Pirates remain one of our most romanticized groups of villains, from Captain Hook in Peter Pan to Long John Silver in Treasure Island, pirates have become a part of our stories and our cultural mythology. Even in this modern day, buccaneers have taken center stage thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which brings back the legends of Davy Jones, The Flying Dutchman, and other common myths that were found in general sailing culture, and specifically in the golden age of piracy during the 1600s. Perhaps the biggest myth that's come back around is the idea of a pirate code. However, while it might sound laughable that a crew of brigands and marauders would adhere to a code of conduct, there is some factual basis for this idea.
Also, did you know that Captain Jack Sparrow was a real person?
Additionally, while we associate the word with pirates and sea-going adventures, the term swashbuckler actually referred to poor swordsmen.
The Pirate Code
Pirates weren't just sea going reavers, though that was certainly a part of their reputation. Pirates are a crew, and as a crew they required discipline in order to actually get things done. From their appearances to their command structures, pirates were like a lawless mirror of legitimate crews, both military and civilian. As piracy sailed into the golden age, flying the Jolly Roger high, these ships began to establish articles of conduct and codes of behavior that all sailors had to abide by.
When you joined a pirate ship it was the same as joining an army, or a gang. You were expected to carry your part of the load, and to do as you were told for the good of the group. During the 17th century this evolved past just doing whatever the captain or the first mate told you to do, and became a contract you were expected to sign. These articles laid out how a particular crew member was to behave, which actions would be rewarded, and which ones would be punished, along with how much reward and punishment could be expected. The articles listed everything from how much treasure the captain could claim, down to what amount of gold would be given to a crew man who lost a limb as a result of service.
So The Brother's Code Was Real?
Well, not exactly.
You see, much like the flag a particular ship flew, these articles were different from one ship to another. There was no such thing as a universal pirate code. One captain might have a punishment of 40 lashings for a particular crime, while another might demand a crewman be shot. However, these articles held all members to a common cause, and they stopped arguments when you could point at the articles and see whether or not a particular action had broken them. The articles also let you know, more or less, what you were in for when you signed that document, and they prevented any captain from just ruling like a tyrant. A smart captain knew that keeping his crew happy was the real key, because a ship was only as strong and virile as the morale on board.