To society, pirates were lawless bands of thieves who lacked honor and respect. Among themselves, however, they had a strict code of conduct that ensured democracy. Codes of conduct differed between groups, but all were designed to promote a stable, equitable system in which the good of the group was the priority. The agreement to work together provided for the sailors psychological needs and ensured some security. Pirates accused of misconduct were tried by their crew mates, who decided their guilt or innocence and what punishment was justified. At the beginning of a new voyage, or upon the election of a new captain, new articles would be drawn up and sworn to upon a bible or ax. Each man signed, or marked if they were illiterate, their agreement to the articles.
All pirates agreed to obey civil command, and were promised equal say in all decisions. The captain was elected by the crew, but was only in command during battle. When not in battle, he served as a regular crew member. While the ship's captain had absolute authority, he could be removed by the crew if they disapproved of his conduct. Every code designated how loot would be divided. Usually, crew members each received one share, while the captain and other high-ranking members might receive as many as two shares. Food and drink was shared equally, and only if the common good required it would the crew be asked to give back their share to divvy up among all members. A share of clothing was also an important provision for each crewman.
Those caught stealing from fellow crew could have their ears and nose slit, and be put ashore. Anyone defrauding the company could be marooned on a deserted island, and given only water, a pistol and shot. Pirates agreed to keep their weapons clean and ready for battle at all times; anyone who didn't might lose their share of the loot. Gambling for money was forbidden, as was bringing boys or women on board. The punishment for bringing a woman onboard in disguise, or forcing themselves on a woman, was death. Lights and candles were to be extinguished at a certain time each night, in several preserved decrees by 8 p.m., and no open flame or cigarettes were ever allowed below deck.
Striking another pirate on board was prohibited, and offenders were punished with 40 lashes across the back. Quarrels were to be settled on shore, by a duel. Those keeping secrets from the company, or planning to desert, would be marooned. No one was allowed to leave the crew until each member had made 1,000-1,100 pounds. Pirates who lost a limb were given 800 pieces of eight, and allowed to stay on the ship as long as they wished. The families of those killed were sometimes given money as well. Both of these practices were some of the earliest forms of life and health insurance.
The pirate code of conduct was a rare example of democracy for its time. Crews on merchant and military ships were treated harshly, even cruelly, but the pirate code emphasized equality and cooperation. Even more noteworthy, while society saw only the dark side of piracy, its model contributed to the framework for later democratic societies. Decisions on destinations and whether or not to attack certain ships were made by the entire crew, not the captain, emphasizing this democratic process. Today, we regard the articles as "revolutionary social charters."