Skip to main content Skip to footer

Pirate Code of Conduct vs. Naval Discipline

Author: Cindy Vallar

Pirates are often seen as free spirits with reckless abandon who followed no man’s rules. Contrary to this popular belief, they operated under a few rules. After all, the very ships they sailed on and the conditions on those ships required it. Whether pirates or naval personnel, men aboard wooden sailing ships lived in cramped and crowded quarters within finite parameters on an ocean that often appeared empty. They might do so for months or years. William Dampier’s first voyage around the world, part of which was spent as a buccaneer, took twelve years.

Living under such conditions inevitably led bored men to occupy their time gambling, fighting, and drinking to excess. According to Royal Navy logbooks, as well as those of the East India Company, men were often disciplined for insolence and drunkenness during the Napoleonic era. Every week someone was flogged, even on a well-run ship. These problems cropped up within pirate crews as well, and while they were far more tolerant than the Royal Navy, those behaviors that endangered the ship or the company’s welfare were not tolerated.

Before pirates set out on a voyage, they elected their captain and drafted a document that included intolerable behaviors and the consequences for engaging in them. The buccaneers called them codes of conduct; the pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy referred to them as articles of agreement. Regardless of their name, once these rules were set down on paper, each pirate made his mark and swore an oath to abide by them. While uttering this solemn pledge, he placed his hand on a Bible or a pair of crossed pistols or axes.

Only a few of these documents survive, and none are originals.  Alexander Exquemelin, the buccaneer surgeon who wrote Buccaneers of America (1678), mentioned them. Daniel Defoe included several in his best-selling book, A General History of Pyrates, first published in 1724. George Lowther’s articles included four that dealt with discipline, but the punishment for any infraction was that the guilty “shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit.”1 In contrast, those of Bartholomew Roberts and John Phillips spelled out what happened to violators.

Excerpt from B. Roberts’s Articles of Agreement2

• Every Man to be called fairly in Turn, by List, on board of Prizes, because…they were on these Occasions allowed a Shift of Cloaths: But if they defrauded the Company to the Value of a Dollar, in Plate, Jewels, or Money, Marooning was their Punishment.  If the Robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the Ears and Nose of him that was Guilty, and set him on Shore, not in an uninhabited Place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter Hardships.

• To Desert the Ship, or their Quarters in Battle, was punished with Death or Marooning.

Excerpt from J. Phillips’s Articles of Agreement3

• If any Man shall offer to run away, or keep any Secret from the Company, he shall be maroon’d, with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm and Shot.

• If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game to the Value of a Piece of Eight, he shall be maroon’d or shot.

Marooning was the cruelest punishment, and the one a pirate most feared. Abandoned on a spit of land or island devoid of fresh water and food, he had little chance to escape. The hot sun burned and blistered his skin. Without food and water he starved and became dehydrated. At high tide, the water might flood the island or leave him standing in water up to his neck. And woe to him if sharks infested the surrounding water. If he preferred a quick death, he could shoot himself, but doing so damned his soul forever.

Excerpt from B. Roberts’s Articles of Agreement

No striking one another on board, but every Man’s Quarrels to be ended on Shore, at Sword and Pistol, thus: The Quarter-Master of the Ship, when the Parties will not come to any Reconciliation, accompanies them on Shore with what Assistance he thinks proper, and turns the Disputants Back to Back, at so many Paces Distance: At the Word of Command, they turn and fire immediately, (or else the Piece is knock’d out of their Hands:) If both miss, they come to their Cutlashes, and then he is declared Victor who draws the first Blood.

Dueling with swords or pistols, a time-honored way to settle an argument or right a slight to one’s honor, was conducted under strict guidelines. While pirates performed theirs under far simpler rules, they achieved the same goals--to settle a score and retain one’s honor. If treachery ensued during a duel, the pirate who broke the rules was punished. “They also see justice done among themselves. If anyone has a quarrel and kills his opponent treacherously, he is set against a tree and shot dead by the one whom he chooses. But if he has killed his opponent like an honourable man…his comrades let him go free. The duel is their way of settling disputes.”4

Excerpt from J. Phillips’s Articles of Agreement

• That Man that shall strike another whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses’s Law on the bare Back.

• That Man that shall snap his Arms, or smoak Tobacco in the Hold, without a Cap to his Pipe, or carry a Candle lighted without a Lanthorn, shall suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.

Moses’s Law meant a flogging. Pirates detested this form of punishment because most had endured the lash while legitimate sailors, but the ship’s company might deem it justified. Moses’s Law consisted of thirty-nine lashes, the number Christ endured before his crucifixion, and was sufficient in number to result in the pirate passing out or expiring. The quartermaster carried out the sentence using the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip with nine knotted lines, sometimes with bits of iron added to the ends. The guilty man was lashed to a mast, gun, or grating prior to the quartermaster delivering the first blow.

