Legally Pirate: Systems Very Different from Ours

Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’re discussing chapter 7, Pirate Law.

Buccaneer of the Caribbean, from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates

We’ve already discussed Pirate Law a couple of times, based on articles by the same author, from the same source material, so some of this chapter is redundant if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, but it’s interesting enough to be worth a review.

The authors begin with an amusing comment on pirates’ odd popularity:

Only the Mafia approaches Caribbean pirates’ criminal celebrity, but large numbers of children do not dress up as mobsters to collect candy on Halloween.

On to business:

Successful piracy required the cooperation of a sizeable pirate crew. The average Caribbean pirate ship was crewed by 80 men, and the largest crews consisted of several hundred. This raises the question of how pirates, who, as criminals, could not rely on government to provide their crews law and order and had no compunction about murdering and stealing for private gain, manged to cooperate with one another to engage in piracy.

The fact that “even criminals” develop legal systems of some sort to regulate their relations with each other is one of the things I find fascinating about humans. Social organization springs up even in the most unlikely-seeming places, like prisons and criminal gangs, suggesting that order is a spontaneous and natural fact of human life (though the form that order takes varies).

Whatever order criminals form among themselves is also interesting because it is, by necessity, separate from the dominant legal systems; most criminals do not have the option of turning to the police should a fellow criminal stiff them on their share of the booty. (I suppose this has some parallels with the Chinese case, as the authors described it.)

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Ships through the ages: Pirate dhow; Spanish or Venetian galley; Spanish galleon The Dhow is a typical 16th century dhow, a grab-built, lateen-rigged vessel of Arabia, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. It has the usual long overhang forward, high poop deck and open waist. The dhow was notorious in the slave trade on the east coast of Africa, and even after a thousand years is still one of the swiftest of sailing crafts.

Pirates dealt with their problems by devising what is known as the “Pirate Code,” a set of laws that provided for the basically democratic conduct of the ship and division of the booty, with the captain in charge during battle. Since we already discussed these in previous posts, I will skip over the details, but you can read the book (or my previous posts on the subject), but suffice to say that pirates developed constitutions with voting, checks and balances, etc, that parallel democracy as developed in places like the US:

The institutional features of pirate law should sound familiar. They are more-or-less those of the American system of government: constitutional democracy, separated powers, and checks and balances. …

The most notable difference between pirate law and the American system of government is not their substance but when they were created and by whom. Pirate law was created by mostly illiterate, violent criminals in the early eighteenth century. The American system of government was created by the most educated and respected Europeans of their era more than half a century later.

The authors argue that pirate law must have been successful since piracy not only existed, but flourished, despite quite a bit of forceful opposition from European governments.

On pirate flags:

Most bandits do not announce their presence to their victims and potentially the authorities by publicly displaying a distinctive bandit logo

Proper placement of 1% motorcycle patch.

You sure about that, bud? Most criminal gangs I am familiar with, from the Mafia to street gangs to outlaw motorcycle clubs, advertise their status as criminals in rather obvious ways, like clothing patches, facial tattoos, or dapper Italian suits.

And it’s not just humans: wasps and bees, coral snakes and rattlesnakes, poison dart frogs and monarch butterflies, amanita muscaria and blue ringed octopuses  all signal “Stay away! I’m trouble!”

The natural principle is called “aposemetism,” which:

 refers to the appearance of an animal that warns predators it is toxic, distasteful, or dangerous. This warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators. The unprofitability may consist of any defences which make the prey difficult to eat, such as toxicity, foul taste or smell, sharp spines, or aggressive nature. Aposematism always involves an advertising signal which may take the form of conspicuous animal colorationsoundsodours[2] or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, since both avoid potential harm.

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Are bulborbs poisonous? Or do you just hallucinate if you eat one?

Of course, Pirates fly the Jolly Roger for the same reason: 

Pirates had a well-deserved reputation for mercilessness toward attackers [sic], which they earned by adhering t a simple policy: surrender or die. Pirates adopted this policy to minimize the cost of taking prizes. Violent confrontations with prey were expensive. … More peaceful piracy was therefore more profitable piracy secured, ironically enough, by pirates’ promise to slaughter resistors. …

To profit from this fact, pirates needed to ensure that their victims knew when they were being accosted by pirates… With few exceptions, only pirates flew the Jolly Roger, which is precisely why they did so.

And non-pirates who might like to dabble in the occasional ship-theft are unlikely to dilute the power of the Jolly Roger via mimicry due to the governments’ promise to execute anyone flying the Jolly Roger. This is kind of like if humans couldn’t tell the difference between coral and milk snakes, and so killed all of the milk snakes they could get their hands on: there would soon be pressure for milk snakes to not be orange.

Human criminal gangs make efforts to protect their symbols, to prevent dilution and ensure clear signalling power. The Hells Angels, for example have trademarked/copyrighted their symbols:

In March 2007 the Hells Angels filed suit against the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group alleging that the film entitled Wild Hogs used both the name and distinctive logo of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation without permission.[39] The suit was eventually voluntarily dismissed,[40] after the Angels received assurances from Disney that the references would not appear in the film.[41] …

In October 2010 the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against Alexander McQueen for “misusing its trademark winged death heads symbol”[44] in several items from its Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. The lawsuit is also aimed at Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com, which stock the jacquard box dress and knuckle duster ring that bear the symbol, which has been used since at least 1948 and is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A handbag and scarf was also named in lawsuit.[45] The lawyer representing Hells Angels claimed: “This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership. If you’ve got one of these rings on, a member might get really upset that you’re an impostor.”[46] … The company settled the case with the Hells Angels after agreeing to remove all of the merchandise featuring the logo from sale on their website, stores and concessions and recalling any of the goods that have already been sold and destroying them.[48][49][50]   

In fall 2012 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, Hells Angels sued Toys “R” Us for trademark infringementunfair competition, and dilution in relation to the sale of yo-yos manufactured by Yomega Corporation, a co-defendant, which allegedly bear the “Death Head” logo.

Clear signals work better than unclear signals, example # 6,700,789.

That’s all for now; see you next week.

 

6 thoughts on “Legally Pirate: Systems Very Different from Ours

  1. The difference between Pirate Code and “American Democracy” is that pirates were authentically egalitarian. If a pirate captain exploited his buccaneers as badly as American oligarchs exploited the working classes, they’d string him up in no time and find another captain.

    One example: in most pirate crews, there was a mandatory payment given for a crewman who lost a body part (nose, eye, arm, etc.) It was a lot of money too. In American society, it wasn’t too infrequent for factory workers to get horribly injured on the job and then get fired with little or no compensation. Or soldiers to get maimed and crippled in battle and then later be reduced to begging by the side of the street.

    I’m tempted to compare pirates to a weird kind of hyper violent syndicalist commune or something.

    Liked by 1 person

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