Blood, Guts and Galleons: The Peculiar Organizational Structure of Pirate Ships

January 17, 2015


The way we lead and manage our organizations is changing rapidly.  We are moving quickly from rigid position hierarchies to more fluid role-based structures, from rule compliance to more say by employees in what happens to them, from power-wielding ‘bosses’ to team-based leadership practices, from time-based wages to pay-for-performance – all new and more enlightened ways of managing things.

We might call this ‘new’ management, but these practices aren’t really new, we have seen shifts like this happen a number of times before in history. One such fascinating and surprising experiment to apply these new concepts was at the time of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ around the turn of the eighteenth century.  This is all the more surprising because enlightened management practices are so unexpected within the pirate community, given the times that they operated in, the nature of pirating and the type of people that they were.

The Bloodthirsty Buccaneers

The great ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ in the Caribbean began in the 1650s with the emergence of the buccaneers in Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It reached its peak around 1720, when some two thousand pirates were terrorizing ships on both sides of theAtlantic, and continued until around 1725.

A pirate is someone who robs and plunders on the sea. While the pirates of the Mediterranean and the Barbary Coast were called corsairs, the pirates who operated in the Caribbean, the ‘Spanish Main’, were called buccaneers.  Although today the buccaneers have acquired a status as swashbuckling, romantic outlaws, many of the pirates and their leaders were formidable characters, with reputations as cruel, ruthless villains. Some attained a mythical status like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and Henry Morgan, who received a knighthood and was appointed as Lieutenant‑Governor of Jamaica.  Indeed, the stuff of legends.

The Pirates’ sworn enemy was the British Royal Navy. When captured, pirates were brought to swift and brutal justice.  Many were hanged in public executions on Execution Dock by the Thames in London.  After hanging, their bodies were washed by three tides before they were cut down.  Notorious pirates’ bodies were displayed until they rotted at highly visible promontories as a sobering warning to the crews of ships heading out to sea.

It is interesting to compare the way the Royal Navy and the pirates organized themselves. The Royal Navy was organized by a clear and formal discipline, bureaucracy and structure.  The pirates on the other hand had a very different organization of labour and technology.  They also had an equally highly disciplined structure that was looser but was nevertheless just as successful.

The Pirates

Almost all buccaneers were professional seafarers, former seamen in the merchant service or the Royal Navy or who had served in privateers (private ships that carried ‘Letters of Marque’, which gave the right to plunder without punishment). Although they included convicts, outlaws and escaped slaves, most were volunteers who became pirates when their ships were captured. The fact that they were professional seafarers helps to explain much of their behaviour and attitudes. Seamen in the days of sail were a race apart but they still needed discipline. They did what was necessary to crew a small ship, get the jobs done that needed to get done, navigate and take her on long, arduous and treacherous voyages, fighting battles along the way.

They had their own rough seafaring language. They were burnt and weathered, liable to have scars and injuries from handling sails and gear in heavy weather. Months of keeping their balance on a heaving deck gave them a rolling gait. The traditional costume of the buccaneer was hard-wearing and practical, short blue jackets, red waistcoat over a checked shirt, and long canvas trousers with a scarf or handkerchief tied loosely around the neck.  They went into battle armed to the teeth, looking as fearsome as they could.

The pirates who operated in theWest Indies were a diversified group drawn from many seafaring nations, so there was no sense of national unity to bind them together. While ordinary seamen joined voluntarily, it was often necessary to forcibly detain skilled men such as carpenters, surgeons and coopers.  Most pirates remained faithful to their ships during their brief careers.

One study of the buccaneers showed that they came from mainly English speaking nations, 35% were native Englishmen, 25% were born in the American Colonies, 20% from the West Indies mostly Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas, and the rest from Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and Holland.

In the dangerous waters of theSpanish Main, pirate life was short, cheap and cruel.  They were mostly unmarried young men in their twenties. The average age was 27.  They needed to be young to meet the physical demands of working a sailing ship in all weathers and to withstand the extreme discomforts of shipboard life.

Pirates cultivated a reputation as bloodthirsty thugs capable of the most appalling merciless violence. They encouraged this evil image to instill fear into their victims and to terrify them into surrender. The men who became pirate leaders were not clean‑cut heroes or jovial rogues but were tough, ruthless men capable of the most savage cruelty and murder.

Blackbeard (Edward Teach) for example was a fearsome and brutal figure. He had wild staring eyes and a viciously cruel streak, drank rum mixed with gunpowder, and twisted his huge black beard into plaits, which he wound round his ears to make his appearance even more alarming. He carried six pistols and went into battle with smoldering gunpowder fuses hanging from his hat so that he appeared in a thick cloud of black smoke. He terrified not only his victims but also his own crew! Altogether he had 14 wives, most were under 15 when he married them and were still living when he died.  He came to a fitting and bloody end in a pitched battle with the Royal Navy.  The lieutenant who succeeded in killing him hung Blackbeard’s head from the end of his bow-sprit.  Blackbeard’s reign of terror lasted only two years but in this short time he became a legend.

