Pirates were exemplars of democracy: study

February 23rd, 2008 - 5:20 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Johnny Depp

London, Feb 23 (IANS) Swashbuckling Johnny Depp might have lent an irresistible romantic halo to sea pirates, whose exploits he vividly brought to life on the big screen. But a daring, yet well-researched, new study has touted them as exemplars of democracy. In “An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organisation”, Peter Leeson explores the fascinating “golden age” of these outlaws during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

In the study published in the prestigious Journal of Political Economy, he finds that these criminal organisations were able to establish a remarkably stable form of self-government.

Economists may have long been fascinated with the financial organisation of criminal enterprises, but the impact of their political structure has long been overlooked.

Piracy was a capital crime, so both the costs and benefits were quite high. But, as Leeson shows, pirates never lacked for “brethren in iniquity”.

Plumbing the often-entertaining court records of pirate trials, Leeson allows the pirates to speak for themselves as to why they lived that kind of life.

Piracy, along with trade, spread its tentacles to far-flung colonies. A captain of a trading ship was the representative of land-based merchants and thus wielded complete authority, which was often abused, over the crew.

Although a pirate ship captain wielded absolute authority in battle, the pirates, in the words of one of their own, “constituted other officers besides the captain. So very industrious were they to avoid putting too much power into the hands of one man”.

Foremost among these officers was the quartermaster, who oversaw the distribution of provisions, division of booty and general order aboard the ship.

Pirates entered into an agreement called the chasse-partie that dictated the division of booty. But they also drew up articles for a voyage, most of which were institutionalised as the Custom of the Coast or the Jamaica Discipline, that covered all aspects of government and life aboard a ship “for the better conservation of their society and doing justice to one another”.

Records of these articles still exist, and Leeson helpfully reproduces one within his article.

Even a court that stood in judgment gave the pirates the backhanded compliment that they were “wickedly united, articled together”.

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