Members of today’s rising generation (for some mysterious reason) love pirates. They turn pirate movies into hits, frequent pirate bars, throw pirate parties, and as the Boston Globe explains, they even look to pirates as a political model.
Marcus Rediker, the author of the pirate histories “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “Villains of All Nations,” sees pirate democracy less as a means for order than as a political statement, a pointed reaction to the working sailor’s life. When pirates roamed the seas, Rediker says, it was the law-abiding merchant ships that were run like miniature tyrannies. Captains held absolute power. Floggings were routine and often deadly. When pirates recruited sailors from the ships they pillaged, they opened a window to a different kind of society – far from the one the working-class sailors would otherwise find on land or sea. Rediker argues that pirate democracy “is not about human nature at all. It’s about the specific experience of sailors and the way that they wanted to imagine a better world.”
Piracy, says Rediker, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was “a fascinating, almost utopian kind of experiment.” Indeed, he says, pirate democracy was purer than what was practiced in Athens: The Greeks didn’t give slaves the vote, but pirates offered the right to everyone, black or white. (It’s probably also safe to say that pirates didn’t have superdelegates.) Before each voyage, the crew elected a captain who could be deposed at any time, as well as a quartermaster whose main purpose was to make sure the captain didn’t have too much power. A written charter outlined ship rules, which tended to prohibit theft and violence aboard and set strict rules for the presence of women. (Contrary to popular myth, Leeson, says, pirates usually set limits on drinking. “A drunken pirate crew,” he points out, “would be less effective than a sober crew.”)
Pirates even conducted a version of a fair trial, Rediker says, when determining the fate of captured captains. If any pirate on board knew the man from his merchant ship days, he could testify about his treatment. A captain who turned out to be kind was sometimes spared his life. And in a precursor of our own democratic love of political satire, pirates wrote coarse, hilarious plays that mocked the upper classes’ criminal justice system.