Last updated on January 7th, 2023 at 12:28 am
Piracy became an increasingly common way of life for several people in the 16th century. The period between 1650 and 1730 is considered the Golden Age of Piracy. During this time, there were said to have been over 5000 pirates operating at sea.
Pirates may have been glamorized on screen in popular culture. Still, images of pirates charging down from ships, looting, killing, and engaging in different bouts of violence were not particularly picturesque for those who lived in the Golden Age of Piracy.
A pirate’s life was fascinating, free-spirited, and shrouded in adventure and mystery. But it was also fierce and full of difficulties.
Here are 10 of the most famous pirates of all time.
Captain William Kidd
Captain Kidd was appointed by British authorities to help deal with pirates but ended up becoming one himself. Ironic!
He was born in Dundee, Scotland, and moved to New York early to work as an apprentice aboard a pirate ship. The Earl of Bellomont had commissioned Kidd as a privateer under the authority of the British Crown to help combat French forces and other pirates.
Corrupted by his crew, Kidd had gone on to capture and plunder a ship captained by an Englishman, making him a wanted pirate and a traitor to the Crown. Governor Bellomont engineered the arrest of Kidd by luring him back to New work under false promises of amnesty.
He was placed in solitary confinement for a year, where it’s said that he was driven temporarily insane. Eventually, he was taken to England, where he was tried, convicted, and hanged.
It’s been said that Captain Kid secretly buried many of his treasures on an island before his death. For years, many treasure hunters have carried out expeditions intending to locate Kidd’s hidden treasures but to no avail. Kidd’s tales of hidden treasure even inspired the author Robert Louis Stevenson when he was writing his famous book Treasure Island.
Sir Francis Drake
One of the most renowned pirates in the Caribbean, Sir Francis Drake, lived from 1540 to 1596. He was well acquainted with the art of sailing and navigation and, in 1572, was granted a privateering commission by Queen Elizabeth I.
Privateers were essentially the same as pirates, but with the government’s backing.
With his great ship, The Golden Hind, Sir Francis led numerous successful attacks on the Spanish naval fleets while consistently raiding and pillaging many Spanish towns. He fought the Spanish so ferociously that he was nicknamed El Draque by the Spaniards, which means “The Dragon.”
Sir Francis Drake was among the first to make English power known at sea. He was the first Englishman to sail the Pacific and to circumnavigate the globe. Queen Elizabeth went aboard his ship, The Golden Hind, and Knighted him. He was seen as a role model for the later pirates of the Golden Age.
He was famously known as The King of Pirates for carrying out the most profitable pirate raid. Henry Avery was undoubtedly a legend among pirates and remained a legend long after he was gone. However, not much is known about Henry Avery’s early life apart from the fact that he served in the Royal Navy for some time before becoming a pirate.
Henry’s career as a pirate officially began in 1694 when he led a mutiny on a ship called Charles II. As a result, Henry was elected captain, and he and his crew set sail around the African coastline, raiding and plundering many vessels, including French and Danish ships, which they absolved into their fleet.
Henry Avery’s major haul came when he joined forces with several other pirate vessels to take down a convoy of Grand Mughal vessels embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
After a hot chase and prolonged, brutal fighting, Henry Avery and his men subdued the ships. Their bounty from this raid was a treasure valued at an estimated 900,000 dollars. This would be worth almost 100 million dollars today.
Following his exploits, a large bounty was offered by both the British Government and The East India Company for the capture of Henry Avery. Thus, the first global official manhunt in history began. Though some crew members were captured, Avery was never found.
Vicious, sadistic, and brutal. François L’Olonnais started by raiding Spanish ships filled with treasures they were transporting back to Spain from the new world. He terrorized Spain so much that he was popularly known as The Bane of Spain.
François quickly developed a reputation for brutality and was quick to dish out cruel and unusual punishments to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into his clutches.
He once captured a warship in Cuba and beheaded the entire crew, except for a sole survivor who was given the task of returning with a warning to the rest of the Spanish sailors. In addition, he was reported to have torn out a Spanish soldier’s heart straight from his chest and taken a bite, which sealed his reputation as a savage and psychotic killer.
He didn’t limit himself to raiding ships alone; he was most notable for pillaging towns. He began attacking towns in present-day Venezuela, where he would subject residents to extreme torture until they told him where they kept their valuables.
