Economics of 16th-19th Century Pirate Recruitment on the Seas

Capture of the Pirate Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard and Robert Maynard in Ocracoke Bay; romanticized depiction by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris from 1920

Piracy has been in the news lately because of the problem it has generted in Somolia, but lets look at the motivations of young men joining such groups and becoming pirates. Piracy is a huge part of western history and can be traced to pretty much any region of the world. Here mostly western or Caribbean piracy will be discussed that was prevalent a couple cenuries ago. We often have stereotypes of these former pirates based on movies and the media – which often shows pirates as crude and unintelligent treasure seekers who weren’t able to see the big picture around them. This is far from the truth and there wqs a clear economy to the trade. The invisible hand was a guiding force and continues to be today for potential pirates. consideration in their decision making. Piracy grew into becoming very serious of an offense and crime.

Punishment and Motivation for Becoming a Pirate

Early on in its history piracy was not monitored very effectively due to the way the court; and punishment for piracy was set up until 1536 when laws started becoming stricter. By the 18th century it was taken very seriously by authorities with strict punishments of death and a high risk for pirates that were tried in various courts. For both pirates, collaborators, and those who traded with pirates the risk factor increased. This is a similar manner in which rulers from long ago in history used tariffs to limit free trade as well as free market which has been ineffective seen in economics for society en large. They sometimes like in the French Revolution punished raising prices above a legal limit by death as well. The British empire wanted to squash piracy really in a similar matter by making the risk really high and thus lowering incentive to pirate.

According to Pirate Shipwrecks, “Pirates have been around as long as people have used the oceans as trade routes. The earliest documented instances of piracy are the exploits of the Sea Peoples who threatened the Aegean and Mediterranean in the 13th century BC.”

The economics of piracy come in the form of benefits exceeded the cost for sailors in joining such groups. According to the book ‘The Invisible Hook’ by Peter T. Leeson, one of the ways pirates ended up dealing with the risk of capture and imprisonment and thus minimized the opportunity cost of being a pirate — was to simply trick or wit the court systems by making the courts free them on behalf of being forced/conscripted into the crew. This way, they could convince the courts they committing crimes based on fear and force. Pirates went as far as to stage fake initiations or recruiting so later other pirates and witnesses would testify for them and minimize risk. This not unlike what many armed robbers or gang members of today try doing.

Roman Slavery and Caribbean Piracy — Parallels in recruitment and conscription

The idea of conscription which is mandatory or forced vs. voluntary recruitment is presented very well in this book about in chapter 6. On page 135 the author states that most sailors joined pirates voluntarily. Pirates were a lot more likely to conscript higher skilled or specialized sailors that they needed and preferred voluntary recruitment in general, this in turn brought lower enforcement or monitoring costs and higher profits due also to free pirates having more incentive to improve productivity. As they received their share of profits and booty when free. This is similar to the way slavery in Roman times during times existed where slave owners found it more profitable to give slaves incentives to work their way into freedom and that is possibly why slavery in Rome ended up dying out. Even in Antebellum South many slave owners found this model more profitable and in urban areas for example slaves received wages and eventually bought their freedom benefiting both the slave and the slave owner.

Incentive was and still continues to be a huge driving force for productivity. Pirates just like Roman slave owners found it a lot more profitable to have free men instead of recruits as pirates. Free and willing participants would have a much higher incentive as well as productivity. Also, the costs of enforcement for both slaves and pirates is similar in that it is costly monitoring them and preventing them from running away or taking arms against their captors. Also conscripted pirates would more likely desert and cause a disharmony to the crew. Even when forced, many conscripted pirates eventually joined by their own willpower; and even when not voluntarily recruited from the beginning. They realized the economic advantage of receiving their share of profits and being treated better by voluntarily joining. They also realized they had low opportunity cost (at least before the government began punishing piracy by death) over being their best alternative which was often sailors who had a hard and not as rewarding profit-wise of a life.


WHat can we draw as lessons form ancient piracy and how does it pertain to the world and economics of today? Bottom line is if there is risk involved involved in an activity, whether it is personal or financial, there has to be great reward involved as well to motivate anyone — even criminals to continue in that trade. Often if the opportunity cost is low, like the criminals don’t have many other options or opportunities in making a living, then the trade will also be hard to squash.