In contrast, flogging was a frequent punishment in the Royal Navy. Whereas pirates as a whole ordered their men to be flogged, that was the sole prerogative of the captain on a naval vessel. According to the Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, “No commander shall inflict punishment upon a seaman beyond twelve lashes upon his bare back with a cat-of-nine-tails according to the ancient practise of the sea. But if the fault shall deserve a greater punishment, he is either to apply to the commander in chief or inform the Secretary of the admiralty if the ship is at home in order to the offender being brought to a court martial…”5 In actuality, a captain could bypass this limit by counting each infraction of a single incident separately, thus imposing multiple sets of twelve lashes on the guilty man. “When a poor fellow is being punished, his agonising cries pierce you to the soul. The scene is awful! Hot boiling lead poured on a criminal’s back would be but in comparison to the suffering of those who come under the lash of the unrelenting boatswain’s mates.”6

Edinburgh University Medical School owns a cat-o’-nine-tails that the Royal Navy used in 1820. “It is a round wooden baton 18 inches long, 1½ inches wide…nine tails of a stoutish cord (not leather) each 24 inches long. The tails are knotted 3 times each at approximately ½ to 2 inches intervals, and the tips are bound with thread to prevent fraying…. The first knot is 2 inches from the end of each strand. A faintly discernible strand of red cotton runs through each tail, occasionally visible, an example of the Admiralty's marking of rope to prevent theft.”7 Using these specifications, the school constructed a replica and carried out an experiment, performed “by a 5’10” man of average build on various pieces of knot-free pitch pine. A ¾” by ¾” piece broke into 3 bits on the first blow while a 1” by 1” piece broke on the second.”8

If the offense warranted it, a court martial could sentence the guilty man to a more severe whipping known as flogging round the fleet. The number of lashes totaled one hundred to one thousand. Deserters often endured three hundred. “It was a dreadful sight; the unfortunate suffered tied down on the boat and rowed from ship to ship, getting an equal number of lashes at the side of each vessel from a fresh man…He was rowed back to the Surprise, his back swelled like a pillow, black and blue; some sheets of thick blue paper were steeped in vinegar and laid to his back. Before, he seemed insensible, now his shrieks rent the air. When better he was sent to the ship…were …again renewed.”9 Death was a common outcome after inflicting such punishment.

A seaman convicted of theft endured yet another variation of flogging. Stealing from a fellow mate, either on the ship itself or from a prize, destroyed the trust and order needed aboard a ship. Charles Graham, Captain of the William Pitt (an East Indiaman) wrote the following passage in his log on 16 March 1816: “punished Richard Symons for repeated thefts by marching him three times round the deck with the Rogues March playing and a halter round his neck, after which gave him four dozen lashes on the backside at a gun in the presence of all the crew. When punishment was over made him stand on the gundeck with the word Thief stuck on his back.”10

Sometimes a naval captain permitted the crew to inflict the punishment because they were the victims of the theft. “The cavalcade starts from the break of the quarterdeck, after the boatswain has given the prisoner a dozen lashes, and the ship’s crew are ranged around the decks in two rows, so that the prisoner passes between them, and each man is provided with a three yarn knittle; that is, three rope yarns tightly laid together and knotted. With this, each man must cut him, or be thought to be implicated in his theft.”11 The Royal Navy abolished the running of the gauntlet in 1806.

Excerpt from B. Roberts’s Articles of Agreement

• No Boy or Woman to be allowed amongst them. If any Man were found seducing any of the latter Sex, and carry’d her to Sea, disguised, he was to suffer Death.

• To Desert the Ship, or their Quarters in Battle, was punished with Death or Marooning.

Excerpt from J. Phillips’s Articles of Agreement

• If at any Time we meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer present Death.

Death was the ultimate penalty. On a pirate ship, the man sentenced to die selected his executioner. Then he was tied to the mainmast and shot. Cheng I Sao, perhaps the most successful of women pirates, decapitated any pirate who issued orders on his own or disobeyed those of his superior. She considered theft, which was a capital offense, worse than desertion, where a man had his ear cut off before he was paraded around the squadron. Rape merited death, as did having consensual sex with a captive woman. In the latter case, the pirate was beheaded and the woman had weights tied to her feet before she was thrown overboard.

The Navy Discipline Act of 1749 contained nineteen Articles of War that carried the death penalty. The offenses included not engaging the enemy, disobeying orders, cowardice or negligence, desertion, joining up with pirates, mutiny, falling asleep on watch, murder, sodomy, and robbery. When a seaman or petty officer was sentenced to death, he was hanged from the yardarm aboard the vessel on which he served as an example to others. His head was covered with a bag, then he stood on the cathead. After the noose was put around his neck, “[a]bout twenty stout fellows seized each of the ropes. One instant’s, and only one instant’s, pause occurred, for the boatswain piping ‘hoist away’, the executioners ran with all speed towards the poop; and the unfortunate culprit hurried aloft with the rapidity of thought, died in an instant…”12

Although often seen as lawless, pirates abided by certain rules to maintain harmony while at sea and to maintain the necessary cohesiveness needed to capture prizes. They interpreted maritime rules based on their previous experiences as merchant sailors or seaman in the Royal Navy. They tolerated behaviors like uncleanliness, drinking, and cursing, whereas the navy did not. Offenses that impacted the pirate crew as a whole, however, were outlined in their articles, as were the consequences for engaging in those behaviors. What made their rules different from those in the Royal Navy’s Articles of War was that no one man (the captain) had power over everyone else. Instead majority rule decided the guilt or innocence of a pirate, and how he should be punished.

1 Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates (1999), pages 307-8.
2 Ibid., pages 211-212.
3 Ibid., pages 342-343.
4 Exquemelin, Alexander O. The Buccaneers of America (1969), page 72.
5 Patrick O’Brian’s Navy (2003), page 149.
6 Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy (1989), page 218.
7 “Nelson and His Navy – The Cat o’ Nine Tails,” The Historical Maritime Society.  Retrieved 5 November 2004 
8 Ibid.
9 Lavery, page 217.
10 Patrick O’Brian’s Navy, page 149.
11 Lavery, page 219.
12 Lavery, page 217.