Captains & Quartermasters

Democracy on Deck

Let us look at the democracy, loose though it may be, that happened onboard a normal pirate ship.  Though every pirate was called upon during battle, they also all had their own jobs during the day.  Below is a list of the basic positions on board ship.  You will notice that first mate is missing.  That is due to the fact that the first mate was usually the quartermaster but did not have to be.  The first mate could also just be another trusted member of the crew.

Pirate Crew (top to bottom):


  • Captain
  • Quartermaster
  • Boatswain
  • Navigator
  • Master Carpenter
  • Pilot
  • Master Gunner
  • Gunner
  • Sail Maker
  • Cook
  • Surgeon
  • Cooper
  • Cabin Boy
  • Striker
  • Sailors
  • Powder Monkey
  • Musicians
We will eventually look through most of these positions but for now, let’s look at the Captain and the Quartermaster.


The Captain of the ship was usually the one that got the endeavor together.  He is the one with the ship (however he chose to obtain it).  The Captain is the one that decides where the are going to go. The one that makes the grand plans.  On most excursions the pirate is elected – voted on by the crew.  Of course the fact that the Captain ‘owned’ the ship made that vote pretty easy.  The Captain was in charge of the ship as a whole but only commanded during times of battle otherwise the Captain was only an idea man.  In most cases, the pirate captain also held sway due tot he fact that he was the smartest, meanest or strongest on the ship.  The myth / fact of the democracy on a pirate ship is true.  The captain was voted in but he was a shoe in and unless a mutiny happened, and most captains held enough fear over the heads of their crew that mutinies were unlikely.  For instance:

  • Captain Morgan – Henry Morgan was a ruthless leader.  he always kept his crew in the booty.  He made sure they got their share of the loot.  He was also a fanatical master in the art of torture, mutiny was not an option on board ships commanded by Morgan.  He had enough loyal crew that the first talk of a mutiny would have been met with executions.
  • Calico Jack Rackham – The most beloved of pirate captains.  He was successful enough that even the addition of two women onboard ship did not cause him to be removed from power.
  • Blackbeard – Huge, crazy, successful and brutal.  Now one on his ship would dare oppose him.  His crew was devoted to him to the death, because they knew if they were not, they would be dead.

Though the Captain was the ‘brains’ on board, the quartermaster ran the day to day operations.  Remember the pirate captain made the plans and was in charge during times of battle but at all other times it was the quartermaster that held sway.  He chose the pirates and what positions they held onboard.  Here is a brief list of some of the duties of quartermaster:

  • Recruiting new pirates (whether from the crew of attacked ships or a good bar)
  • Running the ship
  • Working with the navigator to determine what course they should take
  • Dividing the plunder
  • Punishment

On top of their declared duties, the quartermaster was also the captains confidant.  he was the secon in command on the ship.  Part of the explanation for the success of Blackbeard is the extreme control that his quartermaster – Israel Hands – had on the crew.  Blackbeard did not have to worry about mutiny due to his persona but also due to the fear that the crew had of Israel Hands.  Anytime, except during battle, that the crew had a question – they went to the quartermaster.  He was the final word unless battle was imminent.