Who’s Who Aboard Ship

Author: Cindy Vallar

No matter whether a ship belonged to pirates, the Royal Navy, or merchants, each vessel had one thing in common--she required men to crew her. Men, or women, rarely went on the account unless they had previous experience at sea. The exception would be crewmembers with a particular specialty such as a surgeon, cooper, carpenter, or musician. The majority of pirates came from merchantmen or navy ships. As sailors, they had experience dealing with the various ranks and positions aboard these ships, as well as how important each was to the running of the vessel. As pirates, they discarded those positions that were of little use to them, and they made certain no one man held total power over any other man. In this way, pirates developed a more equitable system of officers and men where abuse and misuse were no longer the norm.

When a pirate crew formed, each person became a member of the council. No important decisions were made without their approval, and their decisions were sacrosanct. Not even the captain dared go against them, for one of the first decisions the council made was who should be captain. This was a radical concept within the maritime community, for the captain of any other ship had total control and responsibility for the crew and the ship. His decisions were to be obeyed without question. The only people he answered to if he served aboard a merchantman were the vessel’s owners, those who had invested in the trading or privateering venture. If he served in the Royal Navy, then he answered to his superior officers within the fleet or to the Admiralty Board that had commissioned him.

Technically, there was no rank of captain in the Royal Navy. He was a post-captain, a master and commander, or a lieutenant. (Commodore, flag-captain, and captain-of-the-fleet were temporary ranks that a post-captain might attain in time of war.) A post-captain served aboard any first- through sixth-rated ship, while a master and commander captained a sloop regardless of how many masts the vessel had. A lieutenant might command vessels smaller than a sloop, such as a brig or a gun-brig. Regardless of his rank, all these men were addressed as “captain.” Merchant vessels did not have a captain, as that was a naval term. Instead he was a master, and his men called him, “sir.”

Naval officers were assigned to command specific ships, whereas the ship owners hired a master to sail their vessel. Pirate captains, however, obtained their position by majority vote of the council. They did not select him based on popularity, but for his ability to control the ship and crew, and his knowledge of how to capture prizes while inflicting the least damage to those vessels. According to Daniel Defoe, the captain had to be “one superior for knowledge and boldness, Pistol Proof (as they call it) and can make those fear, who do not love him….”1 If he proved to be tyrannical, incompetent, or unlucky, the council ousted him. If he was cowardly, cruel, or too gentlemanly, they demoted him to just a pirate. One crew replaced their captain thirteen times in the space of only a few months.2

The pirates who sailed with Bartholomew Sharp thought he was a “man of undaunted courage and of excellent conduct.”3 Since he was also a skilled navigator, they elected him captain. After enduring weeks of storms and hardships in 1681, they voted him out as captain and replaced him with John Watling. Three weeks later after the new captain was slain, Sharp persuaded his comrades to reelect him as captain, which they did.

Whereas naval captains and masters had complete authority over everyone and everything aboard their vessels, a pirate captain only commanded his ship during a chase and in battle. At no other time did he receive any special privileges, except a slightly larger share of the booty in recognition of his value to the pirating venture. “The Captain’s Power is uncontroulable in Chase, or in Battle, drubbing, cutting, or even shooting any one who dares deny his Command. The same Privilege he takes over Prisoners, who receive good or ill Usage, mostly as he approves of their Behavior…”4

There were other differences as well. The post-captain, master and commander, or lieutenant lived by himself in the grandest cabin on the ship. Although he might entertain others at dinner once or twice a week, he spent much of his time alone. He could promote or disrate petty officers and ratings, and promote officers to the “acting rank of” until the admiral said yea or nay. He could have rated men or petty officers flogged, but warrant and commissioned officers could only be confined to their quarters pending a court-martial. 

A merchant master outfitted, supplied, and manned the vessel prior to her sailing. He complied with all paperwork, ordinances, and regulations of the port authorities. He rarely dealt with the crew except at Sunday service. He also served as navigator. Although he didn’t keep the ship’s log, he examined and corrected it. He handled all transactions with merchants and port officials. He made all the decisions.

