Was The Pirate Code a Real Thing?
Yes, But Probably Not How You're Picturing It
Pirates remain one of our most romanticized groups of villains, from Captain Hook in Peter Pan to Long John Silver in Treasure Island, pirates have become a part of our stories, and our cultural mythology. Even in this modern day, buccaneers have taken center stage thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which brings back the legends of Davy Jones, The Flying Dutchman, and other common myths that were found in general sailing culture, and specifically in the golden age of piracy during the 1600s.
Perhaps the biggest myth that's come back around as part of the latest cultural romanticizing of pirates, though, is the idea of a pirate code. While it might sound laughable that a crew of brigands and marauders would adhere to a code of conduct, there is actually some factual basis for this idea.
If you're looking for more articles on pirates and the Golden Age of Piracy, then you may want to check out Was Captain Jack Sparrow a Real Person? along with Who Was The Real Captain Morgan? And if you're interested in more unusual parts of history, along with gaming and general geekery, check out my full Vocal archive!
The Foundation of The Pirate Code
Pirates weren't just sea going reavers, though that was certainly a part of their reputation. Pirates were a crew, and as a crew they required discipline in order to actually get things done. From their appearances to their command structures, pirates were like a lawless mirror of legitimate ships' crews, both military and civilian. As piracy sailed into the golden age, flying the Jolly Roger high, these ships began to establish articles of conduct and codes of behavior that all sailors had to abide by according to The Pirates' Realm.
When you joined a pirate ship it was the same as joining an army, or a gang. You were expected to carry your part of the load, and to do as you were told for the good of the group. During the 17th century this evolved past just doing whatever the captain or the first mate told you to do, and became a contract you were expected to sign. These articles laid out how a particular crew member was to behave, which actions would be rewarded, and which ones would be punished, along with how much reward and punishment could be expected. The articles listed everything from how much treasure the captain could claim, down to what amount of gold would be given to a crew man who lost a limb as a result of service, as an example at Elizabethan Era shows us.
So The Brother's Code in The Movies Was Real?
Well, not exactly.
You see, much like the flag a particular ship flew, these articles were often different from one ship to another. Meaning, of course, there was no such thing as a universal pirate code. One captain might have a punishment of 40 lashings for a particular crime, while another might demand a crewman be shot. However, these articles held all members to a common cause, and they stopped arguments when you could point at the articles and see whether or not a particular action had broken them. The articles also let you know, more or less, what you were in for when you signed the document, and they prevented any captain from just ruling like a tyrant. A smart captain knew that keeping his crew happy was the real key, because a ship was only as strong and virile as the morale on board.
In a real way, the code created the framework for making sure that everyone could work together, and that everyone agreed on what was fair. Because when it's just you and your crew, out on the bleak emptiness of the ocean, sometimes all you have to hold yourselves together is the code you signed your name to before you raised the sail.