Sunday, February 15, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities – Health and Wellness

In the last instalment of this series we learned about the democratic nature of pirate communities. Over 100 years before the French Revolution, democracy existed aboard pirate ships, as represented by the written and signed Articles of Piracy, which demonstrated the crew’s power, as opposed to just the Captain’s. Part of those democratic principles included health care and workplace compensation, both of which, once again, existed on pirate ships long before they did anywhere else in the world.

According to Nigel Cawthorne’s A History of Pirates, when it came to healthy living, “many Royal Navy seamen considered life on board a pirate ship heaven compared with conditions they experienced on board the ships of His Majesty.” There was a greater life expectancy than in the navy and, while a pirate could very well depart this life at the end of a rope, he was allowed to leave the ship when he pleased and, if he chose to go ashore, could, as Cawthorne says, “at least look forward to a few years of freedom and high living.”

Life aboard a pirate ship was not only better lifestyle-wise than that with the Royal Navy or Merchant Marine, but pirates were actually given health benefits in the form of workplace compensation. Specifically, they went into battle knowing that, should they lose a limb or have their eye poked/shot out, they would be financially compensated for such loses. Here is a chart that reflects the actual payment as discussed by David Cordingly in Under the Black Flag:



Right Arm

600 pieces of eight

Left Arm

500 pieces of eight

Right Leg

500 pieces of eight

Left Leg

400 pieces of eight

Eye or Finger

100 pieces of eight

Here were the earliest forms of non-governmental (ie. the military), workplace compensation. Further, the ship’s – or pirate company’s – surgeon was the highest paid member of the crew (fun pirate fact: only carpenters, shipwrights and surgeons earned a salary). Aaron Smith, a surgeon working on a merchant vessel, was captured by Cuban pirates in 1822. He was seen as so valuable that, in spite of speaking no Spanish or being trained in their seafaring tactics, the pirates employed him as a doctor and sail-maker – pirates, unlike the Government of Canada, clearly recognized the transferable skills and qualifications of this foreign trained professional. So, aside from seeing the value in medical professionals (instead of, say, lawyers or investment bankers), what else can we learn from pirate communities with it comes to health and wellness? Here are some key points:

Healthy living begins with a Healthy Community: how did these compensated pirates use their money? Well, if they went to shore they invariably spent it in the taverns and brothels of Tortuga or other pirate haunts on isle of Hispaniola or elsewhere in the sunny Caribbean, hopefully, they built a relationship with local communities (should we start a thread on local food?!). Like many of us today, pirates suffered from the ill-effects of instant gratification. They would spend their compensation without thinking of a long-term strategy; however, if a certain amount of time, effort and resources were exchanged by pirate companies and coastal communities, well, then a system of security and care would be formed. Even today the coastal communities in Somalia rarely cooperate with the authorities and provide shelter, supplies and medical attention to pirates-in-need. As it was 300 years ago, when pirates take care of their communities, their communities take care of them. Organized, democratic, healthily-insured, and possessing a sense of community: wow, Barack Obama could take a page out of their playbook!

Health and Wellness in the Workplace: each year the Canadian economy loses upwards of $30 billion because of workplace stress. Our country’s workers are asked to do too much too quickly in an effort to complete projects within razor-thin profit margins. And if you’re an organization that recognizes the relationship between happy, healthy workers and profitability, well, then your organization is going places. Not unlike a pirate ship! If not, hey, you can learn from the pirates. Today, over one million people in Canada’s workforce suffer from some kind of mental illness brought on by stress. In the seventeenth century, life aboard a pirate ship was easier and more efficient than aboard a ship in the Merchant Marine. There were more pirates (typically as many as 80) than merchant sailors (sometimes as few as 12), so buccaneers would actually be more productive and get to work less. How was this possible? Well, the booty, plunder and earnings of the pirates was divided democratically amongst the crew, whereas merchant sailors saw the profits from their hauls go to wealthy businessmen in London, Boston and New York. This is why, argues Cordingly, so many merchant sailors joined pirate crews after their vessels were attacked and raided. Reasonable time to complete less work, more loot and health insurance?! Why wouldn’t they sign up?!