Most pirates were rebellious and lazy by nature, notorious for foul language and prolonged bouts of drinking, which frequently led to quarrels and violence.  They worked together in an uneasy partnership, attracted by the lure of plunder and an easy life.  The crew spent most of their days carousing, playing cards or dice or being incapacitated by drink. In the tough, all male regime of the pirate community, many of the men cultivated a macho image which was expressed in hard drinking, course language, threatening behaviour and casual cruelty.

While almost all pirates were male there were notable exceptions.  In the days of sail it was considered unthinkable that women should be subjected to the physical demands of decklife and the wet, cramped and foul-smelling conditions below.  There was a widespread belief that a woman on board was likely to provoke jealousies and conflicts among the crew, and there was a strong tradition among seamen that a woman on board brought bad luck.  The usual penalty for being found with a woman on board was for both woman and crew member to be thrown over the side.  In spite of this a few determined women did join pirate crews as sailors successfully dressed as men.  All activities on a small pirate ship were very visible; there was little privacy and few secrets.  The ingenuity of these women who successfully fooled their shipmates must have been extraordinary.

Two famous women pirates were Mary Read and Anne Bonny, who were both brought up as boys and ran away to sea.  They were strong, courageous and fierce fighters who led separate but equally adventurous pirate lives dressed as men until they came together as members of the crew of ‘Calico Jack’ Rackam.

In one incident during an attack, all but one of the crew hid while Read and Bonny fought on. When the crew would not come out and “fight like men”, Mary Read shot them.  Along the way Anne Bonny accidentally fell in love with Mary Read until the secret was inevitably revealed and they became firm friends. They were both captured by a British sloop off Jamaica with ‘Calico Jack’ and the rest of his crew.  Bonny and Read were the only members of the intoxicated crew brave enough to fend off the surprise attack. ‘Calico Jack’ and the crew were sentence to death, and ‘danced the hempen jig’ on Gallows Point at Port Royal,Jamaica.  As Rackam went to the gallows, Bonny shouted to him “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog”.  The two women narrowly escaped the gallows after they had been sentenced to death, when it was discovered that they were both pregnant.  Their revelation, trial and its outcome is a great story in itself.

The Ships

Conditions on board an ocean‑going wooden ship in the eighteenth century were difficult to say the least. The ship was a confusing jumble of tarred rope, mildewed sails, spare masts and spars, muddy anchor cables, hen coops, hammocks, seamen’s chests, wooden crates of various sizes and numerous barrels containing water, beer, salt pork, and gunpowder. In order to provide fresh meat and milk during the voyage, an assorted collection of cows, goats, ducks, geese, and chickens were kept in pens below deck.  Pirates’ pets were common.

A pirate ship’s speed and seaworthiness were paramount for the job at hand; size was more important as a suitable gun platform than for carrying cargo.  Many of the buccaneers used the single-masted sloops built in Bermuda and Jamaica. Others used brigantines or schooners, most of which were prizes.  While a merchantman of 100 tons would have a crew of around 12 men, a pirate ship of similar size would have a crew of 80 or more.  The larger crews were needed to operate the many guns and to work the ship during an engagement.  Very few pirate ships had crews of less than 30, many had 150 to 200, an awesome sight to a merchantman with a crew of 15!

The daily routine on a pirate ship was considerably easier than a merchantman because it did not have to deliver large cargoes in the fastest time. The larger crew provided a regime that was relaxed and easy going, with an underlying sense of order provided by the need to keep the watch and work the ship. They were an organization unto itself, doing what was required to sail the ship, have all the jobs covered and be entirely self‑sufficient for months on end.

A typical pirate ship’s strategy was to act alone making swift and savage attacks. In the great majority of attacks, a single pirate ship was a sufficient threat to persuade the captain of a merchant ship to surrender.  However, because they knew one another, some did form loose connections. A study shows that more than 70% of the pirates active between 1716 and 1726 fitted into two groups, with inter‑connections within each group – an early virtual organization that was adaptive and responsive. Because of these connections, pirates would congregate in known safe places to careen and repair their boats, take on supplies, and share information and good times. One such place was the town of Port Royal in Jamaica.  This was a notorious pirate haven, a magnet for 17th century pirates seeking pleasure ashore until it was almost destroyed by an earthquake in 1692, which many believed was divine judgement.

