First Mate / Quartermaster
Boatswain / Bos’n / Bosun
Sailing Master / Sea Artist
The Pirate Crew
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.
Most pirate captain's were democratically elected by the ship’s crew, and possess qualities of leadership and courage that inspire their crew to follow them and rely on their acumen in battle. Daring and decisive during any engagement, the captain is commonly looked upon with respect, as a knowledgeable leader of men. 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 has skills in navigation and seamanship, but first and foremost he has the type of personality required to hold together a rowdy crew of seamen. Other than battle, the captain usually would be delegating most of the everyday tasks to the quartermaster or other junior officers. He needs to be overseeing all shipboard activity with the barest level of discipline necessary to keep an even keel.
Since most pirate captain's were elected, they could be replaced at any time by a majority vote of the crewmen. For example some captains were voted out and removed for not being as aggressive in the pursuit of prizes as the crew would have liked. And others were abandoned by their crews for being a little to bloodthirsty and brutal. A few were even murdered by their own men.
The first mate on a pirate ship is the man the Captain picks as his second in command. In the event the Captain is killed the job falls to the quartermaster. Some ships also had second, third, even forth mates creating a chain of command. Some pirate ship crews had this position as the captain's right-hand man and the one who would assume his role if he were killed in battle or could no longer perform his duties. This was often considered the job of a lieutenant in a regular navy, and on most pirate ships the quartermaster and First Mate were often the same person.
The quartermaster is next in line after the captain in exercising authority over the 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.
The Quartermasters main purpose was the distribution of things. He distributed rations, powder, work, prize, and punishment. Pirates didn't trust authority and therefore saw no reason to let all the power of a ship rest on one man. Therefore they split the power between the Captain, who led the ship in battle and navigated the ship, and the Quartermaster, who usually led the way on any boarding party, and kept custody of all prize or booty. As expected all gold, silver, or coin was taken, but beyond that, it was the quartermaster who decided what else was worth taking. He made his decisions based on time and on how much room the ship had. If the ship was already cramped, spices and exotic materials may be burned rather that stolen.
During the Golden Age of Piracy, most British and Anglo-American pirates delegated unusual amounts of authority to the Quartermaster who became almost the Captain's equal. The Captain retained unlimited authority during battle, but otherwise he was subject to the Quartermaster in many routine matters. The Quartermaster was sometimes elected by the crew to represent their interests and he received an extra share of the booty when it was divided. Above all, he protected the Seaman against each other by maintaining order, settling quarrels, and distributing food and other essentials.
The quartermaster also watched over the treasure until it was divided among the crew. The quartermaster who did the dividing, with the crew's supervision, and there was rarely a dispute about how the loot was divided. The quartermaster also settled individual quarrels and if need be, acted as a witness to any duels, to insure that duels were fair and just.
Serious crimes were tried by a jury of the crew, but the Quartermaster could punish minor offenses. Only he could flog a seaman after a vote from the Crew. The Quartermaster usually kept the records and account books for the ship. He also took part in all battles and often led the attacks by the boarding parties. If the pirates were successful, he decided what plunder to take. If the pirates decide to keep a captured ship, the Quartermaster often took over as the Captain of that ship.
Boatswain / Bos'n / Bosun
This position may be compared to the modern chief petty officer. The Boatswain supervised the maintenance of the vessel and its supply stores. He was responsible for inspecting the ship and it's sails and rigging each morning, and reporting their state to the captain. The Boatswain was also in charge of all deck activities, including weighing and dropping anchor, and the handling of the sails. A ship of any size would require the boatswain to oversee several junior officers who would share his responsibility for the crew's morale and work efficiency as well as the maintenance and repair of the hull, rigging, lines, cables, sails, and anchors.
A Note on Mates:
On a large ship there was usually more than one Mate aboard. The Mate served as apprentice to the Ship's Master, Boatswain, Carpenter and/or Gunner. He took care of the fitting out of the vessel, and examined whether it was sufficiently provided with ropes, pulleys, sails, and all the other rigging that was necessary for the voyage. The Mate took care of hoisting the anchor, and during a voyage he checked the tackle once a day. If he observed anything amiss, he would report it to the ship's Master. Arriving at a port, the mate caused the cables and anchors to be repaired, and took care of the management of the sails, yards and mooring of the ship.
Ship Master / Sailing Master
This is the officer who is in charge of navigation and the sailing of the ship. He directs the course and looks after the maps and instruments necessary for navigation. Since the charts are often inaccurate or nonexistent, his job is a difficult one. It is said that a good navigator is worth his weight in gold. He is perhaps the most valued person aboard a ship other than the captain because so much depended upon his skill. Many Sailing Masters are forced into pirate service.