Health Insurance is different from Wellness: pirates, like some of you reading this blog, are a little dirty. Now. There are levels of dirtiness, obviously. For pirates, they got filthy in a venereal sense. In fact, due to syphilis rates that rival modern day Whistler night clubs or Axe body spray commercials, pirates would usually head directly to the medicine chest, not the armoury or treasure-hold, when they ransacked a ship. It was itch-curing mercury compounds, not gold, rum or gunpowder that was the sought-after treasure for so many of these scallywags. Just as with the these wench-pillaging buccaneers, today many of us look to the healthcare system to cure illnesses brought on by excessive smoking, drinking, sitting, eating, stressing, and unprotected sexing. While pirates, like many of us, have access to health care, we must remember that such a system is only part of what it takes to be healthy. Really, it takes a well-rounded, holistic approach that involves diet, exercise, work-life-balance, and happiness. So, the next time you’re thinking about swilling some rum, grabbin’ yer cutlass and hittin’ the port with yer mates, ask yourself if these actions will lead to you being a drain on an over-taxed system that is set up to help people who actually need it. Not over-indulging pirates.

At this point, I’ll add a disclaimer and remind you, the readers, of the context in which these tales took place. Look. Life on board a pirate ship in the eighteenth-century was, yes, better than life in the Royal Navy. Keep in mind, though, that your food still had maggots in it and that you usually slept in a damp room bellow decks and fell asleep beneath a wet, mouldy blanket. So, yes, it was better, but let us keep in mind the standards by which these pirate-ship-havens were measured. Also, just as governments tax their citizens, pirates taxed (and still tax) communities. The Canadian government, when taxing, doesn’t tend to set things on fire, though…

Yes. Subtle differences abide. Long story short, work less and be well…like a pirate!

Thar be it, mateys and matettes! Have yourselves a grand day on the high seas.

- Sir John the Pirate Piratologist


Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

Comparison between Pirate Life and the Royal Navy are very apt. It's ture, most Royal Navy sailors sailed the seas at great peril, in deplorable conditions and, usually, entirely against their will. Their wages were crappy too.

Why, well, they had no choice. During the height of the wars against Napoleon, press gangs - thuggish sailors - roamed the English country side pressing able males into service, usually with violence, separating from their livlihoods and families. Pirates, well, they chose their life voluntarily I imagine and were the better for it.

Then again, we shouldn't assume that every pirate wanted to be a pirate as his/her first choice. Take the modern day pirates off the Somali coast, for example. These guys have raised the jolly rodger in response to a destroyed homeland and destruction of their fishing grounds. Still, they are bounded by a common cause and common motivation - which is more than we can say for the Royal Navy. Where am I going with this, well, not sure. All i can say is that there's nothing like the promise of mercenary reward to make a deadly, or, dull occupation more palatable. Throw in a bit of solidarity created by common purpose and motivation and you've got yourself community!

allen said...

It gave me some insight in to the pirate community.I think axe body spray commericial are different from real.Good and able body makes a pirate.So its natural to look after his health and wellness.

Kurt Heinrich said...

very interesting article John.

Following up on GvB's comment: Perhaps you could do the next segment on the royal navy and how military life aboard ships was the anti-thesis of community?

I'd like to learn more - particularly about keel-hauling and if there is anyway it relates to community...

John Horn said...

Thanks, Kurt.

One of the big differences between the Royal Navy and Pirate Companies regarding keel-hauling and flogging was that, after the punishment, it was typical of Royal Navy officers to douse a sailor's wounds with salt and/or pickle juice - to put the stinging finishing touches on the punishment.

But, hey, let's not romanticize pirates. If you didn't "fit" within their communities there was no plank-walking or keel-hauling. Such things were a little too ceremonial for pirates. They just stabbed a sailor with their cutlass and tossed 'em over the side.

More to come on that, though, mateys!