The Cost of Shivered Timbers: Pirates and Workers’ Compensation

Sometimes you hear a fact that’s surprising, even though it makes complete sense. The pirates of history having workers’ comp, for example.

At first it seems a bit backwards. Pirates with their reputation of being famously nationless, prone to mutiny and marooning crew members, not to mention being generally reckless.

But examining each of these points actually stands to justify workers’ compensation on the seven seas.

What is a pirate?

In this article, we’re referring specifically to the pirates sailing the Caribbean and the Eastern Coast of what would become the United States. In this context, when we hear the phrase “Pirates, Privateers, and Buccaneers“, three separate things are being referenced.

  • Privateers were officers and soldiers aboard naval ships, carrying out warfare.
  • Buccaneers were privateers tasked by one of several European nations to fight the expansion of the Spanish into Western territories, often consisting of a diverse group of criminals, escaped and freed slaves, former military people, and thrill seekers with little to lose.
  • Pirates were similar to buccaneers though, as previously mentioned, were beholden to no nation. Their booty was theirs alone to distribute among the people on the ship.

Many of the pirates were formerly buccaneers, or privateers gone rogue for any number of reasons. Because of the nasty reputation that pirates would develop, the word pirate itself was seen as a slur to those who were not.

A page from the book

To be perfectly clear, workers’ compensation for pirates was much different than work comp law today. Still, it revolved around the fundamental principle of compensation for injuries sustained on the job.

The Pirate’s Codes were a set of rules… rather, “guidelines”, for pirates. Each pirate had to sign the code as binding when they joined the crew. Codes would vary from ship to ship, but many of the fundamentals were similar, things like how much the captain should get paid, punishment for mutiny, etc.

Largely, the contents of the Pirate Codes were taken from various Privateer Codes. In many cases, the Privateer Codes kept the ship in order, so they were adopted and discarded as was fit for the captain (who often wrote in a large portion of all spoils for themselves). Small details from the Privateer may have been altered or omitted, like the percentage of spoils allotted to the captain.

Nine complete pirate codes have survived, many of which include sections about compensating workers for grievous injury.

Staking a claim on high seas

Here be the work-comp-adjacent sections from a few of the surviving Pirate Codes, from Wikipedia:

Articles of Bartholomew Roberts:

IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.

Articles of John Phillips: 

VIII. If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement, shall have 400 Pieces of Eight ; if a Limb, 800.

Articles of Edward Low and George Lowther: 

VI. He that shall have the Misfortune to lose a Limb in time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of Six hundred pieces of Eight, and remain aboard as long as he shall think fit.

Conclusion: Adhering to the Code

Did they? Pirates do have a reputation for being untrustworthy scoundrels, after all. Plus, the buccaneers themselves forfeit their naval sailors fund project. The Chatham Chest was established in 1588 but ultimately failed over time. This article points out that the money going into the Chatham chest (a literal chest) was less than the money going out.

However,  consider that the collective fund on a pirate ship is located on-site, compared to a fund somewhere on land that many separate buccaneer ships collectively pay to.

Also to note: the bidirectional importance of morale on a pirate ship. A pirate may not fight as fiercely if they knew that they’d only get a ‘buck-an-ear’.

In conclusion, the implication that workers’ compensation happened on pirate ships may not be sufficient to save the collective reputation of swashbuckling marauders. Still, it gives us opportunity to reflect on our own system when comparing the payouts of lost body parts from several U.S. states, in comparison with the amount listed in the Pirate Code.

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