The Pirate Codes
Thoughts on the floating democracy of the 18th-century pirate ship—and why the most interesting ideas in governance often come from implausible places
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Last week I happened upon an entertaining and provocative blog post from Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell and Open Philanthropy, via a tweet from Ezra Klein. Karnofky’s post is worth reading in full, but the quick précis is that he uses an extended series of nautical metaphors to explore how people attempt to bring about positive change in the world. “Imagine that the world is a ship,” he writes. “Here are five very different ways one might try to do one's part in ‘working toward a better life for the people on the ship.’”
My first reaction to the matrix was: I like all five of those strategies! (Or at least four of them. I don’t do a lot of anchoring as a rule.) But my second response was to be reminded of a section from my book, Enemy Of All Mankind, that also talked about social change and nautical affairs—not as a framing metaphor, but rather as a matter of history. (Some of this is covered in a terrific book by Peter Leeson called The Invisible Hook, which I highly recommend.) And in a strange way, that nautical history connects to a conversation Chris Dixon and I were having last month here at Adjacent Possible, about new models of governance emerging out of the crypto world.
Enemy, as some of you know, tells the story of a 17th-century pirate named Henry Every, who pulls off one of the largest heists in the history of crime, attacking an Indian treasure ship in 1695, while his men commit a horrific series of sexual assaults onboard the ship—all provoking the first global manhunt in history. But one of the sub-themes of the book is the way in which pirates became working class heroes back in England and the American colonies, their deeds celebrated in the tabloid media that was just taking shape for the first time back then.
Now, part of that populist appeal came from the simple rags-to-riches mythology of the classic pirate narrative. In a world with very little real class mobility, the pirate lifestyle at least offered the promise of changing your material station in life. But the populist appeal was also rooted in another element of pirate culture, one that isn’t often taught in high school history textbooks: the pirates of the 17th and early 18th-century were true pioneers in forming—and experimenting with—new models of democratic governance and wealth sharing.
While pirates have almost always lived outside the laws of nation-states, and while they have a sometimes deserved reputation for anarchic acts of violence, within their floating communities they usually created— and obeyed—surprisingly coherent codes that governed their behavior, including their financial interactions. Most pirate voyages began by establishing “articles of agreement,” the bylaws that would shape both the political and economic relations among captains, officers, and ordinary crew.
The most critical article involved the distribution of loot. Much like the investors in early joint-stock corporations like the East India Company, each pirate was considered a shareholder in the venture. If they were lucky enough to seize treasure during their voyage, the bounty would be distributed based on the shares held by each man. But unlike the East India Company—and indeed just about any modern corporation—the distribution of profit on almost all pirate ships was radically egalitarian. To give some frame of reference, the compensation for American corporate executives today is, on average, several hundred times larger than the median worker compensation in the firm. On a Royal Navy ship during Every’s time, the captain and officer class might earn ten times the wages of the average able seaman. On a merchant vessel, the income ratio could be as low as five to one. Pirate distributions were even flatter. The articles on board eighteenth-century pirate Edward Low’s ship spelled out the economic terms as follows: “The Captain is to have two full shares; the Master is to have one Share and one half; The Doctor, Mate, Gunner and Boatswain, one Share and one Quarter.” The rest of the crew were granted one share a piece. Henry Every and his men adopted a simpler structure: two shares for Every, one share for everyone else.
But the Articles of Agreement extended far beyond profit-sharing schemes. Four complete articles from 18th-century pirates have survived. They are fascinating documents, in the glimpse they give of both the everyday pastimes on board a pirate ship, and the surprisingly nuanced political systems the pirates developed to maintain order and secure stable governance on their voyages. You can read the full articles from pirate Bartholomew Roberts’ ship here.