These meetings help explain the similarity in their operational rules of conduct; for example, the rapid adoption of the ‘Jolly Roger’ or common piratical black flag. This was a form of brand identity among a group of ships operating alone across thousands of miles of ocean.  The meetings also led to a sort of teamwork or loose collaboration, which, however fragile and liable to fragmentation, could produce squadrons of pirate ships which were considerably more formidable than pirate crews operating on their own.

The Organization Structure

The pirate ship of the buccaneers was an organization that worked very successfully, but its operating structure was very different from that of its enemy the Royal Navy.  The Royal Navy operated on the basis of hierarchy, power and authority; a typical command and control structure with all decisions passed down through the ranks from the appointed leaders at the top. The Captain demanded obedience and dispensed punishment as he saw fit.  In contrast, pirate ships were true democracies. What is most surprising is that this form of organization was unprecedented at the time in the Royal Navy, the merchant navy or any other institution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Liberty, equality and brotherhood were the rule rather than the exception on pirate ships. And this was a hundred years before the French Revolution!

Pirates carried out a strange experiment for their times by constructing a culture of masterless men; as far removed from traditional authority as any men could be in the early eighteenth century.  These were cruel, domineering, drunken villains, not qualities we associate today with empowerment, shared decision-making, participative management and democratically voted leadership, but it worked, and worked well by all accounts.

All important decisions were made by a majority decision of the crew.  By equal majority vote, the crew decided the destination of each voyage and whether to attack a particular ship or to raid a coastal village.  Pirates did not plan too much and the crew often made decisions on the spur of the moment; the tracks of pirate ships show many of them zigzagged seemingly aimlessly over the ocean.

The organizational structure was built around the necessary roles that needed to be played rather than the exercise of hierarchy and power.  Pirates had no use for officer ranks of supervision or authority. However, jobs were needed to be carried out to sail the ship and crew members were elected to carry out these jobs. As well as a captain, most pirate ships had a quartermaster, boatswain, a gunner, a carpenter, a cook, a first mate, and a second mate.  These were all elected by the crew.

The captain, or crew leader, was also elected by the votes of the majority of the crew and he could be deposed by majority decision at any time if he failed to perform to their satisfaction.  The captain was given absolute power in battle and when ‘fighting, chasing or being chased’ but in all other matters he was governed by the majority wishes of the crew. He was given the use of the great cabin but other members of the crew could come in and out and share his food and drink. He was expected to be bold and decisive in action, and skilled in navigation and seamanship. Above all, he had to have the force of personality to hold together an unruly bunch of seamen with little to unite them except the lure of riches and the desire for an easy life. It is not surprising that pirate captains’ careers rarely lasted more than two or three years.

Other jobs were developed around required and mutually agreed upon roles. The quartermaster, for example, has been described as a ‘a sort of civil magistrate’. He was the crew’s representative and ‘trustee for the whole’.  Like the medieval consul he was empowered to adjudicate the differences between the captain and crew.  He settled minor disputes, and he had the authority to punish with whipping or drubbing. He was expected to lead the attack when boarding a ship, and he usually took command of captured prizes.

Pirates obeyed no laws except their own. Their laws were a code of conduct called ‘Articles of Association’ that they developed for their purposes.  These articles defined the basic rules that governed life on the ship, and detailed the punishments for breaking the rules. Through the code, everyone knew where they stood. The ‘Articles of Association’ were drawn up at the start of a voyage or on the election of a new captain, sworn to on the Bible and signed by every member of the crew – an original team charter.  It typically included the daily food allowance, the distribution of plunder, the scale of compensation for injuries in battle, the basic rules for shipboard life and the punishment for infringements. The harsh penalties for violation of the articles included flogging, keelhauling, marooning or being thrown overboard.

While no doubt some crew members were forced to sign the articles, this approach, based on a commonly accepted code of conduct, worked because of a strong sense of collective conscience and community among seamen at the time – there was a powerful ‘brotherhood of the deep’. (In the merchant marine around this time, the crews of merchant ships began to “strike” the sails of their vessels as an effective collective protest.)

The ‘Articles of Association’ differed between ships but all followed similar lines.  For example, every pirate expedition worked on the principle of ‘no prey, no pay’. Whereas the merchant marine operated on wages, pirates abolished wages for ordinary seamen.  They considered themselves to be risk-sharing partners, rather than a collection of “hands” who sold their muscle on the open market. The articles determined how the plunder was to be divided amongst the crew.  The captain received an agreed amount for the ship, plus a proportion of the cargo, this may be 5 or 6 shares. Everyone on board was entitled to a known share.  Salaries for the skilled professionals were also included.  The salary of the carpenter for example may be agreed at 100 or 150 pieces of eight, and the salary of the surgeon 200 or 250 pieces of eight.

Amounts were also determined for injuries and written into the articles, an early form of medical insurance. A typical scale is as follows:

Loss of right arm        600 pieces of eight

Loss of left arm            500

Loss of right leg           500

Loss of left leg             400

Loss of an eye              100

Loss of a finger            100

Once these sums had been settled, the remainder of the loot was divided up. The first mate received two shares and the rest of the crew received one share each.

