“There is no honour amongst thieves” is one of those English sayings that no one really knows where it comes from, but that everybody can rehearse. The concept is that thieves (and “baddies” in general) are awful human beings, and if they can steal from/murder/cheat you, then there is nothing stopping them from doing it to other “baddies”. It is a concept often seen amongst film and literature; two bad guys team up for nefarious deeds (such as a bank robbery, for example) but ultimately one turns on the other to try and steal all of the profit for themselves. But, historically, how much of this is true?

One of the modules I took during my undergraduate degree was on concepts of Honour and Shame across different societies in different times, and one week we partly focused on pirate culture. I was intrigued to find that these people who have been viewed across time as disgraceful human beings who stole, raped, and plundered, did actually have a pretty strong honour code amongst themselves – it wasn’t all backstabbing and one-up-manship.

Captain Jack Sparrow is certainly a swoon-worthy modern depiction of an early modern pirate..

If you have ever watched Pirates of the Caribbean, then you are probably familiar with the concept of the “Pirate Code”. In the film franchise, the Pirate Code is referred to at several points. It is first mentioned right near the start, when the female star Elizabeth Swan is under threat for her life by two pirates who are chasing her. She invokes the rule of ‘parley’, saying “According to the Code of the Brethren set down by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew, you have to take me to your captain…If an adversary demands parley, you can do them no harm until the parley is complete” and the pirates begrudgingly acquiesce to her demand, as they cannot break the Pirate Code. Later on in the films, the loveable rogue Jack Sparrow (that’s Captain) gets stuck on an island, away from his pirate friends waiting in their ship offshore. Sparrow had told them before leaving to ‘stick to the code’ and so when he fails to return, the crew get ready to sail off without him. Miss Swan finds this shocking, as he is their friend and captain, but the crew shrug it off as The Code, and leave her on a rowboat to rescue Jack herself.

But how much of this is based on history, and how much is it fiction used to advance Disney’s plot? Well, the concept of a Pirate Code did actually exist, although it was not one universal set of rules for all pirates – instead, individual ships or groups of pirates would create their own rules that all those in the group had to follow under pain of awful punishment.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, the Pirate Code was a huge codex that was protected and judged by the ‘Keeper of the Code’. The real Pirate Codes were not nearly as huge, and usually were ~10 fundamental rules.

In the early modern period there were of course plenty of reasons why someone became a pirate, but a common thread was that pirates were disgruntled ex-sailors. In this time, sailors were essentially freelancers who would sign up to join a ship. The ships were usually funded by a rich absentee who funded the voyage and paid for a captain, then the captain would hire crew and follow out the voyage under the instructions of the absentee funder. However, the needs of the crew often did not align with the aim of the funder, meaning sailors often lost out both financially and in terms of welfare. Captains could be cruel to their crew, and often pocketed the largest portion of any profit, and this obviously alienated many sailors.

Groups of disgruntled sailors may then create their own pirate crews, or join an existing pirate voyage. Piracy was seen as a lot fairer than legitimate voyages, and there are numerous reasons why. Firstly, pirates essentially had joint ownership of their ships, meaning no absentee owners. This meant that the pirates could do what they wanted and go where they wanted, without having to fulfil the demands of someone not even on the ship. Secondly, the hierarchy was far more even; whilst on many merchant ships the captain had superior quarters, food, and a higher cut of treasure, on a pirate ship the captain was far more equal to the rest of the crew. The captains ate and lived the same as the rest of the crew, and importantly they were democratically elected (a fascinating concept, particularly during a period where most of Europe was still under unelected monarchical rule). Furthermore, whilst a captain could be voted in, he could also be demoted and replaced if he was seen by the crew to not be acting in their best interests, or to be generally failing. Furthermore, he shared power with the quartermaster – the captain had complete control during battle (necessary to maintain a fight) but the quartermaster who was also elected by the crew was in charge of supplies and distributing treasure. Pay was shared fairly equally amongst the crew, but to prevent free loading, bonuses could be gained for exemplary service.

Pirate treasure looted by Samuel Bellamy (lived c. 1689 – 1717) and recovered from the wreck of the Whydah. The Whydah was laden with over 4.5 tons of gold, silver and precious treasure, the spoils from conquering 50 ships, when on April 26, 1717, it was shipwrecked and all but 2 of the crew killed.

But why the need for a Pirate Code? If the pirate ships were fairly democratically run, why were rules necessary? The most important reason that a code needed to be drawn up by the members was precisely because of honour and culture. You may not realise this, as portrayals of pirates in popular culture do not often reflect this, but pirates in the early modern period were an incredibly diverse bunch. A crew was usually made up of people from many different races and cultures, and the ships could be pretty large – between 1716 and 1722, any one year had in the region of 1000-2000 sea bandits active. From 1716-1726, crews averaged 80 people, and it wasn’t uncommon for a group of pirates to have 150-200 members. Some groups of pirates spilled out over several ships because they were so large. When you have that many people who all came from very different cultures with different ideas of honour, law and order, and general running of things, it was necessary to create rules just to maintain harmony on a ship. Despite the adage of no honour amongst thieves, the pirates could not maintain themselves if they didn’t stick together.

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What code a particular group of pirates stuck to varied depending on their needs, but they were to be strictly adhered to. Whilst other cultures had penalties to ones honour currency for breaking rules of honour (e.g. an unwed mother being looked down upon and somewhat ostracised), the punishments amongst pirates were much more literal. There was little stock in a dishonourable pirate, that wasn’t much of a punishment. Punishment could vary from doing menial, unwanted tasks on ship, to being marooned, or even executed.

Very few examples of Pirate Codes still exist today, largely because when captured, pirates tended to burn or otherwise destroy their written codes to try and help them avoid prosecution at trial. As every member of the crew had to sign the code, if codes were captured then they were used as evidence of the sailor’s complicity in piracy. Destroying the code meant that the pirates could claim they were part of the crew unwillingly – it was fairly usual for pirates to force captured crews to join them, particularly if one was an artisan with a useful skill. Claiming they were not a willing pirate could save a captured pirate execution.


Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background. A copper engraving from ‘A History of the Pyrates’ by Captain Charles Johnson c. 1724.

However, a few do still survive, and as our Elizabeth Swan quoted pirate Bartholomew in her call for parley, then I shall include the Pirate Code laid down by Captain Bartholomew Roberts who was active between 1719 and 1722:

I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity (not an uncommon thing among them) makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.

II. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.

III. No person to game at cards or dice for money.

IV. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck..

V. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.

VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death; (so that when any fell into their hands, as it chanced in the Onslow, they put a sentinel immediately over her to prevent ill consequences from so dangerous an instrument of division and quarrel; but then here lies the roguery; they contend who shall be sentinel, which happens generally to one of the greatest bullies, who, to secure the lady’s virtue, will let none lie with her but himself.)

VII. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.

VIII. No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol. (The quarter-master of the ship, when the parties will not come to any reconciliation, accompanies them on shore with what assistance he thinks proper, and turns the disputant back to back, at so many paces distance; at the word of command, they turn and fire immediately, (or else the piece is knocked out of their hands). If both miss, they come to their cutlasses, and then he is declared the victor who draws the first blood.)

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.

X. The Captain and Quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and quarter.

XI. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.

Clearly, Roberts’ rules worked for him; he was the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy as measured by vessels captured, taking over 400 prizes in his career.

So, whilst pirates may not have been the best people to bump into, if you were a pirate yourself you were pretty well protected from your crew mates unless you yourself had done something terrible. It may be claimed that there is no honour amongst thieves, but it appears this did not extend to pirates!

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