There is a defined hierarchy on board of a pirate ship, which follows the most important functions. This hierarchy is not geared towards who has more say on board, but what the chain of command is in any particular situation.
Many people have a misunderstanding about the role and authority of the pirate captain. Most pirate captains are elected by the ship’s crew, and need to possess qualities of leadership and courage that inspire their crew to follow them and rely on their acumen in battle. A captain is expected to be daring and decisive during any engagement.
The captain is commonly looked upon with respect, as a knowledgeable leader of men, and if the crew starts to feel he does not fit this role they will throw him out when the next chance for a vote arises. During chase or in a battle the captain’s power is absolute and he can discipline anyone who disobeyed his orders. He also has life or death power over anyone taken as prisoner. The captain usually has skills in navigation and seamanship.
But first and foremost he has to have the type of personality required to hold together a rowdy crew of seamen.
The quartermaster is next in line after the captain in exercising authority over the pirate crew. His authority on the ship takes up where the captain’s leaves off. Whenever the ship is not in chase or battle, the quartermaster makes most of the decisions regarding the day-to-day ship activities, and actually often has authority over the captain on many routine matters. The quartermaster is also elected by the crew, and is expected to represent their interests, for which he receives an extra share of the treasure. His main function is to protect the crew against each other by maintaining order, settling squabbles, and distributing food. The quartermaster usually also keeps the account books for the ship. He can punish the crew for disobedience and frequently mediates minor disputes among the crew. The quartermaster also quite often leads any boarding action, being the first to board the Prize ship. If the pirates are successful, he decides what plunder to take.
If the pirates decide to keep a captured ship, the quartermaster often takes over as the captain of that ship.
This is the officer in charge of piloting, navigation, and the actual sailing of the ship. He determines the course and looks after any and all instruments needed to navigate the ship. Since the skills of a sailing master are very specific and valuable on any ship, many have to be forced into pirate service.
A boatswain’s duty is to supervise the maintenance of the ship and its naval provisions, such as tar, pitch and tallow, spare sails, etc. He must inspect the ship, sails and rigging each day, and report their condition to the quartermaster or captain, as appropriate. The boatswain is also in charge of all deck activities, such as weighing or dropping anchor, and handling of the sails.
The carpenter’s duty is the maintenance and repair of the wooden hull, masts and yards. He works under the orders of the boatswain. The carpenter checks the hull regularly, repairing it as needed. The carpenter has no authority and cannot give any orders; nonetheless he is a privileged person, and on many ships receives a slightly larger share than the rest of the crew.
The master gunner is accountable for the ship’s guns and ammunition. This includes sifting the gunpowder, to keep it dry and prevent it from separating; making certain that the cannon balls are free of rust, and that all weapons are in good repair. A knowledgeable gunner is essential to the crew’s safety and effective use of the ship’s cannons.
On large ships there is quite often more than one mate aboard. The mate serves as apprentice to the sailing master, boatswain, carpenter and gunner; helping out wherever he is needed. He takes care of the outfitting of the vessel, and makes certain that the ship is amply provided with ropes, pulleys, sails, and all the other rigging that is necessary. When in port, the mate is responsible for the repair of cables and anchors, and manages the sails, yards and mooring of the ship.
The surgeon is responsible for the fitness of the crew, and the treatment of the sick and wounded. As another person with critical skills that are sought after in many places, the surgeon is also often an unwilling recruit on a pirate vessel.
Accordingly, the surgeon may not be allowed to leave the vessel on which he is engaged before the voyage is accomplished, either for boarding parties or for shore leave.
The common sailor, who is the foundation of the ship’s operation, needs to know the rigging and the sails. He needs to understand how to maneuver the ship and how to sail under different wind conditions. A good sailor can discern weather patterns, read the stars, and, most importantly, can anticipate the wishes of his commanders.
A ship’s crew must work together in careful synchronization to maneuver a large sailing vessel while tacking or wearing the vessel, or while docking or weighing anchor. A capable crew is critical during battle maneuvers, when the exact position of a ship makes all the difference.
Pirates! Copyright 2003, Living Imagination, Inc.