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We briefly mentioned Peter Leeson’s work on the economics of pirate ships already; now, let’s take a closer look. (Because honestly, who doesn’t like pirate ships?)

In his study of pirate ships between 1682 and 1726, Leeson identified several remarkable features of how pirate ships were run, especially when compared to civilian merchant ships or naval vessels. While the latter vessels were run autocratically, with an all-powerful captain who could not be gainsaid, pirate ships were typically run along democratic lines:

  • they were governed by written articles of association, which had to be adopted unanimously;
  • they featured separation of powers between the captain, who controlled duty assignments and tactical authority, and a popularly elected quartermaster, who controlled the money and administered discipline—and the crews could replace either of these figures if they were abusing their power; and
  • crew members were typically paid in equal shares of the plunder (the captain and quartermaster typically got two shares), net of costs for repairing the ship or medical care and bonuses for the wounded.

Why? Leeson argues that pirate crews had to solve several problems in order to function well. First and most pressing was the risk that the captain could abuse his position. A frequent scourge of civilian ships was that the captain, nominally the omnipotent representative of the ship’s investor-owners back on shore, would exploit his power to harm the crew members, or enrich himself at the owners’ expense. This is an example of a principal-agent problem. (Indeed, many sailors turned to piracy in order to escape such exploitative captains.) But on a pirate ship, usually the sailors were the “owners” of the ship; and they would not tolerate a captain who would abuse them or divert “their” plunder.

Second, pirate crews were fairly large—the average pirate ship had some 80 crewmen (and some had many more, or even fleets of ships such as the expedition of Captain Morgan), as opposed to merchant ships which carried 13-17 men. (By contrast, naval ships often carried hundreds of sailors.)  With such large crews, it became harder to monitor individual sailors’ behavior. Yet harmony aboard ship needed to be maintained if the crews were to fight well. Disputes needed to be prevented, or resolved peacefully.

In response, pirate crews (which often shared ideas between them) soon developed a system of formal governance, with strong democratic features, well before any national governments adopted separation of powers or democratic voting. Ships’ crews drew up written articles of association (and so did pirate fleets, when several ships joined together for particular expeditions), which had to be approved unanimously. These articles laid down rules for the ship, and assigned different authorities to the captain, the quartermaster, and the other officers. They also specified how officers could be removed by popular vote.

The captain had total control over decisions during battle, and the assignment of ship’s duties. But he had no control over discipline, or over the plunder. That was the job of the quartermaster. Yet the quartermaster too was constrained; he was typically not allowed to store the plunder under lock and key, and many crews had a system of random searches to detect if a quartermaster (or any other crewman) was stealing plunder. Theft was punished severely, usually with marooning or execution.

Interestingly, Leeson finds that privateers—“legal” pirates whose activities were sanctioned by their governments—shared some of these features. They too paid out plunder in equal or nearly equal shares, and also used written constitutions. Leeson concludes that profit sharing and written constitutions must have been an efficient solution to the problem of keeping order among large crews, far from home.

But few privateers had the checks-and-balances system of captain and quartermaster, or democratic governance. (At least, not officially; Leeson doesn’t discuss how many privateers would engage in unsanctioned piracy on the side.) This was likely due to the need to enforce the authority of the ship’s government, just as merchant ships needed to enforce the authority of the absent owners. Pirates, lacking fealty to a distant authority, didn’t have this problem.

Leeson and other academics such as David Skarbek look at several other forms of organization, such as stateless societies in Africa, or prison gangs; and I hope to write more about these. But the basic takeaway for worldbuilders is that certain kinds of settings, like a pirate ship, present certain kinds of problems that the people have to solve. And the way that they solve those problems can make for fascinating stories.


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Wealth for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)