Field of Science

Pirates are even cooler than we thought!

So this is mostly a "I saw this and thought it was cool" kind of post: An article in Sunday's Boston Globe describes the research of Peter Leeson and Marcus Rediker claiming that pirates were practicing democracy aboard their ships in the 1600's, well before America or Europe ever got around to it.

Before each voyage, pirates voted on a captain and a quartermaster, whose main job was to be a check on the captain's power. Either officer could be "recalled" at any time. Ground rules were laid out in a written charter. They also had primitive forms of trial and workmen's compensation.

The researchers differ on the motivation for this democracy. Leeson sees it as a necessary organizational system for a cadre of criminals who have to work together without killing each other. Rediker sees it as a political reaction to despotic organization of commercial ships, wherein captains hold absolute power and floggings were routine and often deadly. Pirates, according to Rediker, tried to create a utopian alternative.

Inasmuch as there is a single motivation for anything, I'm inclined to agree with Leeson's point of view. The success of a pirate ship depends on the ability of its members to work together. There is a natural check on any one pirate's power in that any other pirate could pretty easily kill him in his sleep. Unlike the case of commercial ships, pirate society is not tied to any larger land-based social structures.

The question then becomes, what is the based way to maintain organization in a small self-contained society where no individual can dominate the others through force? I think the best and perhaps only workable answer in the long term is democracy, or something like it.

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