Were pirate ships governed by unrestrained dictators?
Not so, says at least one study:
But rules alone did not suffice. Pirates also needed to limit the risk that their leaders would put individual interests ahead of the interests of the ship. Most economists today would call this problem “self-dealing”; Leeson uses the term “captain predation.” Some pirates had turned to buccaneering after fleeing naval and merchant vessels, where the captain was essentially a dictator—“his Authority is over all that are in his Possession,” as one contemporary account had it. Royal Navy and merchant captains guaranteed themselves full rations while their men went hungry, beat crew members at their whim, and treated dissent as mutinous. So pirates were familiar with the perils of autocracy.
As a result, Leeson argues, pirate ships developed models that in many ways anticipated those of later Western democracies. First, pirates adopted a system of divided and limited power. Captains had total authority during battle, when debate and disagreement were likely to be both inefficient and dangerous. Outside of battle, the quartermaster, not the captain, was in charge—responsible for food rations, discipline, and the allocation of plunder. On most ships, the distribution of booty was set down in writing, and it was relatively equal; pirate captains often received only twice as many shares as crewmen. (Woodward writes that Privateer captains typically received fourteen times as much loot as crewmen.) The most powerful check on captains and quartermasters was that they did not hold their positions by natural right or blood or success in combat; the crew elected them and could depose them. And when questions arose about the rules that governed behavior on board, interpretation was left not to the captain but to a jury of crewmen.