Some of the principles in this mini-constitution—composed sometime in the early 1720s—seem appropriately archaic to the modern mind: most political documents today do not specify the terms for dueling, or forbid candlelight after eight p.m. But on the most important points, the pirate codes—as the articles of agreements were sometimes called—were significantly ahead of their time. Consider the opening line of the Roberts articles: “Every man shall have an equal vote in the affairs of moment.” The pirates encoded these democratic principles into their constitutions almost a century before the American and French Revolutions. A captain served at the pleasure of his crew, and could be removed from power if he fell out of favor with the majority. Navy and merchant ships were autocratic institutions, with a tightly controlled chain of command headed by a captain possessing absolute authority over the ship, and no mechanism for curbing any abuse of that power. The pirate ship, by contrast, was a floating democracy.
The elegance of the pirate governance model went beyond their voting rights. Most pirate ships during the period created a separation of powers on board that bears a striking resemblance to the architecture of the U.S. Constitution. The captain’s authority was not just limited by the threat of being voted out of office; he was also reined in by the separate authority of the quartermaster. While the captain had unrestricted powers during battle, and had executive authority at all times to establish the overall mission for the ship, most day-to-day issues were adjudicated by the quartermaster, who also was charged with the distribution of loot.
If the captain served as an elected leader, roughly equivalent to a president or CEO, the quartermaster played a more eclectic role, a mix of a judicial branch, determining punishments for onboard transgressions, and a chief financial officer, overseeing compensation packages. The pirates also had elaborate insurance schemes, providing extra compensation for crew members who, say, lost a limb in battle.
All these elements combined—an onboard democracy, with separation of powers; equitable compensation plans; insurance policies in the event of catastrophic injuries—meant that a pirate ship in the late 1600s and early 1700s operated both outside the law of European nation-states and, in a real sense, ahead of those laws. The pirates were vanguards as much as they were outlaws, building codes that ensured the collective strength of the ship and guarded against excessive concentration of both power and wealth. At the very moment the modern multinational corporation was being invented, the pirates were experimenting with a different kind of economic structure, closer to a worker’s collective.
Those economic and governance codes have led historians in recent years to reevaluate the place of the pirates, seeing them now not just as significant figures in the history of crime and exploration, but also as pioneers in the history of radical politics. As the maritime historian J. S. Bromley wrote, the pirates “were not merely escaping from bondage. In their enterprises at least, they practiced notions of liberty and equality, even of fraternity, which for most inhabitants of the old world and the new remained frustrated dreams, so far as they were dreamt at all.”
To a certain extent, Every and the generation of pirates that followed him were drawn to those still nascent political structures by the intense challenges presented by the ocean itself. In those first centuries of the Age of Exploration, the ocean was a place that demanded constant experimentation. Life at sea is human culture at its most extreme. You are surrounded by things that pose existential threats to you, thanks to your biology: water, thirst, starvation. And yet our cultural ingenuity gives us the opportunity to survive in such a hostile environment, even make a living from it. But humans had to invent new tricks to pull off such an impressive feat. Some of those tricks were technological: better maps and compasses and clocks; new practices in shipbuilding. But some of them were political: new ways of organizing a polity, or distributing wealth.
The lesson for us today, I think, is that new ideas in how we should govern ourselves, or new models for economic production, are inevitably going to come out of unlikely places, where extreme conditions or new technological platforms make those new ideas imaginable for the first time. This is why—despite all the ludicrous hype and obvious scam artists—I’ve continued to stay engaged in trying to understand what’s happening in the Web3 world; it’s why I spent so much time with Chris Dixon exploring the new governance possibilities opened up by DAOs. (If you think some of the crypto community are unsavory characters, you should spend some time with Henry Every and his crew!) If there are genuinely new ideas about how to make decisions collectively—or share the value we create with our labor more equitably—they are not likely to emerge in our existing institutions; they’ll show up in the margins, in cultures that most people won’t take seriously. Maybe the next radical idea in governance is being hatched right now in some gameworld somewhere, given the openness to experimentation and new possibilities that games have always afforded us. Whatever the actual context turns out to be, if history is any guide, those new ideas will first take hold in an environment that will seem remote and implausible to most of us, beyond the pale, figuratively—or literally—out to sea.
[Some of this post is adapted from Enemy Of All Mankind, which I might add makes an excellent holiday present for the history buff in your family—or the scholar of constitutional history.]