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Positions and Duties on Board a Pirate Ship

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Positions and Duties on Board a Pirate Ship

The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow

Painting by Howard Pyle (1905)

Positions and Duties on Board a Pirate Ship:

A pirate ship was an organization much like any other business. Life on board a pirate ship was much less strict and regimented than on board a Royal Navy or merchant vessel of the time, but there were still duties that had to be done. There was a command structure, and different men had different jobs to make sure that everything went smoothly. Well-run and organized pirate ships were more successful, and ships that lacked discipline and leadership generally didn’t last very long. Here is a list of the common positions and duties on board a pirate ship.

Captain:

Unlike in the Royal Navy or merchant service, where the captain was a man with a great deal of experience and complete authority, a pirate captain was voted on by the crew and his authority was only absolute in the heat of battle or when giving chase. At other times, the captain's wishes could be dismissed by a simple majority vote of the crew. Pirates tended to like their captains to be not too aggressive and not too meek: a good captain had to know when a potential victim was too strong for them, without letting weaker quarry get away. Some captains, such as Blackbeard or Black Bart Roberts, had great charisma and easily recruited new pirates to their cause.

Navigator:

It was hard to find a good navigator during the Golden Age of Piracy. Trained navigators could use the stars to figure out their latitude, and therefore could sail from east to west fairly easily, but figuring out longitude was much harder and involved a lot of guesswork. Pirate ships often ranged far and wide: “Black Bart” Roberts worked much of the Atlantic Ocean, from the Caribbean to Brazil to Africa. If there was a skilled navigator on board a prize ship, pirates would often force him to join their crew. Sailing charts were also valuable and were kept when discovered on board prize ships.

Quartermaster:

After the Captain, the quartermaster was probably the most important man on the ship. He was in charge of seeing that the Captain’s orders were carried out and handled the day-to-day management of the ship. When there was plunder, the quartermaster divided it up among the crew according to the number of shares each man was due to receive. He was also in charge of discipline in minor matters such as fighting or minor derelictions of duty: more serious offenses went before a pirate court. Quartermasters often inflicted punishments such as floggings. The quartermaster would often board prize vessels and decide what to take and what to leave. Generally, the quartermaster received a double share, same as the captain.

Boatswain:

The Boatswain, or Bosun, was in charge of the ship itself and keeping it in shape for travel and battle. He looked after the wood, canvas and ropes that were of vital importance on board. He would often lead shore parties when supplies or repairs were needed. He oversaw activities such as dropping and weighing the anchor, setting the sails and keeping the deck clean. An experienced Boatswain was a very valuable man. They often got a share and a half of loot.

Cooper:

Wooden barrels were very valuable, as they were the best way to store food, water and other necessities of life at sea. Every ship needed a cooper, or a man skilled in making and maintaining barrels. Existing storage barrels had to be inspected regularly. Empty barrels were broken up to make space on small ships: the cooper would quickly put them back together if they stopped to take on food and water.

Carpenter:

The carpenter was in charge of the ship’s structural integrity. He generally answered to the Boatswain and would fix holes after combat, keep the masts and yardarms sound and functional and know when the ship needed to be beached for maintenance and repairs. Ships carpenters had to make do with what was at hand, as pirates usually could not use official dry docks in ports. Many times they would have to make repairs on some deserted island or stretch of beach, using only what they could scavenge or cannibalize from other parts of the ship. Ship’s carpenters often doubled as a surgeon, sawing off limbs that had been wounded in battle.

Doctor or Surgeon:

Most pirate ships preferred to have a doctor on board when one was available. Pirates fought frequently – with their victims and with one another – and serious injuries were common. Pirates also suffered from a variety of other ailments, including venereal diseases such as syphilis and tropical illnesses like malaria. If they spent a long time at sea, they were vulnerable to vitamin deficiencies like scurvy. Medicines were worth their weight in gold: when Blackbeard blockaded the port of Charles Town, all he asked for was a large chest of medicines! Trained doctors were hard to find, and when ships had to go without one, oftentimes a veteran sailor with some common sense would serve in this capacity.

Master Gunner:

If you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize that firing a cannon must be a tricky thing. You have to get everything right: the placement of the shot, the powder, the fuse... and then you have to aim the thing. A skilled gunner was a very valuable part of any pirate crew. Gunners usually were trained by the Royal Navy, and had worked their way up from being powder-monkeys: young boys who ran back and forth carrying gunpowder to the cannons during battles. The Master Gunner was in charge of all of the cannons, the gunpowder, the shot and everything else that had to do with keeping the guns in working order.

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