Famous Historical Pirates
The Gold Age
Perhaps the most famed pirate
from the Golden Age was
known as “Blackbeard.” He was
born about 1680 in England as
Edward Thatch, Teach, or
Drummond, and operated off
the east coast of North America
in the period of 1714-1718.
Noted as much for his out-
landish appearance as for his
piratical success, in combat
Blackbeard placed burning
slow-match (a type of slow-burning fuse used to set off cannon) under his hat; with his face wreathed in fire and smoke, his victims claimed he resembled a fiendish apparition from Hell. Blackbeard's ship was the two hundred ton, forty gun frigate he named the Queen Anne's Revenge. Blackbeard met his end at the hands of a British fleet specifically sent out to capture him. After an extremely bloody boarding action, the British commanding officer of the fleet, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, examined Blackbeard’s body and discovered that it had taken five bullet wounds and twenty slashes with a cutlass before the pirate had finally died.
Henry Morgan a Welshman was one of the most destructive English robber captains of the seventeenth century. Although Morgan always considered himself a privateer rather than a pirate, several of his attacks had no real legal justification and are considered piracy. A bold, ruthless and daring man, Morgan fought England’s enemies for thirty years, and became a very wealthy man in the course of his adventures. Morgan’s most famous exploit came in late 1670 when he led 1700 buccaneers up the pestilential Chagres River and then through the Central American jungle to attack and capture the “impregnable” city of Panama. The city’s capture was not much of a financial coup, as most of its wealth had been removed before the English attack and the remainder had been destroyed by a fire that swept the city even as Morgan had captured it. However, the sack of Panama City was a deep blow to Spanish power and pride in the Caribbean and Morgan became the hero of the hour in England (and also lent his name to a popular brand of present-day rum). At the height of his career, Morgan had been made a titled nobleman by the English Crown and lived on an enormous sugar plantation in Jamaica. Morgan died in his bed, rich and respected—something rarely achieved by pirates in his day or any other.
Less famous than Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts was far more successful, capturing and pillaging more than 400 ships. He started his freebooting career in the Gulf of Guinea in 1719 when Howell Davis's pirates captured his ship and he proceeded to join them. Rising to captain, he quickly came to the Caribbean and plagued the area until 1721. He commanded a number of large, powerfully armed ships, all of which he named Fortune, Good Fortune, or Royal Fortune. Efforts by the governors of Barbados and Martinique to capture him only provoked his anger; when he found the governor of Martinique aboard a newly captured vessel, Roberts hanged the man from a yardarm. Roberts returned to Africa in 1721, where he met his death in a naval battle and his crew were captured.
Probably the least qualified pirate captain ever to sail the Caribbean, Bonnet was a sugar planter who knew nothing about sailing. He started his piracies in 1717 by buying an armed sloop on Barbados and recruiting a pirate crew for wages, possibly to escape from his wife. He lost his command to Blackbeard and sailed with him for some time as a guest or prisoner. Although Bonnet briefly regained his captaincy, he was captured and hanged before he could return to the West Indies.
Charles Vane, like many early 18th century pirates, operated out of Nassau in the Bahamas. He was the only pirate captain to resist Woodes Rogers when Rogers asserted his governorship over Nassau in 1718, attacking Rogers' squadron with a fire ship and shooting his way out of the harbor rather than accept the new governor's royal pardon. Vane's quartermaster was Calico Jack Rackham, who deposed Vane from the captaincy. Vane started a new pirate crew, but he was captured and hanged in Jamaica in 1720.
Anne Bonny And Mary Read
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were undoubtedly the most famous pirates never to hold the position of captain; both spent their brief sea-roving careers under the command of Calico Jack Rackham. They are noted chiefly for their feminine sex, highly unusual for pirates, which helped to sensationalize their 1720 trial in Jamaica. They gained further notoriety for their ruthlessness - they are known to have spoken in favor of murdering witnesses in the crew's counsels - and for having resisted far more fiercely than their male crewmates when Rackham's ship was taken. The capstone to their legend is that they alone of all Rackham's crew escaped execution, as both were newly pregnant at their trial and their sentences were commuted to avoid harm to their unborn children.
Calico Jack was only a moderately successful pirate who is remembered mainly because of his association with the two most famous women pirates in history: Mary Read and Anne Bonny, whom all shared sexual affairs. It has been claimed he fathered their children but has not been proven.
William "Captain" Kidd is remembered for his trial and execution for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians deem his piratical reputation unjust, as there is evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer. His fame springs largely from the sensational circumstances of his questioning before the British Parliament and ensuing trial. His actual depredations on the high seas, whether piratical or not, were both less destructive and less lucrative than those of many other contemporary pirates and privateers.
According to Irish legend, as a young girl O'Malley wished to go on a trading expedition to Spain with her father, and on being told she could not because her long hair would catch in the ship's ropes, she cut off most of her hair to embarrass her father into taking her, thus earning her the nickname "Gráinne Mhaol" (Irish maol meaning "bald" or having cropped hair); the name stuck. O'Malley grew to become the "The Sea Queen Of Connemara".
