The pirate crew thinks their captain has screwed up. So how do they get rid of him?
Well, if you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, they slip him the black spot, a piece of paper marked black on one side, and the crew’s decision on the other. Late in the novel, the pirates want to depose Long John Silver as captain, but they’re a little short of paper. So they cut out a round spot from the last page of a Bible one of the pirates carries!
It’s a great story, but there’s no truth to it. Stevenson probably made it up himself.
Which raises the question of just how did a pirate crew in the Golden Age of Piracy deal with an unsatisfactory captain. Oh, Stevenson has the right of it in one respect. There really was a commonly understood procedure to deal with complaints about the captain. Which is not to say it was always followed.
Let’s follow one instance where it was done right. Charles Vane was one of the red hots among the pirates who wouldn’t accept the King’s Pardon in August, 1718. He recruited a crew of other red hots who didn’t want to give up piracy, gathered them in his ship, the Ranger, and sailed out of New Providence harbor. Oh, and he used a fireship to try to burn up the Royal Navy ships in the harbor as he left. He failed, but what brass! Clearly Vane was a daring pirate captain.
Vane knew that the best way to keep his crew happy was to take as many prizes as possible. That way they’d have enough food and drink. And if they got lucky, they might capture a ship with a lot of gold and silver on board. They did well enough for a while. But then Vane lost a prize when the pirates crewing it went off on their own, and spent a month heading south without taking a single ship. The crew grumbled.
On November 23, Vane saw a ship, pursued it, and ran up the pirate colors. Instead of surrendering, the other vessel raised the French colors and let loose a broadside. It was a French Navy ship! Vane decided the best course was to get away, as fast as he possibly could. It was probably the right decision. It was suicidal for pirates to engage a navy ship most of the time. The navy’s professionalism and strict discipline usually gave them an edge, even against pirate ships mounting more guns. This was so well understood that when “Black Bart” Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of that era, found himself trapped and forced to fight a Royal Navy ship, he tried his best to run past it in a storm. And even then, he thought it so likely he’d be defeated that he gave orders to try to run the ship aground to let the crew escape should they not evade the warship.
The Navy ship Vane confronted actually outgunned his ship. So Vane was very wise to turn heels and run rather than engage the ship. But for some reason the crew didn’t see it that way. Maybe they’d seized so little loot they were desperate. Maybe they were drunk and foolhardy. But they wanted to fight that Navy ship, and they loudly told Vane as much. However, it was a rule that in times of combat or chase, a pirate captain’s authority was absolute. Vane invoked that rule, and the pirates had no choice but to comply, then.
A pirate captain’s authority counted for nothing once the ship was not in a combat situation. Instead, the quartermaster became the most powerful officer. Originally the officer responsible for keeping track of supplies and sharing out the loot, the quartermaster had become a sort of crew’s tribune, responsible for presenting the crew’s concerns to the captain. On board the Ranger, the quartermaster was “Calico Jack” Rackam. Rackam called the crew and captain together the very next day, explained that the crew was dissatisfied with Vane’s performance, and called for a vote to label Vane a coward and depose him. The majority so voted, and Vane was deposed. And that was that.
Well, except for the question of who would be the next captain. The most obvious choice was the other major officer, the quartermaster. And that’s how Calico Jack Rackam became captain of the Ranger.
And there was the little problem of what to do with Vane. Pirates might often be drunk and illiterate, but they weren’t incredibly stupid. They realized that a man might not enjoy losing his position as captain, and might intrigue with his loyal followers to retake command. So the usual procedure was to get rid of the captain somehow. In Vane’s case, they had a prize, a small sloop, accompanying the Ranger. They gave the sloop to Vane and the handful of crewmen who were loyal to him, and the two pirate ships went their separate ways.
That was the right way to do things. Even so, Vane was relatively lucky. Sometimes ex-captains were put off in a small boat, as Henry Every did to the legitimate captain of the vessel he seized to turn pirate back in 1694. Or he might be marooned on a small island, as Edward England was after he was deposed for being too kind to a merchant captain in 1720. Or, worse yet, he could be killed, as John Phillips was in 1724. Although perhaps the last example is unfair: Phillips was killed when the “forced” men (men who had been forced to join the pirates from legitimate ships) rose up and took over the vessel to end their piratical career. Hardly a voting situation!
Vane’s fate points to another way pirates broke with their captain, or sometimes vice versa. Pirates would sometimes keep ships they had taken, and split their numbers across two or more ships. Usually each ship would have its own captain, but the senior captain would have authority over all of them. Black Bart Roberts styled himself as “Admiral” and had as many as four ships under his command at one time. In practice, this was a recipe for dissension. It was natural for the overall commander to favor his own ship, and the captains of the other ships were often tempted to sneak away during the night or during a storm to strike out on their own. It happened at least twice to Roberts. Indeed, it was after Walter Kennedy made off with a ship in 1719 that Roberts drew up his articles which expressly forbade desertion.
At least once, the trick was turned the other way. Blackbeard commanded a fleet of four ships in 1718, and they had accumulated a nice amount of loot. Blackbeard decided to cut most of his pirates out of their share. So he ran his two largest ships aground as if by accident. He sent off one of the other captains, Stede Bonnet, on pretext of securing a pardon, transferred all the loot into the smaller of his two remaining vessels, stripped the other one of its ship stores, and then sailed off with his favorite crew, leaving over 200 pirates stranded behind. So much for pirate honor!
Then of course there were the other ways to end a captain’s rule. He could drown in a shipwreck, as Samuel Bellamy did off Cape Cod in 1717. Or he could die in combat when his ship was attacked, as happened to Blackbeard in 1718 or Roberts in 1722. Or he could be hanged after he has been captured and brought to trial, as happened with Captain Kidd in 1700, and both Vane and Rackam in 1720.