Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Safety Net for "Pirates"

Did you know that Jean Laffite provided an on-the-job insurance policy to all the officers and  crew members employed under him? It makes a certain amount of sense. A privateer setting out to do battle might think to himself: "But what if I lose a limb?"

The very fictional Long John Silver leading captive Jim Hawkins despite his work  injury
from an illustration by N.C. Wyeth for a 1911 edition of Treasure Island

We have all heard of limbless pirates. A wonderful fictional example is Long John Silver in the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The fact that his left leg was cut off close to hip made him all the more terrifying. It's not politically correct to admit it today, but when we see a fellow human being who has been dismembered, it scares us, because it makes us think that this might also happen to us. We feel this way, despite the fact that many of those who lost their limbs have done so while fighting for our freedom.

Jean Laffite was not a pirate. All his limbs were intact, and if you met him, you would think him a very courteous, soft spoken gentleman. However, he was also a privateer, and he drew up many contracts to equip and man privateering vessels.

According to historian William C. Davis, in his book The Pirates Laffite, Jean Laffite's standard contract for officers and crew members of his privateering vessels included compensation for loss of limbs while on the job (Davis 2005.398).
The overriding concern with profit was evident in another document handed to captains by Laffite and Humbert, a "charter for partition" that detailed the division of spoils taken from prizes, a touchy subject since the dawn of piracy. Half of everything went to the ship owner and outfitter, together with a five percent commission on the balance of the cargo brought into Galveston. The captain was to hold back another five percent of what was due to the crew pending dispensation of everything. If the crew took a vessel better than their own and abandoned their own as a result, then the new prize became entirely the property of the owner of the original privateer in order to cover the loss. All arms also went to the owner. Thereafter, in something resembling an insurance policy, Laffite detailed the special shares of profit to be given to a man should he lose an arm or a leg.  The first man to spot a prize was to get an extra share, as well as the first man to board one. The captains controlled four discretionary shares to hand out to men who performed particularly well, whereas any men who deserted or were caught stealing  from their mates should lose their shares. Then, in descending order, from the captain to the common crewmen, a division of shares by rank was detailed.

What do we learn from this? One, the profit motive is a wonderful thing, and it includes everything that is needed to keep a ship running smoothly. Two, the profit motive actually induces good entrepreneurs, like Jean Laffite, to provide insurance to those working under them under perilous conditions. Three, for all the egalitarianism that Laffite spouted, rank and personal performance played an important role in determining each person's share in the spoils. But because payment was percentage based , even the lowliest crew member was extremely motivated to work hard for his pay.

Do you think a safety net for injury on the job is something offered only under socialism? Do you think egalitarianism a la Jean Laffite requires all to be compensated equally regardless of their contribution? Think again.


  1. Not very many sailors who lost a limb received their "insurance" shares because the amputations were done without anesthesia, other than some alcohol to make the subject drunk, and if the shock of the surgery didn't result in death, loss of blood or septicemia often killed the amputee a short time later. Sterile procedure was unknown in that day.

    1. Hi, Pam. Nice to finally see you here!

      Septicemia was definitely an factor, in amputations as well as in childbirth. But it was nice to know that if you did survive the loss, there was compensation.

      Do you happen to know if widows and orphans inherited the dead man's share of the compensation?

  2. I don't know if survivors of the deceased sailors got any of their shares. It doesn't seem likely to me. Most common sailors (and even many captains and officers) of the time were not married.

    1. It would be nice to examine the contract for survivorship provisions. Is the version of the contract published in Madeleine Fabiola Kent's The Corsair accurate?