Thomas Anstis was an early 18th century pirate, who served under Captain Howell Davis and then Captain Bartholomew Roberts, before setting up on his own account, raiding shipping on the eastern coast of the American colonies and in the Caribbean during what is often referred to as the "Golden Age of Piracy".
Though his career as a pirate captain lasted less than a year, Bellamy and his crew captured more than 50 ships before his death at age 29. Called "Black Sam" because he eschewed the fashionable powdered wig in favor of tying back his long black hair with a simple band, Bellamy became known for his mercy and generosity toward those he captured on his raids. This reputation gained him the second nickname of the "Prince of Pirates," and his crew called themselves "Robin Hood's Band."
Lafitte claimed never to have plundered an American vessel, and though he engaged in the contraband slave trade, he is accounted a great romantic figure in Louisiana. The mystery surrounding Lafitte has only inflated the legends attached to his name. Lafitte's lost treasure has acquired a lore of its own as it, like his death, was never accounted for. He reportedly maintained several stashes of plundered gold and jewelry in the vast system of marshes, swamps, and bayous located around Barrataria Bay.
Edward 'Ned' Lowe (or Low, or Loe), often known as Ned Low, was a notorious pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. His pirate flag featured a black flag with a red skeleton. Lowe is also famous as one of the more brutal pirates, inflicting torture and cruel acts to his victims. As Lowe's success increased in the Caribbean, so did his notoriety. Eventually, a bounty was placed on his head, and Lowe headed for the Azores.
In the Caribbean the use of privateers was especially popular. The cost of maintaining a fleet to defend the colonies was beyond national governments of the 16th and 17th centuries. Private vessels would be commissioned into a 'navy' with a letter of marque, paid with a substantial share of whatever they could capture from enemy ships and settlements, the rest going to the crown. These ships would operate independently or as a fleet and if successful the rewards could be great — when Francis Drake captured the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios (Panama's Caribbean port at the time) in 1573 his crews were rich for life. This was repeated by Piet Hein in 1628, who made a profit of 12 million guilders for the Dutch West India Company. This substantial profit made privateering something of a regular line of business; wealthy businessmen or nobles would be quite willing to finance this legitimized piracy in return for a share. The sale of captured goods was a boost to colonial economies as well.
Louis-Michel Aury was a French pirate operating in the Gulf of Mexico during the early 19th century. Aury was born in Paris, France, in around 1788. He served in the French Navy, but from 1802 served in privateer ships. By 1810 he had accumulated enough prize money to become the master of his own vessel. He then gave his support to the Spanish colonies in South America in their fight for independence from Spain. In April 1813 he sailed from North Carolina on his own privateer ship with Venezuelan letters-of-marque to attack Spanish ships.
Roche Braziliano was a notoriously cruel buccaneer who operated out of Port Royal, Jamaica. He was a privateer in Bahia, Brazil, before moving to Port Royal in 1654. Drunken and debauched, Braziliano would threaten to shoot anyone who did not drink with him. He roasted alive two Spanish farmers on wooden spits after they refused to hand over their pigs. He treated his Spanish prisoners barbarously, typically cutting off their limbs or roasting them alive over a fire, like pigs.
Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral, was an English privateer, navigator, slave trader, politician and civil engineer of the Elizabethan era. He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. His exploits were semi-legendary and made him a hero to the English but to the Spaniards he was equated with the devil. He was known as "El Dragón" (an obvious play on his family name) for his actions. King Philip II actually offerred a reward of 20,000 ducats (about $10 million by today's standards) for his life. Many a city in the 16th century was ransomed for less. While his passing was mourned in England, there were celebrations in Spain.
Specific to the Caribbean were pirates termed buccaneers. Roughly speaking they arrived in the 1630s and remained until the effective end of piracy in the 1730s. The original buccaneers were escapees from the colonies; forced to survive with little support, they had to be skilled at boat construction, sailing, and hunting. The word "buccaneer" is actually from the French boucaner, meaning "to smoke meat", from the hunters of wild oxen curing meat over an open fire. They transferred the skills which kept them alive into piracy. They operated with the partial support of the non-Spanish colonies and until the 1700s their activities were legal, or partially legal and there were irregular amnesties from all nations.
Traditionally buccaneers had a number of peculiarities. Their crews operated as a democracy: the captain was elected by the crew and they could vote to replace him. The captain had to be a leader and a fighter—in combat he was expected to be fighting with his men, not directing operations from a distance.
Spoils were evenly divided into shares; when the officers had a greater number of shares, it was because they took greater risks or had special skills. Often the crews would sail without wages—"on account"—and the spoils would be built up over a course of months before being divided. There was a strong esprit de corps among pirates. This allowed them to win sea battles: they typically outmanned trade vessels by a large ratio. There was also for some time a social insurance system, guaranteeing money or gold for battle wounds at a worked-out scale.
