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Rules of engagement

Letters of Marque

Letters of Marque were papers issued to privateers which gave specific instructions on a task they were to perform in the service of a country of private company. Typically these letters outlined the actions the ship could against warring nations. Two examples are a general "Letters of Marque" issued in 1625 by King James of England and the Letters issued to Captain, Sir Henry Morgan (letters will open in new window).

Letter of Ransom

Another paper that was remarkably worthless when dealing with real pirates. Letters of Ransom were given to ship by privateers after members of the crew or passengers had been kidnapped. Typically a privateer would issue the letters with instructions for all other privateers to allow this ship to pass safely to its intended destination because people were being held ransom and the ransom could not be paid by dead men. The little good that could come from this letter would be a spared life in the event no booty was found on board.

Let Pass

The Letters of Safe Passage, or Let Pass were papers given to ships in order to grant safe passage through an area. Typically these letters would be given to the captain of ship of a neutral nation or perhaps an enemy ship involved in negotiations with the host nation of privateers. While they may have kept away a privateer they offered little guarantee against a determined pirate.

Letters of Reprisal

Basically a letter declaring unrestricted warfare in a specified area due to the actions of a sovereign government See Letters of Marque.


Dueling was overseen by the Quartermaster and strictly controlled. Dueling without permission would lead to marooning or being tossed overboard of all concerned.

The problem with dueling is it could lead to divisions among the crew. For this reason duels were not typically acceptable onboard ship; neither the captain or the quartermaster needed a mutiny over silly arguments. For this reason, most duels were settled at the end of a voyage or on land.

When a duel was sanctioned the duel was usually settled on land. Typically the weapon of choice would be a knife or other bladed weapon. The duels were most often "to death". Even when the duel did not lead to the death of the loser, the loser could still wind up being marooned; along with other pirates who were expected to seek revenge his loss.

Who's in Charge

On most pirate ships, a division of power between the Quartermaster and the Captain. Because the ships were run more or less democratically, the crew chose the captain and the quartermaster. The captain was usually a strong leader who had a knack for finding easy plump prey. The quartermaster, on the other hand was trusted seaman who knew how to sail a ship, weather storms, and get from point A to point B.

The captain would choose a prey and put it up to the crew for a vote. If the crew agreed then the captain would develop a plan and lead the crew in to battle. It was up to the quartermaster to get the crew to the target. It was up to the captain to close in on the target and engage the enemy. The captain would also choose or lead the boarding party.

Once the battle was over, the quartermaster would divide the booty. Obviously, this was done according to established articles and under the watchful eye of the captain and crew.

When it came to disagreements among the crew, it was often the captain who would settle the argument but it was the quartermaster who decided on the punishment.

The crew of course could also vote for another captain but when this was done, you could expect that it would lead to duel between would-be captain and the captain who was to be deposed.

Depending on the ferocity or integrity of the captain, it was at times very difficult to remove a captain. For instance it would have been suicide to call for a vote to depose Blackbeard.

Also it could be expected that if a person led a mutiny of a merchant ship the leader of the mutiny would expect to be made captain of the newly taken ship.

A poor quartermaster also ran the risk of being deposed if he failed to chart courses correctly or if the captain felt the quartermaster was not being cooperative.

Dividing Booty

Depending on the situation, the division of plunder would change. For instance, if the ship were a Privateer, and was operating under a Letter of Marque, the division is most likely outlined by whomever issued the Letter.

Typically, the commission would divide the spoils at a certain percentage for the captain and crew and the rest for the company or government that issued the letter. This percentage could be anything from 10% to 90% for the government. Quite often Queen Elizabeth settled for a 50/50 split.

Once the government or got its share the rest would be divided among the captain and his crew. This would be decided ahead of time. A good rule of thumb would be that the captain would get two shares, while other important members of the crew would get between 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 shares. A seasoned crew member would get a 1 share, a new man may get as little as 1/4 share. This would differ from ship to ship and often would be agreed upon before setting sail.

One Article of Piracy stated: the captain shall have one full share and a half in all prizes. The Master, Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner shall have one share and quarter. This leaves it open how much everyone else got. It may be that every else got one share or may be that each person was instructed individually what they would get. Other things were also considered. Boarding parties might get a bonus share.

Most of this division of booty concerned items of wealth, such as gold, silver, gems, slaves, and merchandise like coffee, sugar cane, and textiles. While weapons and blades were also divided up, crews may have handled them differently. If you killed a man, then perhaps you got his pistol or cutlass if it were better than yours, or perhaps it went into a pool and captains and other senior members got first crack at ownership. Or perhaps you bought it by having its worth deducted from your share.

It was common practice for leaders of boarding parties to get a first crack at a any captured pistols or blades. Quartermasters and Captains would also often lay claim to anything they felt was special and this too would be above and beyond the division of spoils. This was not unexpected. In fact, considering the pecking order onboard the ship, it was perfectly acceptable.

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The only author and editor of all pages on the site. Most of what I write about is based on years of book reading on the topic. My first web page was published back in 1994.

Updated: 04 September 2022