First of all, let’s keelhaul some pirate myths. Unlike Captain Jack Sparrow and his cronies in the Caribbean, real Golden Age pirates were not drunken swashbucklers or murderous, scurvy-ridden thugs. Watching movies, would you ever believe pirates were politically-minded rebels fighting for justice and fair pay?
Real pirates were both men and women, for a start. The one-pirate, one-vote rule was established 230 years before women’s suffrage in the 1920s, and 260 years before black suffrage. Pirates, no matter their gender or ethnicity, had a say in how things went.
Plus, pirates practiced fair pay for every crew member. Captains and quartermasters got 3 to 4 shares of the booty, doctors and gunners got 2 shares, and the rest of the crew got 1 share each. To put that in context, today the pay ratio between the CEO and their lowest-paid employee can be as bad as 384 to 1!
You might be familiar with the two-house system of government – it’s used by most modern governments, including ours! Would you believe it was a pirate innovation? To keep their own captains from getting too enthusiastic with the cat-o-nine-tails, pirate quartermasters had more power than their navy counterparts. The idea was for the quartermaster to be the balance. Captains were responsible for planning and strategizing, but the quartermaster was charged with keeping the crew happy and resolving any disputes …including disputes with the captain.
So, what can we learn from these Golden Age pirates today?
Mutiny when you need to
Sam Conniff Allende, author of “Be More Pirate” put it perfectly when he said: “Golden Age pirates didn’t break rules just for the sake of causing trouble. They were fighting injustice not just by causing (good) trouble but by showing that there was a better way. Constructive evolution separates the true agents of change from your average scoundrels and hooligans.”
Once you’ve identified your cause, think about how you’d do it differently. You need a new, better way of doing things to replace the old way, or everyone will just go back. In other words, break the rule then rewrite the rule.
As Sam puts it, that’s what a mutiny is all about: “You don’t overthrow the captain unless you’ve got a better captain ready to take over.”
Make good trouble
Many pirates were former navy sailors. But navy sailors weren’t only severely underpaid and paid late, they also had to put up with corporal punishment for minor offices and other abuses of power by their superiors. So, pirates rebelled. Pirates instituted a system of dual-governance, fair pay and equal rights, all enforced by a strict pirate code.
Sound unbelievable? It’s all true. Far from the thuggish criminals that governments of the time portrayed them as, pirates at their core were surprisingly principled rebels. Remember, in the 1700s those self-same governments were colonizing and exploiting other people. And pirates made as much trouble for them as they could.
This came to be known as “good trouble” – trouble that comes from noble intentions to right a wrong (or just fix an annoying problem).
Good trouble drives change. One of the best examples from recent history is pirate radio – remember The Boat That Rocked? In 60s England, BBC Radio had a stranglehold on radio, and used that power to restrict what music could be played.
So, rock ‘n’ roll fans launched boats into international waters. They sent out their own radio signals, and pirate radio was born. This is good trouble at its best, and the response was overwhelmingly. By 1964, as many as 15 million people were tuning in to pirate radio stations. That’s a lot of lost business for the BBC. Eventually, the BBC created four new radio stations to bring listeners the music they demanded. This is exactly how Radio Hauraki came about in New Zealand!
What rule do you find unfair, unjust, or even just annoying?
Create your own pirate code and enforce it
Captain Barbossa, of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”, famously tells us that the pirate code is “more like guidelines than actual rules”. In reality, however, pirates did have strict rules and equally strict punishments for those who broke them. And you should too.
Sam Conniff Allende says: “Your code should reflect you and your personal values and be designed to keep you and your crew honest, but that doesn’t mean you can’t steal codes that have already proven to be helpful to others. In fact, stealing someone else’s code would just be, well, being a bit more pirate.”
Now, that’s not to say you should have rules for everything. That’s called micromanagement and will probably cause your crew to mutiny. Instead, make a list that reflects who you are, what you care about and the positive change you’re trying to bring about. Make sure you’ve got clear accountabilities in place, whether that’s something as small as buying coffee for the office or walking the plank right out of the building.
Brand is everything
There’s an interesting theory that suggests pirates overexaggerated the skull and cutlasses stuff because they didn’t want to engage in violence. Sound weird? Remember that being at sea came with a fair amount of danger on a good day, let alone engaging in a cannons and cutlasses stand up fight on a rocking boat… So, the most practical way to avoid a fight was to make sure your enemies gave up before you had to start one.