Pirates and Democracy: How I learned that there are people in this world who consider themselves 'Piratologists'

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Did you have any idea that there were in fact Piratologists in this world? Neither did I until I was doing a Google search on the topic of pirates and democracy – we’ll get to that in just a sec – and there, lo and behold, ‘shiver me timbers’- if you'll permit the indulgence - I happened upon the profession (can anyone imagine making a living at this? Awesome!) of Piratology. Just thought all those four and five-year-olds out there thinking about their future might really want to know that it is indeed possible to live the dream.

Okay, back to pirates and democracy. So, there we were, gathered around the television, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches in hand, just settling in for a documentary on pirates when out of nowhere came the revelation that pirate ships – yes that’s right, pirate ships – were early adopters of a means of political organisation known commonly, if not slightly generic and ambiguously, as democracy.

Pirate ships, contrary to what might be described as common knowledge, were not generally run by authoritarian captains and a cabal of enforcers quick to anger and perhaps sadistically askew. No indeed, that more closely describes a Royal Navy ship of the era – the Golden Age of piracy as I heard it described. Rather, pirate ships were run on the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

According to naval historian (and Piratologist!), David Cordingly, it was at times difficult to even get a pirate ship going anywhere. Not only did the crew actually vote on the destination before the captain set a course, but the captain himself was elected by the crew...and was subject to change by the will of ‘the people’.

Pirates drafted and signed “The Articles of Piracy” before each voyage. These articles regulated the distribution of plunder, the scale of compensation for injuries in battle, and outlined basic rules for shipboard life as well as punishments for those who broke the rules. Every pirate aboard signed them.

Startlingly, as this new-found knowledge began to course through me, it occurred to me that pirate ships were in fact little mutual-aid societies operating outside the conventional bounds of State-sanctioned legitimacy. They were not simply reactions to the living and working conditions as well as social conditions in Europe (much of piracy today is similarly motivated), they were organised along the same lines as small groups of human beings have been organising themselves for millennia. They were organising themselves in anarcho-syndicalist pods and sailing the oceans blue. Arrr Matey.

(Boy, somebody sure did one hell of PR axe job on those pirates! I blame Disney.)

It should be noted however that Piratologists across the internet – despite their almost pathological dislike for each other – are in general agreement about the lessons that can be drawn from this knowledge. While pirate ships were incredibly successful operations in the short term, over the long term, they often proved unworkable. Pirates lived day-to-day. They weren’t terribly concerned with the big, long-term picture. Captains’ were worried more about getting re-elected (or not killed by their crew) than about sustainable policies that might have involved short-term sacrifices for long-term gains.

(Sound eerily familiar?)

I leave it up to the rest of you out there to mull over your own reactions to this ground-shattering information, but for me, I'm pretty sure I missed my calling as a piratologist!

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  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 01 April 2011 23:37 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Ha, I also happened to be studying pirates this month (in an unrelated matter) and was equally surprised by how they were governed. The point you made about the Royal Navy is an interesting one. Apparently, conditions in the Navy were terrible, pay was lower than on many pirate ships, and men were kidnapped off the street to man them. To make matters worse, these boys were then shackled to the ship during port visits so they wouldn't escape! Then there was the whole issue of the lash... Anyhow, this piece has inspired me to post my recent op-ed on pirates. I'll let you be the judge as to whether I have any future as a piratologist.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Saturday, 23 April 2011 03:57 posted by Bergen Vermette

    As promised... more pirates! http://bit.ly/e5j19C

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 26 April 2011 12:07 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Pirates of a different kind, the Pirate Party of Canada. "Founded in 2009 and officially registered in 2010, the Pirate Party of Canada strives to reform Canadian information laws to meet the needs of the new century". http://www.pirateparty.ca/

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