or nonexistent, his job was a difficult one. In the 18th century few sailors had the skills needed to plot a course and calculate a ship’s position at sea. Naval and merchant captains usually had the needed skills, but often times the captain of a pirate ship lacked the ability to perform the calculations. Under such circumstances the Sailing Master was a very important position since the difference between making port and death by starvation or dehydration could depend on the Sailing Master’s ability. The scarcity of men with navigation skills usually meant that those holding positions in the navy or merchant marine were well compensated and unlikely to opt for piracy as a career due to poverty or dissatisfaction in their career. Consequently many Sailing Masters had to be forced into pirate service. Some, like Bartholomew Roberts, took to their new life and went on to become captains themselves.
The Boatswain supervised the maintenance of the vessel and its supply stores. He was responsible for inspecting the ship and it’s sails and rigging each morning, and reporting their state to the captain. The Boatswain was also in charge of all deck activities, including weighing and dropping anchor, and the handling of the sails.
The Carpenter was responsible for the maintenance and repair of the wooden hull, masts and yards. He worked under the direction of the ship’s Master and Boatswain. The Carpenter checked the hull regularly, placing oakum between the seems of the planks and wooden plugs on leaks to keep the vessel tight. He was highly skilled in his work which he learned through apprenticeship. Often he would have an assistant whom he in turn trained as a carpenter.
The Master Gunner was responsible for the ship’s guns and ammunition. This included sifting the powder to keep it dry and prevent it from separating, insuring the cannon balls were kept free of rust, and all weapons were kept in good repair. A knowledgeable Gunner was essential to the crew’s safety and effective use of their weapons.
On a large ship there was usually more than one Mate aboard. Mates served as apprentices to the Ship’s Master, Boatswain, Carpenter and Gunner. In their roles they assisted the officer and learned the skills associated with the job. Mates who served apprenticeships were expected to fill in or take over open positions due to sickness or death. The Mate also took care of the fitting out of the vessel, and examined whether it was sufficiently provided with ropes, pulleys, sails, and all the other rigging that was necessary for the voyage. The Mate took care of hoisting the anchor, and during a voyage he checked the tackle once a day. If he observed anything amiss, he would report it to the ship’s captain. Arriving at a port, the mate caused the cables and anchors to be repaired, and took care of the management of the sails, yards and mooring of the ship.
The common sailor, which was the backbone of the ship, needed to know the rigging and the sails. As well as how to steer the ship and applying it to the purposes of navigation. He needed to know how to read the skies, weather, winds and most importantly the moods of his commanders.
Other jobs on the ships were surgeon (for large vessels), cooks and cabin boys. There were many jobs divided up amongst the officers, sometimes one man would perform two functions.