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The Black Death spawned the ‘crew culture’ that gave rise to pirates, mercenaries—and eventually labor unions

January 22, 2023, 11:00 AM UTC
Photo illustration of three fists raised in protest overlaid with archival images of etchings of pirates.
Pirates are just one example of a "crew culture" that continue to shape the modern world.
Photo illustration by Fortune; Original photos by DeAgostini, Universal History Archive via Getty Images (2), Getty Images (1)

After the Black Death, regions scattered across Europe, in which grain farming was marginal, reduced, or even abandoned their arable acres, and relied on imported grain. Such regions tended to be either coastal (including islands) with poor soils or prone to flooding, or mountainous. 

These regions shifted from subsistence grain farming to less labor-intensive and more market-oriented activities, notably dairying, and industrial crops, in which the labour of women and children was as useful as that of men. So an important export became male labor. 

Most of France grew grain, and so faced the harvest bottleneck; it could spare lower-class men to go soldiering for only a few months. Swiss and German mercenaries were more economically dispensable to their communities, and so able to become professionals. They supplied most of the infantry under the French flag until rising population and productivity enabled France to grow its own foot soldiers. “In 1558, German and Swiss troops comprised 70% of the French Royal army.” 

Illustration of an army looting a village in the Hussite wars 15th century.
An illustration from 1887’s Weltgeschichte of the Hussite Wars, marked by heavy use of Swiss and German mercenaries.
Getty Images

Soldiers and sailors were not the only products of grain-deficit regions. These also emitted streams of cod fishers, whalers, pirates, smugglers, hunters, fur trappers, loggers, miners, bandits, and the generalist colonizers, called “solo men.”

Since 1996, I have been using the term “crewmen” to cover all these forms of labor because they had many common characteristics. Married or not, they were away from their womenfolk for years on end, and all operated in teams, gangs, or “crews,” formal or informal. Much of the evidence about crew culture relates to mariners.

They were one end of a single “fluid spectrum” of maritime labor along which individuals could shift with ease. What we have yet to realize is that mariners were themselves only part of a wider crew culture, and that this was greatly boosted, if not created, by plague restructuring. Intriguingly, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the term “crew” did not originate with sailors. Instead, the modern usage of “creue,” old French for “augmentation” or supplement, emerged in 1455, among the English in Normandy, at the end of the Hundred Years’ War. It meant an unofficial band of armed men, living off the land through predation on the peasantry, who could be recruited as army reinforcements when required.

Crews were prefabricated communities, able to accommodate the constant turnover of individuals and to acculturate new recruits on the job. Once acculturated, you literally “knew the ropes,” social as well as technical, informal as well as formal, in any new crew that you joined. Mariners, we know, had a: distinctive work culture with its own language, songs, rituals, and sense of brotherhood. Its core values were collectivism, antiauthoritarianism, and egalitarianism, all of which were summarized in the sentence frequently uttered by rebellious sailors: “they were one & all resolved to stand by one another.” English and Dutch sailors used “round robin” petitions to state their grievances, a circle of marks and signatures in which no name came first, making it more difficult to identify a “ringleader.” That word is dated in English to 1503 and, like the word “strike,” may be a crew legacy.

Mariners’ work was hard, dirty, and dangerous, and diets were deficient in vitamins; scurvy was endemic on long-range voyages. Sailors might be members of a large ships company or military unit, but also formed their own smaller fraternities within it, of “messmates,” excluding men they did not like—crews within crews. Crews were more superstitious than religious, and the superstitions were transnational.

A belief in “St Elmo’s Fire,” a light appearing at the masthead thought to indicate better weather, has been traced in English, Iberian, French, Scandinavian, and Italian sailor folklore. New rituals came with expansion, but remained recognizably derived from the older culture. Celebrating crossing the equator is the classic example. “Te ceremony temporarily inverted the hierarchy on the ship and many captains were treated with contempt and mockery.” This ritual is first documented in 1529, but is now thought to have earlier origins.

