These merchant ships were the engines of the emerging global capitalism, yet the sailors themselves were utterly excluded from the wealth they worked to generate. The decision to ‘turn pirate’ was thus a decision to wrestle back some autonomy, and when they did, life on a ship changed dramatically. Officers were democratically elected. Food was shared equally among men of all rank. When booty was collected the Captain only took two shares where the lowest took one – income differentials that would make modern CEOs faint. Loss of a limb aboard would be met with a payment of around £20,000 in today’s money – an amazing form of early healthcare.
So, far from being simple thieves, pirates were perhaps the original anti-capitalist protesters. The reason they were hunted down and suffered such savage public executions was because the powers of the day were petrified of the consequences of the pirates’ ethos.