With surprise that is not news to anyone who’s ever read more than one actual book on the Vikings, news reports from most media outlets are breathlessly reporting somewhere around 90 researchers in evolutionary genetics announced their research showing that there’s a lot of Western European, English, Slavic, and Mediterranean DNA in Vikings buried during the Viking Age. News reports present this as breakthrough research.
The supposed shocker is people buried in Scandinavia during the Viking age are not pure blood Scandinavians. Instead there are “significant gene flows” into the Scandinavian population from southern Europe and Asia.
How do we roll forward those financial amounts we read of during the pirate era to provide some sort of context for what those amounts represent today?
One of the best way to do so is to compare wages or earnings today to a wages at a previous point in time. Other ways are to look at purchasing power. Another way is to look at values of specific items such as a cow or a basket of food.
I will try to construct some comparisons of salaries today to the pirate era. Follow along and you can watch me as I develop those comparisons.
Since this website focuses on ancient finances, I am going to dive deeper into the financial amounts I can find from the Pirate Age. I will try to develop some ways to interpret values from back then in terms of what we can understand today.
Reason I do this is we have no frame of reference when we read a comment that each member of a pirate crew received a share of £1,000 from the spoils of seizing a ship.
Likewise we can’t interpret or comprehend what it means for domestic servants being paid between £2 and £5 annually or a merchant ship captain who would draw an annual salary of £24.
This post will pull together the data points mentioned in previous posts of this series.
Author Eric Jay Dolin provides some indications of how lucrative it was to be a successful pirate in his book Black Flags, Blue Waters
The story of Dixie Bull provides one sliver of a view of the rewards from piracy. I won’t repeat the long tail of his adventures. Suffice it to say that he raided a fort after he and his crew decided to try their hand at piracy. His haul was estimated at £500.
The book provides the following prices for context:
In Black Flags, Blue Waters author Eric Jay Dolin says pirates would rather not engage in a fight when they captured a prize ship.
The downside of a battle is the target ship might be sunk, some of the valuable cargo might be destroyed, and more significantly some of the pirates might get hurt or killed.
The far better battle strategy was to win through intimidation. There were enough accurate reports of pirates torturing or killing captives that an approaching pirate ship would create justifiable fear.
Mr. Dolin’s book Black Flags, Blue Waters provides intriguing background on how pirates organized themselves and how they split up the booty. Also provides a contrast of their reputation compared to their actual battle techniques.
Pirates organized themselves in something with very strong correlation to a democracy. The crew voted to select the captain and first mate (or quartermaster). In battle the captain had absolute authority, which is obviously necessary. Other than during battle the crew could vote to depose the captain if he were sufficiently unacceptable.
Apparently this issue has been discussed at great length in the literature.
The author says this self-governance structure was not due to any particular philosophical enlightenment or fondness for democracy as a concept. Proof for this is they held slaves and did not treat non-crewmembers well.