Other cross-cultural jolly japes included whipping a random boy to raise the wind in a calm—“the whipping boy.” To this list, one should add a propensity to cursing, drinking, gambling, whoring, rioting, and brawling. Land crews might have no idea about St Elmo, but they shared most of these characteristics, including riotous relaxation. Swiss and German mercenaries held informal meetings sitting or standing in a circle—they too wished to avoid ringleaders. They too had crews within crews, “small self-selected groups” (Rote); the Spanish military equivalent was Cameradas. “Landsknechts elected some of their own officers and regarded themselves as an ‘order’…a well-organised community with the attributes of a union”.

In the Spanish mesta system, seminomadic groups of up to 50 men took flocks of up to 10,000 sheep to upland pastures, ranging over hundreds of miles each summer. They were distinct from sedentary folk, who held them “in suspicion and contempt”, though it might be unwise to express such views within earshot. It was said that “they seldom marry, and contribute nothing to the population.” Some types of miners also count as crew, especially in new mining districts, which had “an exceptionally large number of young men”. “Unlike peasants … miners were organized in self-governing communities … In which individual … authority was secondary to fraternal companies.” Lumbermen, or loggers, moving from site to site to cut prime timber for long-range export, and “navvies” working as teams of contractors far from home, were other variants. German dike-workers in the Netherlands, from 1410, “enjoyed a particularly bad reputation, not least because of their willingness to engage in collective strikes.” Like Maltese seafarers, these Europe-only examples confirm that burgeoning crews were not a result of successful expansion but a cause of it. 

Crewmen had a varying relationship with authority. They could be semidomesticated by states or companies into regular armies, operate as a group of independent petty entrepreneurs in a shared enterprise, or act outside the law altogether as smugglers, bandits, or pirates. They were disciplined on the job, and notoriously undisciplined of it, riotously celebrating pay or plunder in an identical way the world over. The harsh discipline on the job, which included fogging, was constrained by custom. Mutinies were frequent—the French navy averaged two a year between 1680 and 1789. Captains were wise to watch their step, because crews were good at violence. They might not “kill men as freely as your cakemakers do flies” like their pirate brethren, but brawls, fistfights, and knife duels were light entertainment. A study of 2,000 sixteenth-century Spanish sailors found that “half of them showed the mark of some old wound on their bodies.” Even nonmilitary crew were expected to be willing and able to fight, and they were. The average merchant sailor or whaler knew how to handle cannon, handguns, and steel blades of various kinds. A seventeenth-century Basque whaling ship with a crew of 39 carried 14 cannon, 30 muskets, 24 pistols, 30 cutlasses, and 40 grenades. 

Old engraving illustration of arrest of the pirates.
Pirates are just the most famous example of a “crew culture.”
Getty Images

The proficiency in violence of European crew stemmed partly from obvious elements of the occupational culture, and partly from a strange tolerance of risk, discussed at the end of the chapter. As this love-hate relationship with authority suggests, crew culture was rife with contradiction: individualist yet collectivist, independent yet hierarchical, distinct from wider society yet rooted in it, sometimes idealised in the abstract by that society yet also despised and feared by it. 

Crewmen were very manual workers, yet often saw themselves as independent contractors. Some crews were paid mainly in loot, or in shares of their work output, a practice that declined over time but in the case of whalers, cod fishers, and fur-trappers, continued deep into the nineteenth century. In any case, wages were often only part of the package for mariners; prize money or a small share of cargo space, a chest filled with trade goods, was often worth more. Crewmen shifted easily between the subcategories, especially overseas. Such shifts were lubricated by shared culture. 