A person in this apprenticed trade worked under the direction of the ship's Master and/or Boatswain using their skill to not only repair battle damage to masts, yards, hatches, and the hull, but to keep the ship's leaky seams in check with wooden plugs and oakum fibers. He would often have separate quarters combined with a workspace. Each carpenter would usually have an assistant in apprenticeship. There could probably be no more highly regarded artisan in a pirate ship crew when your life and livelihood depended on the soundness of the wood around and beneath you.
See "A note on Mates" above.
The Master Gunner is responsible for the ship's guns and ammunition. This includes sifting the powder to keep it dry and prevent it from separating, insuring the cannon balls were kept free of rust, and all weapons were kept in good repair. A knowledgeable Gunner is essential to the crew's safety and effective use of their weapons.
A gunner would be the leader of any separate group manning the artillery. His special skill would be in aiming, but he would oversee the four to six men required to take the gun through the steps of loading, aiming, firing, resetting, and swabbing for the next load. He would also work to ensure the gun crew's safety in avoiding dangerous overheating or excessive recoiling of the weapon. A master gunner would help to coordinate the timing and accuracy of the individual crews, especially when a broadside was ordered.
In charge of maintaining all of the fabrics and canvases of the ship. Sails, Flags, hammocks, etc.
Another highly valued position, surgeons would often be grabbed from crews of captured ships, although they would not be ordinarily be asked to sign the articles. He would be expected to deal with colds, fevers, or sexual diseases with an assortment of mercurial medicines or other current treatments, and the carnage of battle often required amputations in hopes of saving the wounded. In the lack of a surgeon, a carpenter or even a cook would be asked to fill in. A carpenter would be certain to have the similar tools and cutting experience, but a cook as a surgeon would be quite a stretch.
More often than not, a cook would be a disabled pirate who was allowed to stay on ship if he could make food that didn't kill crewmembers. Perhaps it was felt that if a pirate crew survived his cooking, he could make something to help heal as a stand-in surgeon.
If a pirate captain was fortunate enough to have a prosperous career, perhaps he could afford the services of a cooper, a barrel maker. Most everything not in a crate or canvas bag was in a barrel. Using steel hoops and strong wood, the cooper would make containers to keep gunpowder dry, food free of pests, and water and spirits from leaking into the bilge. With a changing environment and the constant shifting of the cargo, the hoops and staves of the barrels required constant upkeep to remain intact and tight.
Those who could play drums, bagpipes, trumpets, accordions, fiddles, and other instruments were so well liked that they escaped torture if captured by pirates. With entertainment at a premium on most uneventful days at sea, they would be expected to play a jig to dance to, lead a shanty for work tempo, or provide dinner music. Musicians would usually play prior to and during a battle, blaring out martial tunes, nautical favorites, or simple loud noise to inspire the crew.
The common sailor, which was the backbone of the ship, needed to know the rigging and the sails. As well as how to steer the ship and applying it to the purposes of navigation. He needed to know how to read the skies, weather, winds and most importantly the moods of his commanders.
Often overlooked, the Striker was a native of the West Indies , typically from Darien or the Mosquito Coast . They were expert hunters who trapped sea turtles and manatees; fished for sharks and other large fish; and also hunted wild game when the crew came ashore. Their knowledge of local plants aided in collecting edible fruits and vegetables as well as medicinal plants and herbs. Their expert ability at hunting and fishing earned them a spot among the crew, Their hatred of Spain assured their loyalty and ferocity in battle. They were not kept aboard for their seamanship, their job was to catch fish and kill Spaniards.
The cabin boy is typically a young boy of privileged birth who is sent to sea to learn the maritime trade. Typically the cabin boy waits upon the officers of the ship. In some instances he may act as the Captain's servant. The cabin boy will run messages and errands for the officers, prepare their uniforms, perhaps even fetch their dinners. Because he is an apprentice of sorts, he is also expected to learn all aspects of the maritime trade. The cabin boy works long hard hours. Even on pirate ships, the captain might employ a young energetic fellow as a cabin boy.
Many powder monkeys were probably pressed into service, being kidnapped by press gangs and forced to serve aboard ship. Often the powder monkeys were young lads no more than eleven to thirteen years old. They mainly assisted the gun crews and learned most of the ships basics but were paid little (if anything), treated poorly, and were expendable. If they managed to live a few years, they might eventually make it to a position of more importance on the ship. Often, due to their harsh life, powder monkeys were quick to sign articles and desert a ship. On a pirate ship, new comers would serve the function of powder monkeys.
Prisoners / Brig
Not all ships had a brig, but if need be someone could just be restrained in many ways.