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A history of pirates

history of pirates

What do the pirates of yore tell us about their modern counterparts?

Pirates had strict but unconventional codes of behavior, and some historians claim them as early progressives—with democracy, economic fairness, racial tolerance, and even health care.

Caleb Crain explores a history of pirates in the New Yorker.

… Modern piracy has its origins in the wars that the great European powers fought over trade in the centuries following the discovery of the New World. Like Donald Rumsfeld, Renaissance monarchs seem to have believed in military outsourcing, and they cheaply and quickly acquired navies by granting private vessels, known as privateers, the right to raid enemy ships and pay themselves out of the plunder, a share of which they were to pass along to the government. If all went well—especially if the ships taken belonged to the Spanish, who hauled a fortune in American gold and silver across the Atlantic twice a year—the contracting government grew a little richer. So long as one of the nations involved considered it legal, privateering wasn’t technically piracy, but the Spanish liked to put the paperwork making this claim around the necks of privateers that they hanged. The privateers themselves, according to a 1724 account, tended to “make very little Distinction betwixt the Lawfulness of one, and the Unlawfulness of the other,” especially when peace intermittently threatened to deprive them of an income. In December of 1670, for example, Henry Morgan ignored a letter telling him that England had signed a treaty with Spain in July and went on to sack the Spanish-owned city of Panama. Morgan had scored princely sums elsewhere, however, so when he was eventually arrested and sent to London, he was knighted and appointed deputy governor of Jamaica.

Because criminal agreements have no legal force, it’s tempting to think of pirate articles as quaint—if not misguided, considering how often they showed up in court as evidence against their signatories. Leeson is at pains to show the articles as a rational choice, enabling pirates to create a voluntary association that was stable and orderly. By setting terms in advance, punishing embezzlement harshly, and keeping the pay gap between captain and men low, the articles reduced conflict over property claims. By limiting drinking and requiring clean weapons, they curbed individual behaviors that might otherwise have damaged the crew’s fighting ability. And by rewarding special achievements and providing health insurance they encouraged enthusiasm and risk-taking. The results were impressive. “As great robbers as they are to all besides,” a sea cook observed in 1709, they “are precisely just among themselves.” No one could join a pirate crew without swearing to the articles, which, Leeson explains, reduced what economists call the “external costs” of decision-making—in this case, the discontent of anyone who thought them unfair, a dangerous sentiment when betrayal meant hanging. Articles also made it harder for leaders to cheat, because their public nature enabled every pirate to tell if a rule had been broken. The only rules as tough and flexible, Leeson provocatively suggests, were the covenants that founded New England’s Puritan churches.

In Leeson’s opinion, there was a sound economic basis for all this democracy. Most businesses suffer from what economists call the “principal-agent problem”: the owner doesn’t work, and the workers, not being stakeholders, lack incentives; so a certain amount of surveillance and coercion is necessary to persuade Ishmael to hunt whales instead of spending all day in his hammock with Queequeg. Pirates, by contrast, having stolen the ships they sailed, were both principals and agents; they still needed a captain but, Leeson explains, “they didn’t require autocratic captains because there were no absentee owners to align the crew’s interests with.” The insight suggests more than Leeson seems to want it to—does inequity always entail political repression?—and late in the book he backtracks, cautioning that the pirate example “doesn’t mean democratic management makes sense for all firms,” only that management style should be adjusted to the underlying ownership structure. But a certain kind of reader is likely to ignore the hedging, and note that the pirates, two centuries before Lenin, had seized the means of production.