Perhaps the most shadowy subcategory of all was colonizing crew, the solo male migrants who did not settle down and marry white women. Some aspired to do so. The seventeenth-century Chesapeake was dotted with forlorn landholdings with names like “Bachelor’s Hope.” Others expected to return home, preferably after making their names and fortunes. Colonizing crew activities in the Americas were often violent. The great majority of the conquistadors in Mexico and Peru had no formal training as soldiers, and all were technically irregulars, serving a private military entrepreneur for rations and the prospect of plunder. This was also the case with subsequent armed entradas—expeditions searching for plunder and living of Indian communities along the way. There were scores of such expeditions— at least 15 by 1593 into what is now the southern United States alone, some losing nearly all of their men.

Other colonising crew occupations included coastal shipping, crewing riverboats, privateering, piracy, cattle hunting and herding, fur trading and trapping, cod fishing, and logging. By 1670, the British had established a half dozen “new sucking colonies” on the American mainland, cutting dyewood and then mahogany. “The settlement efforts by these ‘sailors of the woods’ formed the seed of what would eventually become British Honduras and later Belize.”

Some crewmen became rootless, with no fixed abode, but most were at least to some extent rooted in their home communities. Between crews abroad and crew regions in Europe were intermediate hubs, the sailors’ quarters of great port cities, like Triana in Seville, which could double as crew localities themselves. Like crew regions proper, these quarters had an exceptionally high proportion of households headed by women, either never married, because potential spouses were in distant graves, or the widows or grass widows of sailors.

Again, most of the evidence concerns sailors, but martial crew regions such as the Swiss and Austrian Alps have similar figures for women-led households. Some studies paint a bleak picture of the lives of these women and their families. Yet one could put a more positive gloss on the lives of crew-women. For one thing, they sometimes controlled significant businesses, often related to the provisioning and cargoes of ships.

In one small Northern Portuguese crew port around 1615, seven out of eight cod merchants were women, and they were also prominent in the wine trade. 

Another peculiarity of crew regions was a high rate of illegitimate births that, exceptionally, seem to have involved extramarital sex by women. Lists of illegitimacy-prone regions could double as lists of crew regions: northern Portugal, the Basque country, the Alpine provinces of Austria, parts of Norway and Scotland. In these regions, illegitimacy rates could rise as high as 25%, compared to a norm of below 5%. These were births registered by disapproving priests and officials, which could be evaded by a visit from a husband in the last nine months. One great crew region was northern Portugal, where migration from inland to the coast began after the Black Death, continued as grain imports increased, and rose further as the population began to recover in the later fifteenth century. It was the common crewmen of some localities in this region, not the lesser nobility as some sources suggest, that were the backbone of Portuguese imperial manpower. The gender ratio, of all ages, could be as low as 72.5 males to 100 females, suggesting that half the adult men were abroad.

One source describes a “customary practice” among the wives of seafarers. “Upon the return of her husband, the woman will hang a pair of his pants on the clothesline to alert her lovers to stay away”. Women were prominent, if not dominant, in the local economy, and some localities had a special relationship with the distant East Indies. Some crewmen did return with money—and spices, whose distribution went unusually far down the social scale. Others sent back legacies and endowments. The women of the region were considered to be “fiercely independent.” 

A neighboring crew region was Galicia in Northern Spain. This grain-deficit region sent its men to the Spanish army and to both Spanish and Portuguese maritime enterprise. These men “rarely sent for their families,” and years of absence became an esteemed masculine tradition. Men who stayed were known as “remendafoles,” those “without spirit or personality.” Here, in one village in 1597, 44.4% of households were headed by women. By the 18th century, there were only 60 men for every 100 women in 41 of 50 parishes. “These women adeptly managed without men. In much of Galicia, women held the purse strings and made key decisions about friends and family, and their prerogative to do so was acknowledged by all the parties involved.” 