One undemocratic aspect of the buccaneers was that sometimes they would force specialists like carpenters to sail with them for some time, though they were released when no longer needed (if they had not volunteered to join by that time). Note also that a typical poor man had few other promising career choices at the time apart from joining the pirates. According to reputation, the pirates' egalitarianism led them to liberate slaves when taking over slave ships. However there are several accounts of pirates selling slaves captured on slave ships, sometimes after they had helped man the pirates' own vessels.
In combat they were considered ferocious and were reputed to be experts with flintlock weapons (invented in 1615), but these were so unreliable that they were not in widespread military use before the 1670s.
Jean-David Nau better known as François l'Ollonais, was a French pirate active in the Caribbean during the 1660s. L'Ollonais first arrived in the Caribbean as an indentured servant during the 1650s. By 1660, his indenture was complete and he began to wander the various islands, before finally arriving in Saint-Domingue and becoming a buccaneer, preying on Spanish shipping in the region.
The corsairs were privateers working for the King of France attacking the ships of France’s enemies. In France they did not need to fear punishment for piracy—being hanged—as they were granted a licence as combatants, the Lettre de Marque or Lettre de Course, a document which legitimised their actions to the French justice system and which they hoped gave them the status of a war prisoner in case they were ever captured.
Robert Surcouf was the last and most well known Corsair of the St-Malo. Born in St-Malo in 1773, his father was a ship owner and his mother the daughter of a Captain. Ship’s boy at 13 and Corsair Captain at 22 years old, and then - very much against his licence - for several years attacked ships including those of the French East India Company, or Compagnie Française des Indes. During the French revolution, the convention government dissapproved of lettres de course, so Surcouf operated at great personal risk as a pirate against British shipping to India. Surcouf was so successful that he became a popular celebrity in France. After a brief early retirement Surcouf again operated against shiping to the Indes. Surcouf became a ship owner himself and died in St Malo in 1827. There is a statue of him for all to see.
René Duguay-Trouin was born in St-Malo in 1673, and the son of a rich ship owner took a fleet of 64 ships and was honoured in 1709 for capturing more than 300 merchant ships and 20 war ships. He had a brilliant privateering and naval career and eventually became "Lieutenant-General of the Naval Armies of the King" (i.e. admiral) (French:Lieutenant-Général des armées navales du roi), and a Commander in the Order of Saint-Louis. He died peacefully in 1736.
Wang Zhi was a Chinese pirate and trader of the 16th century, one of the chief named and known figures among the wokou ("Japanese" pirates) prevalent at the time. It is said he was aboard the Portuguese ship of Fernão Mendes Pinto when it landed on Tanegashima, off the coast of Japan in 1543, marking the first contact between Europe and Japan.
Ching Shih was a prominent female pirate in late Qing China. As
Ching Shih engaged in illicit activities throughout her life and prospered in this way, little is known about her early life, including her date of birth. In 1801, she was working as a prostitute on one of Canton's floating brothels, and later that year she married Zheng Yi, the notorious Chinese pirate. Zheng Yi was a pirate along the Chinese coast during the 18th century. Legend had it that he was a pederast. He captured Cheung Po Tsai at age 15 and made him his young lover. Cheung was later adopted by Zheng Yi. Zheng Yi belonged to a family of successful pirates who traced their criminal origins all the way back to the mid-seventeenth century. Following his marriage to Cheng Shih, Zheng Yi used military assertion and his family's reputation to gather a coalition of competing Cantonese pirate fleets into an alliance. By 1804, this coalition was a formidable force, and one of the most powerful pirate fleets in all of China.
Pier Gerlofs Donia
Pier Gerlofs Donia of Kimswerd was a Frisian warrior, pirate, freedom fighter, folk hero and rebel. His life is for the most part shrouded in legends, but there is no doubt that he really existed. Pier is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest warriors of all time and for his legendary size and strength.
20th Century Pirates
John Boysie Singh, usually known as "the Rajah," "Boysie" or "Boysie Singh," was born on 5th April, 1908 in Woodbrook, Port of Spain, Trinidad, and finally hanged in Port of Spain in 1957 for the murder of his niece, Thelma Hayes.
He had a long and successful career as a gangster and gambler before turning to piracy and murder. For almost ten years, from 1947 until 1956 he and his gang terrorized the waters between Trinidad and Venezuela. They were responsible for the deaths of many fishermen — the number has sometimes been put as high as 400. Their technique was generally to board fishing boats, murder their crew, and steal the engine which they would later sell in nearby Venezuela after sinking the boat.
Boysie was well-known to everyone in Trinidad and Tobago. He had successfully beaten two charges of murder before he was finally executed after losing his third case - for the murder of his niece. He was held in awe and dread by most of the population and was frequently seen strolling grandly about Port of Spain in the early 1950s wearing bright, stylish clothes. Mothers and nannies would warn their charges: "Behave yourself, man, or Boysie goyn getchu, oui!"