Pirates Culture > Pirate Crew > Pirate Quartermaster

Pirate Quartermaster

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Background

Quartermaster is a military or naval term, the meaning of which depends on the country and service. In land armies, a quartermaster is generally a relatively senior soldier who supervises stores and distributes supplies and provisions. In many navies, quartermaster is a non-commissioned officer (petty officer) rank. In some navies, it is not a rank but a role related to navigation. Most British and Anglo-American pirates delegated unusual amounts of authority to an individual called the Quartermaster, who became almost the Captain's equal. The general rule was that during times of battle the Captain retained unlimited authority, but at all other times he and the rest of the crew were subject to the command of the Quartermaster. The Quartermaster was usually elected by the crew immediately after choosing a Captain, and it was his duty to represent their interests. For this he received an extra share of the booty when it was divided. Above all, he protected the Seaman against each other by maintaining order, settling quarrels, and distributing food and other essentials. Serious crimes were tried by a jury of the crew, but the Quartermaster had the authority could punish minor offenses, and kept the records and account books for the ship. If the pirates were successful, he decided what plunder to take from a prize. If the pirates decided to keep a captured ship, the Quartermaster often took over as the Captain of that ship until they disposed of it.

Origins

The term appears to derive from the title of a German royal official, the Quartiermeister. This term meant "master of quarters" (where "quarters" means lodging/accommodation). Or it could have been derived from "master of the quarterdeck" where the helmsman and Captain controlled the ship. The term was then adopted by some European armies and navies. The first use in English was as a naval term, entering English via the equivalent French and Dutch naval titles quartier-maître and kwartier-meester in the fifteenth century. The term began to refer to army officers in English around 1600.

Golden Age of Piracy

See Golden Age of Piracy

Pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy elevated the rank of quartermaster to much higher powers and responsibilities than it had aboard any merchant or naval vessel. The quartermaster was often granted a veto power by a pirate ship's "Articles of Agreement", in order to create an officer who could counterbalance the powers of the pirate captain. Pirate quartermasters, like pirate captains, were usually elected by their crews. It was often the quartermaster's responsibility to lead the pirate boarding party when coming aboard another ship. This was usually done from the quarter deck which was the place where two ships touched during the boarding attack. The quartermaster ranked higher than any officer aboard the ship except the captain himself, and could veto the captain's decisions whenever the ship was not chasing a prize or engaged in battle. The quartermaster also was chiefly responsible for discipline, assessing punishments for crewmen who transgressed the articles. Several quartermasters, notably Calico Jack Rackham, became captains after the previous captain was killed or deposed. Although a minority of pirate scholars dismiss the accepted version of the pirate quartermaster's importance, it is well supported by the extant secondary sources such as Charles Johnson, David Cordingly and Botting, and overwhelmingly borne out by the primary sources, including Ringrose, Dampier, Snelgrave, Trott, and George Roberts.

Famous Quartermasters

Charles Vane

See Charles Vane

Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources