The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates

Stephen Sedley writes:

A different oddity, the pirate as self-interested economic maximiser, is the conceit of The Invisible Hook, in which a somewhat parodic version of Adam Smith surveys the world of buccaneering… Peter Leeson’s material is equally surprising and engaging. The pirate ship regimes for which records survive were quite a lot better than those of naval and merchant vessels. In the 1720s Bartholomew Roberts’s ship’s articles established an Athenian democracy on his vessel in relation to ‘Affairs of Moment’. They gave every man free access to the ship’s victuals unless the crew voted ‘a Retrenchment’ for reasons of scarcity. Loot was to be distributed in equal shares, save that the captain and quartermaster were entitled to two shares, the master, boatswain and gunner to one and a half shares, and the other officers to one and a quarter. Until £1000 apiece had been shared out the ship’s company was indissoluble; from that point they were free to leave, but before then desertion or retreat in battle was punishable by death or marooning. There was generous provision for disability benefit. Gaming for money was banned; lights out was at 8 p.m., after which time any drinking was to be done on deck; fighting was banned (‘Quarrels to be ended on Shore, at Sword and Pistol’); smuggling women or boys aboard carried the death penalty; and the ship evidently carried its own orchestra, with terms that could have been negotiated by the Musicians’ Union: ‘The Musicians to have Rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other Six days and Nights, none without special Favour.’

(LRB 24 June 2010)

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