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‘The Pirate Ship Hierarchy’

The most common opinion on the Hierarchy and Governance amongst a Pirate Ship has been influenced by the evidence of the famous ‘Articles of Agreement’, which are also known as the ‘Pirate Code’ or ‘Pirates Articles’.


The below drawn out system of Pirate Hierarchy would not have been the same aboard every Ship, but is a rough idea of what one would expect. Many roles were similar amongst all Pirate Ships, but not necessarily had all the same status. This was due to each Captain as well as crew having their own ways of doing things which was governed by the set of agreed ‘Pirate Articles’, which varied from Ship to Ship and Captain to Captain.



Read on as we take a closer look at what each role on a Pirate Ship meant, and in more detail what each one consisted of.


*The Captain*

Always elected by the crew and chosen for his leadership, bravery, and cunningness. He was responsible for the ship and everything and everyone aboard her, but his power was only absolute in the heat of battle or when giving chase. At other times, the Captain’s wishes could be overruled by a simple majority vote. Captains were expected to be skilled and dependable seamen as well as bold, decisive leaders since they made the most important decisions including how to engage a target, how to pursue prey, how to escape the authorities and how to deal with an attack. In terms of daily duties, the Captain kept a log of the voyage, managed the affairs of the ship through his officers, and generally served a four to six hour shift at the helm. The Captain stayed in power by being successful. As long as there are prizes to plunder, rum to drink, and foot to eat, the Captain will not be voted out or mutinied against. It is when things get lean that the Captain must worry about his crew voting him unfit for command.

*The Quartermaster *

After the Captain, the Quartermaster had the most authority aboard ship. He was in charge of seeing that the Captain’s orders were carried out and handled the day-to-day operations aboard the vessel. He was the trustee of the ship and her crew, because he directly represented the crew to the Captain. It was his responsibility to serve as a counterbalance to the Captain in decisions that might be hazardous to the ship or crew. The Quartermaster also boarded prize vessels and determined what to take and what to leave behind. Therefore when there was plunder, the Quartermaster divided it up among the crew according to the number of shares each man received as his one. He was also in charge of discipline with regard to minor matters such as fighting or casual dereliction of duty. (More severe offences went before a pirate tribunal). Which meant Quartermasters often inflicted punishments such as floggings.


*The Sailing Master*

The Sailing Master was the number three man on the ship and often the most educated. However, good navigational skills were very hard to come by at the time due to lack of education. Therefore if there was a skilled navigator aboard a prize ship, pirates would often kidnap him and force him to join their crew. The Sailing Master served as the ship’s navigator and was generally the best all round sailor aboard the ship. He was responsible for plotting the ship’s course and maintaining that course as well as maintaining all of the ship’s charts, maps and tools of navigation. He was also charged with keeping a daily log of every event relating to the sailing of the ship. Which meant recording the depth, the currents, the wind patterns, the ship’s location, the locations of the refs and sandbars, and the state of the rigging which was to be reported directly back to the Captain.


*The Boatswain*

The number four man on the ship and usually the sailor with the most experience on board. His primary responsibility was to ensure the ship was maintained and be certain that all the work of running the ship was being done. The Boatswain directed all deck activities, including handling the sails, weighting, rigging, lines, yards, and anchors. And was also in charge of maintaining the stores of food, water, rum, gunpowder, sails, rope, wood and tar that was required to keep the ship and crew fit for action. In other words, the Boatswain was charged with maintaining the ship’s seaworthy status. Which meant he was often a very feared man due to his high demanding obligations. He reported to the Quartermaster and Captain but oversaw the duties of both the Carpenter and the Cook.


*The Master Gunner*

The Master Gunner was the number five man on board the vessel and was in command of the gun crew. The gun crews consisted of first gunner, second gunner, loading gunner, wiper, deputy loading gunner, deputy wipers, and a powder monkey. It was the Master Gunner’s duty to direct the gun crews to aim at the same time and fire at the right moment. An art that took years to learn. Unsurprisingly, the Master Gunner was responsible for the care and cleaning of all firearms, culverin (deck guns), and cannons on board the ship as well as maintaining the inventory of powder and shot. When not busy training and drilling the gunnery crew or maintaining the guns, the Master Gunner often led or picked hunting parties when they were called for.


*Master at Arms*

Was often the most skilled warrior on the crew, he was responsible for training the crew in hand to hand combat. He also led the ship’s boarding parties and hunting parties when they were necessary. The Master at Arms position was not a separate position on every vessel and often these responsibilities fell to the Quartermaster. When the Master at Arms position was filled on a ship, he took orders from and reported to the Quartermaster.


*Other Roles*


The Carpenter - was in charge of ensuring the ship’s structural integrity. He was tasked with fixing holes after combat, making repairs after a storm, keeping the masts and yardarms sound and functional, as well as knowing when the ship needed to be beached for maintenance or repairs. They would often have to make repairs on a deserted island or stretch of beach, using only what they could scavenge or cannibalise from other parts of the ship.


Doctor/Surgeon - trained doctors were hard to find and a luxury aboard a pirate ship. When ships had to go without one, often times a veteran sailor would serve in their stead, or most commonly, the carpenter or cook. A pirate doctor would have to attend injuries sustained through battle or work as well as diseases caused by lice/rats/cockroaches.


Striker - A native of the Caribbean often from Darien or the Mosquito Coast who hunted fish and game for the crew.


The Cook - was in charge of all matters relating to food on the ship. He made certain there was enough food, water, and rum on board for the planned cruise. He cooked the meals and suggested rationing when it was necessary. The cook took orders from and reported to the Boatswain.


Cooper - a man skilled in making and maintaining barrels. Since wooden barrels were the best way to store food, water and other necessities of life at sea, Cooper’s were considered extremely important. As part of his job he inspected existing storage barrels and dismantled empty barrels to make space in limited cargo areas.


Musicians - Piracy could be a tedious life at times which meant musicians were popular on board pirate ships. Ships spent weeks at sea waiting to find suitable prizes to plunder, therefore musicians helped pass the time while the others were working. Musicians were often forcibly taken from ships pirates attacked.


The Mates - The Mates aboard a pirate ship were apprentices to the Quartermaster, Boatswain and Carpenter. They would often be responsible for making sure that the ropes, sails and pulleys were correctly secured as well as responsible for the anchor. As there were more than one mate on aboard pirate ships, the term “First Mate” and so on, was coined.


Able Bodied Sailor’s - Able Bodied Sailor’s made up the majority of the crew, and were semi-skilled following the instructions of the Boatswain and Mates. Nevertheless, they needed to know about navigation, the weather, steering and of course hard grafting.


Swabbies - Were unskilled members of the crew who usually ‘swabbed’ the decks.


Cabin Boys - These were young boys who acted like servants and were among the lowest ranks, not without chance for promotion. They carried out the most humblest of tasks.


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