Walter Kennedy, who sailed with Bartholomew Roberts and later became a pirate captain himself (albeit a bad one), confessed before he was hanged in 1721, “They choose a captain from amongs themselves, who in effect held little more than that title, excepting in an engagement, when he commanded absolutely.”5 Defoe elaborated on Roberts’s role as captain, “…they only permit him to be Captain on Condition, that they may be Captain over him; they separate to his Use the great Cabin, and sometimes vote him small Parcels of Plate and China…but then every Man, as the Humour takes him, will use the Plate and China, intrude into his Apartment, swear at him, seize a Part of his Victuals and Drink, if they like it, without his offering to find Fault or contest it.”6 

Perhaps the most unique officer aboard a pirate ship was the quartermaster, a position that did not exist on either a merchant or navy ship. Like the captain, he was elected by the council and was in charge of the day-to-day operations of the ship. He decided what items were of value from the prize ship, counted and distributed the treasure, and enforced the articles of agreement and administered any punishments to the crew, as long as they were minor infractions. “If they disobey his Command, are quarrelsome and mutinous with one another, misuse Prisoners, plunder beyond his Order, and in particular, if they be negligent of their Arms, which he musters at Discretion, he punishes at his own Arbitrement, with drubbing or whipping, which no one else dare do without incurring the Lash from all the Ship’s Company: In short, this Officer is Trustee for the whole, is the first on board any Prize, separating for the Company’s Use, what he pleases, and returning what he thinks fit to the Owners, excepting Gold and Silver, which they have voted not returnable…. [He] acts as a Sort of civil Magistrate on board a Pyrate Ship.”7 The quartermaster could flog a fellow pirate, but only if the council sanctioned it. Major violations of the articles of agreement required the council try the offender.

Since keeping track of captured booty required him to maintain records, the quartermaster had to be able to count and to write. He served as a counterbalance to the captain, for pirates did not want anyone to have power over them as they had experienced in their previous lives as legitimate sailors. He led the boarding parties, and sometimes assumed command of the prize if the ship was to be kept. William Snelgrave, who spent time as a prisoner of pirates, described the quartermaster’s job, “[He] has the general Inspection of all Affairs, and often controuls the Captain’s Orders: This Person is also to be the first Man in boarding any Ship they shall attack….”8 In addition to allocating booty, the quartermaster also doled out equal shares of food and drink. He was the most trusted man aboard the pirate ship. Calico Jack Rackham and Paul Williams served as quartermasters before they became captains.

The man who served immediately under a master on a merchant ship was the mate, who was called “Mister.” Two mates usually served aboard the vessel, but sometimes there were three. They were the supervising officers who dealt directly with the crew and determined the members of the two watches. The first mate had charge of the larboard watch and kept the log. He was the active superintending officer, conveying orders to the men and reporting to the master. The ship’s owners or insurers hired him rather than the captain. The second mate, whom the master hired, had charge of the starboard watch. He maintained the rigging, blocks, sails, tools, and sometimes the sails if no sailmaker was aboard. He worked alongside the sailors, pitching in whenever necessary.

Mates were akin to naval lieutenants, the lowest commissioned officers in the Royal Navy. To achieve this rank, he served six years of sea duty, three as a midshipman, and had passed an oral exam given by three captains. He did not become a full-fledged lieutenant, though, until he received a commission to a ship. Seniority determined whether he served as the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth lieutenant. (A first-rate ship usually had eight, while a fifth rate had only three.) When a ship had two or more lieutenants, all but the first lieutenant kept watch. He assigned each man his duties and his watch. In battle, he stood on the quarterdeck with the captain. The other lieutenants oversaw a particular group of men and commanded a section of guns. 

Privateers usually followed a naval ranking of officers, although they sailed under articles of agreement. They also carried a letter of marque from a country that permitted them to attack and plunder enemy shipping. Jean Laffite, a privateer of the early nineteenth century, had a letter of marque from Cartagena, which sought its independence from Spain. The Williams Research Center in New Orleans owns a Certificate of Inspection for the Diligente. The officers aboard this brig schooner, which Laffite captained and his brother Pierre owned, included a second captain, first and second lieutenants, and a prize captain among a crew of ninety-one.

One rank that pirates had no use for was that of midshipman. These boys were often the sons of gentlemen who wished to become officers some day, and although they were expected to act like gentlemen, they were sometimes treated as children. A midshipman maintained a log detailing the ship’s navigation, which was examined when he tested to become a lieutenant. He performed officers’ duties and was permitted on the quarterdeck. He assisted the officer of the watch and a lieutenant who commanded a section of guns during battle.

Pirates, however, considered the surgeon and musicians the most prized members of a crew. The surgeon in particular was a rarity aboard a pirate ship, but most pirates had need of his skills at some point. Aside from dressing wounds and performing amputations, surgeons also treated venereal diseases and decided whether food or drink was fit to consume. There was little he could do, however, to treat yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery. (Disease rather than battle wounds or accidents was the leading cause of death of sailors during the Age of Sail regardless of the type of ships they sailed on.) Alexander Exquemelin, also known as John Esquemeling, was perhaps the best-known pirate surgeon because he wrote of his experiences in The Buccaneers of America. Lionel Wafer, who also wrote of his adventures, shipped aboard vessels captained by Edmund Cook, Edward Davis, and John Hingson. Among other known surgeons were Mr. Bullock (Bartholomew Sharp), Thomas Dover (Woodes Rogers), and James Ferguson (Samuel Bellamy). If the pirates lacked a surgeon, the carpenter fulfilled those duties since his tools were similar.