There seems more than a hint of what one might call early folk feminism here. Where else did early modern European lower-class women get to run their own household, their own business, and have socially condoned extramarital affairs if they chose? With exceptions like Andalusia, crew-sending regions and settler-sending regions were not the same, but women in both may have done better than their sisters in most regions of Europe. Despite high illegitimacy rates, the case of the American whaling island of Nantucket suggests that crew regions had lower than normal birthrates, which meant fewer years spent pregnant and less risk of death in childbirth. Whether this contributed to the “Western European Marriage Pattern” is an interesting issue, but not one we can pursue. A tragic side of crew regions remained. Male and female births in these communities were roughly equal, but the number of men who died at home was sometimes as low as 44%. Such undermanned graveyards dot the crew regions of Europe. 

Historic illustration of whaling ships encountering a whale.
Whaling ships were worked, like so many things of this period, by crews.
Getty Images

At least half of all crewmen did not return, as our crew region cemeteries suggest, and most of them did not enjoy a new life in the colonies but died prematurely instead. Some 80% of 2,000 Spanish were thought to have died in the conquest of the Incas in the 1530s. No less than 62% of Dutch crews to Asia, 600,000 men, did not return home, and there were never more than 20,000 live Dutch in the Indies at any one time. Death rates may have been as high among the 300,000 Portuguese crew who ventured to the East Indies in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Only half the 5,200 soldier recruits who left Lisbon for Goa, 1629–34, actually arrived. Most of the rest quickly died in the Goa royal hospital, in which 25,000 Europeans expired, 1604–1634. Things did not necessarily improve much over time, as new diseases ensconced themselves in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. “In the terrible year of 1775, more than 70% of the [Dutch] Company’s soldiers died within a year after their arrival from Europe.” In 1655, the first major English campaign in the Caribbean, which failed to take Hispaniola but took Jamaica as a consolation prize, lost 80% of its 10,000 men, mostly to disease. The last English campaigns in the same region, in the 1790s, lost 45,000 soldiers plus at least 12,000 sailors.

Such terrible mortalities might not have been predicted in the very first overseas expeditions. But they quickly became all too obvious from the accounts and small numbers of returning survivors. Yet crewmen continued to stream out. No doubt some were coerced, but it seems most were not. Merchant sailors, cod fishers, and whalers were normally volunteers. Spain recruited its army from volunteers in the sixteenth century, and did not begin conscripting sailors until about 1640. Even the notorious British press gangs, until recently believed to have supplied half the navy’s crewmen in the eighteenth century, are now thought to have provided as few as 16%. Once aboard, arrears of pay, the prospect of booty, and espirit de crew could turn a conscript into a belated volunteer. The mariner literature notes many examples of a “culture of risk.” “The prospect of dying was something mariners were accustomed to.” Sailors “come very near to losing their lives, and at the very moment of their escape turn round and laugh as though it were a good joke.”

“No Man can have a greater contempt for Death. For every day he constantly shifts upon his own Grave, and dreads a storm no more, than He does a broken head, when drunk”. Irregular soldiers in the many late 16th-century Spanish entrada north of present-day Mexico also showed their crew colors. They “displayed extreme tolerance for risk, extraordinary physical stamina, and a callousness that verged on the sociopathic.” I suspect that crewmen’s willingness to knowingly and voluntarily accept a 50/50 chance of premature death was influenced by plague, at least until the 1650s. 

Dicing with death was a fact of life, and if you sailed for Goa or Batavia at least you threw the dice yourself. Once abroad, crewmen risked many diseases, but bubonic plague was not among them. Europe’s crews were vital to its expansion. They were inured to risk because they had to be. They were also armed and dangerous. The mastery of relevant transport, courage, skill at violence, and brutality of these “Sea-Mongols” matched that of the horse-borne kind, and European crew carried pox if not buboes as well. They were literally the cutting edge of European expansion, as disposable as razor blades.

James Belich is the Beit Professor of Imperial and Commonwealth history at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Previous works include a two-volume history of New Zealand, and a book on New Zealand military history which was adapted into a documentary series. His current research extends to global history and the origins of European expansionism.

Excerpted from The World the Plague Made by James Belich. Copyright © 2022 by James Belich. Reprinted with permission of Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.

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