Pirate Crew: Positions and Duties

Learn Just Who Did What Aboard a Pirate Ship

Pirates Decoying An American Ship, Circa 1880
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While pirates and their ships have taken on mythic status, a pirate ship was an organization much like any other business. Each crew member had a specific role to play and a set of duties to perform that went with it. Life on a pirate ship was much less strict and regimented than it would have been aboard a Royal Navy ship or merchant vessel of the time, however, everyone was expected to do their jobs.

As with any other ship, there was a command structure and hierarchy of roles. The better-run and organized the pirate ship, the more successful it was. Ships that lacked discipline or suffered poor leadership generally didn’t last very long. The following list of standard positions aboard a pirate ship is a who's who and what's what of buccaneers and their shipboard duties.

The Captain

Circa 1715, Captain Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard
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Unlike the Royal Navy or merchant service, in which the captain was a man with a great deal of nautical experience and complete authority, a pirate captain was elected by the crew, and his power was only absolute in the heat of battle or when giving chase. At other times, the captain's wishes could be overruled by a simple majority vote.

Pirates tended to prefer their captains to be even-tempered and neither too aggressive or too meek. A good captain had to be able to judge when a potential ship could outman them, as well as know which quarry would be easy pickings. Some captains, such as Blackbeard or Black Bart Roberts, had great charisma and easily recruited new pirates to their cause. Captain William Kidd was most famous for being caught and executed for his piracy.

Navigator

It was hard to find a good navigator during the Golden Age of Piracy. Trained navigators were able to use the stars to determine a ship's latitude and therefore could sail from east to west with reasonable ease. Figuring out longitude, however, was much harder, so sailing north to south involved a lot of guesswork.

Since pirate ships often ranged far and wide in search of their prizes, sound navigation was crucial. (For example, “Black Bart” Roberts worked much of the Atlantic Ocean, from the Caribbean to Brazil to Africa.) If there was a skilled navigator aboard a prize ship, pirates would often kidnap him and force him to join their crew. Sailing charts were also considered extremely valuable and were confiscated as booty.

Quartermaster

After the captain, the quartermaster had the most authority aboard ship. He was in charge of seeing that the captain’s orders were carried out and handled the day-to-day operations of the ship. When there was plunder, the quartermaster divided it up among the crew according to the number of shares each man received as his due.

The quartermaster was also in charge of discipline with regard to minor matters such as fighting or casual derelictions of duty. (More severe offenses went before a pirate tribunal.) Quartermasters often inflicted punishments such as floggings. The quartermaster also boarded prize vessels and determined what to take and what to leave behind. Generally, the quartermaster received a double share, the same as the captain.

Boatswain

The boatswain, or bosun, was in charge of keeping the ship in shape for travel and battle, looking after the wood, canvas, and ropes that were vital to swift and safe sailing. The bosun often led shore parties to restock supplies or find material for repairs when needed. He oversaw activities such as dropping and weighing the anchor, setting the sails, and making sure the deck was swabbed. An experienced boatswain was a very valuable man who often got a share-and-a-half of loot.

Cooper

Since wooden barrels were the best way to store food, water, and other necessities of life at sea, they were considered extremely important, so every ship needed a cooper—a man skilled in making and maintaining barrels. (If your last name is Cooper, somewhere far back in your family tree, there was probably a barrel maker.) Existing storage barrels had to be regularly inspected to ensure they were sound. Empty barrels were dismantled to make space in limited cargo areas. The cooper would reassemble them as needed should the ship stop to take on food, water or other stores.

Carpenter

The carpenter, who generally answered to the boatswain, was in charge of ensuring the ship’s structural integrity. He was tasked with fixing holes after combat, making repairs after a storm, keeping the masts and yardarms sound and functional, and knowing when the ship needed to be beached for maintenance or repairs.

As pirates usually could not use official dry docks in ports, ship's carpenters had to make do with what was at hand. They would often have to make repairs on a 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 surgeons, sawing off limbs that were wounded in battle.

Doctor or Surgeon

Most pirate ships preferred to have a doctor aboard when one was available. Trained doctors were hard to find, and when ships had to go without one, often times a veteran sailor would serve in their stead.

Pirates frequently fought—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. They were also vulnerable to scurvy, an illness caused by a Vitamin C deficiency that most often occurred when a ship was too long at sea and ran out of fresh fruit.

Medicines were worth their weight in gold. In fact, when Blackbeard blockaded the port of Charleston, the only thing he asked for was a large chest of medicines.

Master Gunner

Firing a cannon was an extremely complicated and dangerous procedure when pirates sailed the seas. Everything had to be just so—the placement of the shot, the correct amount of powder, the fuse, and the working parts of the cannon itself—or the results could be disastrous. On top of that, you had to aim the thing, which could weigh in the neighborhood of 1,600 pounds.

A skilled gunner was a very valuable part of any pirate crew. They were usually trained by the Royal Navy and had worked their way up from being powder-monkeys—the young boys who ran back and forth carrying gunpowder to the cannons during battles. Master Gunners were in charge of all of the cannons, the gunpowder, the shot, and everything else that had to do with keeping the cannons in working order.

Musicians

Musicians were popular onboard pirate ships because piracy was a tedious life. Ships spent weeks at sea waiting to find suitable prizes to plunder. Musicians helped pass the time and having skill with a musical instrument brought with it certain privileges, such as playing while the others were working or even increased shares. Musicians were often forcibly taken from ships pirates attacked. On one occasion, when pirates raided a farm in Scotland, they left behind two young women—and brought a piper back instead.