In the Royal Navy, a surgeon was considered a warrant officer. Twice each day he visited the sick and wounded. He also checked new recruits and advised the captain on any matter relating to health. He had to supply his own equipment and until 1804, his medicines. Until 1795 he could fine a seaman fifteen shillings to treat venereal disease, but after that, the treatment was free. Only one surgeon served aboard a naval ship, but if the vessel was small, an assistant surgeon provided medical care.

While most pirates joined voluntarily, surgeons and musicians were sometimes forced to go on the account. The latter provided entertainment, playing a jig or serenading the pirates. During battle, musicians played drums and trumpets to encourage their comrades and demoralize the enemy. One of the articles in the code of conduct for Bartholomew Roberts’s crew demonstrated the high value the pirates placed on musicians. “The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day only, by right, on all other days, by favor only.”9

Pirates did designate a few specialists from among the crew. The council sometimes voted to decide who filled these positions and other times the chosen officers appointed them. The gunner oversaw the care and cleaning of all weapons. He trained the gun crews and kept an inventory of the powder and shot. Merchantmen did not employ gunners, but the navy considered them warrant officers. A gunner served four years in the navy, one as a petty officer, before he achieved this rank after demonstrating his qualifications to a master of mathematics and three other gunners. When in action, commissioned officers gave the gunner his orders, and he made certain there was an unending supply of shot and cartridges to the guns. Aside from keeping the guns in working condition, he made cartridges and wads. He supervised a quarter gunner for every four guns, the armorer, the gunsmith, and the yeomen who managed the ship’s powder magazine.

Sailmakers and carpenters were essential to any crew in the Age of Sail. Aboard a merchant ship, these men were idlers because they didn’t perform a sailor’s duties. In the Royal Navy, the sailmaker was considered a senior petty officer while the carpenter was a warrant officer, who stayed with the vessel from its creation until it was decommissioned. Before becoming a master carpenter, a man completed an apprenticeship with a shipwright and served as a carpenter’s mate for six months. He built and repaired furniture, masts, and yards. He also kept a watchful eye on the hull and wooden fittings, and reported any problems. In battle, he repaired any damage the enemy’s guns inflicted.

The other position deemed essential to any ship was that of cook, considered a petty officer in the navy and an idler on other ships. He was often a veteran sailor with a disability, who didn’t necessarily have any expertise or training as a chef. 

On a pirate ship, the captain served as the sailing master, but this was a separate position aboard a merchant or naval vessel. He was trained in the art of navigation, kept the official log, and if in the navy, reported uncharted shoals and reefs to the Admiralty. He supplied his own charts and equipment. His rank was akin to but below that of a lieutenant, yet his salary ranked just below that of a captain.

In the navy, the boatswain or bosun saw to the handling and care of the sails, rigging, and boats. Prior to becoming this warrant officer, he had served as a petty officer for a minimum of one year. He conducted daily inspections and reported defects to the officer of the watch as well as needed repairs to the first lieutenant. The boatswain’s mates carried starters (short ropes) or rattan canes (banned in 1809) to prod reluctant workers into doing their tasks. The boatswain’s mates also flogged men. Boatswains were also found on pirate ships, but they did not punish the crew. That was the job of the quartermaster.

Commissioned officers aboard merchant and naval ships were gentlemen and there existed a definite line between them and everyone else aboard. These officers often considered the men who served under them to be their inferiors, men who required harsh discipline to keep them in line. Pirates, however, detested anything that resembled society’s class distinctions or tyrannical and overbearing authority. Rebels to a fault, they instituted measures to eliminate these restrictions on their freedom. No one would ever again have more status or power over them. They were equals, and every man or woman who joined this brotherhood understood that before they signed the articles of agreement and went a pirating.

1 Defoe, Daniel. The General History of the Pyrates (1999), page 214.
2 Botting, Douglas. The Pirates (1978), page 50.
3 Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag (1995), page 98.
4 Defoe, pages 213-214.
5 Botting, page 47.
6 Defoe, pages 213-214.
7 Defoe, page 213.
8 Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations (2004), page 66.
9 Konstam, Angus. The History of Pirates (1999), page 187.






Who’s Who Aboard Ship