As a result of the dispersion of their loot, and because pirates were not savers, there are very few documented examples of real pirates burying their plunder.  Although they may become millionaires overnight, most pirates preferred to quickly squander their loot in an orgy of drinking, gambling and womanizing when they returned to port.  However, legends remain, the mysterious Oak Island treasure off Nova Scotia, for example, is still linked to Captain Kidd.

Even though their lives were short, hard and dangerous, it is perhaps not surprising that pirating was attractive to sailors ‑ all men were equal, everyone had a vote in the affairs of the company, the plunder was shared out fairly, there was a chance to make a fortune, the day-to-day routine was relaxed, they escaped monotony and they had a chance to leave the cold grey waters of the North Atlantic and explore the warm blue waters of the Caribbean paradise.  They were rebels against authority, free spirits who made up their own rules, lured by easy money, ‘plenty, pleasure, liberty and power’.

The End of the Buccaneers

At its height, between 1500 and 2000 pirates operating around theWest Indies, which translates to between fifteen and twenty‑five pirate ships.  This may not seem many but they were powerful. Two pirate ships together could mount an attack of 300 men and enough firepower to defend a small city. Both Church and State rose to condemn pirates as the enemy of all mankind.  After 1700, the authorities in London tackled the growing pirate attacks in a number of ways: by the introduction of legislation; by issuing pardons to pirates in the hope that they would abandon their crimes; by stepping up naval patrols in the worst affected areas; by promising rewards for their capture; by licensing private ships to attack and capture pirates and by the trial and mass execution of captured pirates.

The buccaneers’ deficient social structure could not sustain such a tour de force.  They were widely dispersed, had no home or secure place in the economic order.  They had no central or stable organizational mechanisms to mobilize their collective strength into a critical mass, or to replenish their ranks.  While the quick jab of the hit and run strategy worked for individual ships, as a group it left them vulnerable to being divided and conquered.

However, it can argued that what brought the great ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ in the Caribbean to an end was not the organization but technology.  Bigger ships were built; the Royal Navy’s man-of-war was a powerful sailing fortress that the pirates just couldn’t defeat.  The era of steam shipping finally finished off the buccaneers. In the long run the pirates were easy prey to an enemy with newer and better technology and with more sustainable principles of operation.


The experiment the pirates conducted teaches us at least three organizational lessons.  First, the pirates have taught us that effective participative management systems do not require warm and cozy teamplay based on fuzzy notions of trust and hope for their success, but on clear rules and conditions, ever-watchful vigilance and a swift response to rule-breakers. The second lesson is how adaptive but also how vulnerable the virtual organization can be.  Central mechanisms clearly need to be developed in order to ensure the sustainment of the whole. The third lesson provides examples of the difficulties of effective leadership in entrepreneurial organizations, or ‘herding cats’ as we call it today, where the need for ‘soft’ skills such as communicating vision and team integration are just as important for success as technical skills such as the ability to navigate.

The buccaneers’ ideas about organization structure still live on today in many of our ‘new’ ideas about participative management and leadership. Perhaps what is different today is the widespread acceptance of these newer principles throughout the western world.  Rather than being strange and peculiar, these are now the basis for the new principles and skills which we use to manage successfully in the 21st Century.


Peter Lawton

President and CEO

ImPAct Consultants

416 428-3266



The Author

Peter Lawton is President and CEO of  ImPAct Consultants, a change management consultancy.

A Certified Management Consultant, Peter  has a B.Comm from Queen’s Business School and an M.Sc. from the University of Lancaster’s Department of Economics. He has studied at the PhD level at the University of Western Ontario’s Business School. Peter’s consulting career background includes Mercer Consulting, Coopers & Lybrand Consulting, PwC Consulting and IBM.

His consulting and coaching assignments take him to the North American East Coast, the Caribbean, the U.K. and Europe where he finds time to explore his fascination with pirate activities.



Cordingley, David; Life Among the Pirates: The Romance and the Reality; Little, Brown and Company, 1995

Cordingley, David; Under the Black Flag, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1996

Knill, Harry Ed.; Pirates; Bellerophon Books, 1985

Rediker, Marcus; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750; CambridgeUniversity Press, 1987

Ritchie, Robert C.; Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates;HarvardUniversity Press, 1986

Furneaux, Rupert; Money Pit: The Mystery of Oak Island; Totem Books, 1972

Alleyne, Warren; Caribbean Pirates; Macmillan, 1995

Norris, Gerald; West Country Pirates and Buccaneers, Dovecote Press, 1990

Platt, Richard; Pirate; Dorling Kindersley, 1995

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