What Becomes of the Booty Plundered by Pirates? 

January 3, 2024

Popular folklore would have us all believe that pirate ships often sank to the bottom of the ocean during an epic battle with other pirates only to leave a wooden chest of diamonds, rubies and other jewels resting on the ocean floor for an explorer to discover at a later date. This was not usually the case as many pirate ships plundered merchant ships for needed materials to sell to other pirates and merchants. 

While plundering wood, tobacco, rum, spices, and cotton was fairly typical during the heyday of pirating, there would occasionally be a crew that would have a treasure trove of coins, gold, silver and jewels. In our recent blog “What Type of Booty Did Pirates Collect?” we discussed how jewels and precious metals were not the number one goal of pirates but that items such as nautical tools and equipment (sails, ropes, tackles and anchors), food, liquor and tradeable items were often more sought after. 

But no matter what the booty turned out to be, there was a specific way that the treasure would be divided by the captain and crew. Let’s explore that closely to understand the inner workings of a pirate crew. 

Democracy Reigned On Pirate Vessels 

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to find out that every crew member on a pirate vessel had a very specific job. But it may come as a shock that democracy often reigned supreme on pirate ships. Let us explain further. 

Historians believe that pirate ships worked on a democratic system. “Articles of agreement” often spelled out the rules of the ship and how each member of the crew would get a vote. This democratic handling of ship issues was also maintained in the sharing of pirate booty after plundering merchants or other pirates. 

Equitable Division 

Since booty was typically the only pay each crew member would receive, it was critical to continually plunder and divide the spoils in an equitable fashion. Most booty that was not in the form of gold coins or jewels would be sold onshore and the quartermaster would be in charge of cataloging the sale and dividing the payout to the crew. 

According to World History Online, “the cash acquired from selling a cargo was divided amongst the pirate crew according to a strict hierarchy, most men getting one share, some skilled seamen and officers getting one share and a quarter or one share and a half, and the quartermaster and captain getting two shares each.” 

Distribution of the bounty also tried to be equitable to pirates who had received injuries during battles or over the course of the journey. For instance, a crew member who lost a leg, arm, hand, finger, or eye would receive a different payout than those who had not been injured. 

So to answer the age-old question of what happens to the pirate booty; it simply was sold when possible for cash or coins and divided among the crew in an equitable fashion similar to their voting and managing of the vessel. It wasn’t often that they would sink their vessel and lose the treasure at the bottom of the ocean. But if they did so near the coast of Massachusetts, you can be sure to learn about it at the Real Pirates Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.