Eventually, Karma caught up with him, and he met a gruesome but fittingly brutal end when he and his crew were captured and eaten by a native cannibalistic tribe in Panama.
Bartholomew Roberts did not initially set out to become a pirate. However, he would become one of the most successful and notorious pirates of all time.
Roberts was initially reluctant to become a pirate but was charmed by the flamboyant lifestyle of pirates, which, compared to his old lifestyle of poverty and hard labor, provided great power, freedom, and wealth.
Black Barth, as he is often referred to, was shrewd, calculating, and very audacious. From Africa down to the Caribbean and everywhere in between, he ruthlessly hunted down, plundered, and captured over 470 ships during his career, considered a record for pirates.
Black Barth was so formidable in battle that he was considered bulletproof by most crew members. However, in 1722, Black Barth was killed in a battle between his crew and the British Government. His Death was regarded by many as marking the end of the Golden age of Piracy.
John Rackham, otherwise known as Calico Jack, was not renowned for being an excellent fighter or remarkably good sailor. But Jack was a smart and cunning pirate who relied on his guile to get what he wanted. Still, he would be remembered for making his mark in history as a true pirate legend.
Calico Jack was the Pirate who created the flag that is now synonymous with all pirates; the skull with two crossing swords. He was also the only pirate to integrate women successfully into his crew.
Jack started out plundering small merchant and transport ships. He was initially caught but found a way to obtain a royal pardon from the governor of the Bahamas with the promise that he would not return to a life of piracy.
Calico Jack began an affair with a woman named Anne Bonny at Nassau. Eventually, he broke his promise, stole a ship from the harbor, rounded up a crew, and set sail with Anne, creating chaos wherever they went.
Jack also notably had another female pirate in his crew known as Mary Read. She and Anne Bonny would disguise themselves as men on board to engage in pirate shenanigans.
The Bahamian governor declared Jack Mary and Anne as dangerous wanted criminals. They were tracked to Jamaica by an English Privateer called Jonathan Barnet.
At his arrival, Jack and his crew were drunk from a round of partying due to a recent successful raid. Unfortunately, most of Jack’s men were too intoxicated to fight, and it was even said that Anne Bonny and Mary Reed were the only members of the crew that were fit enough to put up a fight.
Calico Jack was executed, and his corpse was displayed in Port Royal on November 18, 1720.
Despite being born at a time when women were essentially prohibited from being on ships once they had set sail, Anne Bonny would go on to earn her place as one of the most famous pirates of all time. Born in Ireland around 1700 to a considerably wealthy family, Anne Bonny was said to have had a rebellious and fiery nature even from a very young age.
Her father had arranged for her to get married to a man within their province, but Anne had no plans to settle for such a mundane life and eloped with a sailor named James Bonny, whom she eventually married and took his last name.
Anne and James moved to the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, a place that was a haven for Pirates. There, she became acquainted and eventually began an affair with the infamous pirate called Calico Jack. Anne ran off with Jack and spent the next couple of years pillaging and looting many vessels around the Caribbean.
Anne was a proficient fighter and would disguise herself like a man and join the men with the looting and fighting on board ships. Anne and Jack were captured in Jamaica in October 1720, and Anne’s supposedly last known words about her lover Calico Jack were:
“…if he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang’d like a Dog.”
Anne Bonny was sentenced to die, but the execution was delayed because she was pregnant. She was sent to prison to be later executed after she gave birth.
Anne was, however, never executed. Some have speculated that her wealthy father intervened and pulled some strings that got her out of Prison.
Samuel Bellamy, also known as “Black Sam” Bellamy, was born in 1689 in Devonshire, England. Bellamy was not a particularly bloodthirsty pirate.
He was known to be refined, flamboyant, and possessed impeccable manners. He once captured a slave ship and proceeded to free the enslaved people.
It was claimed that the sole reason he turned to a life of piracy was that he fell in love with a woman named Maria Hallet. Still, her parents disapproved of the union because Bellamy was a poor sailor and, therefore, not financially capable enough to make a good husband.
Hence, Bellamy set out to accrue a significant amount of wealth that would enable him could come back to win over the love of his life.
Despite having a short career, he was regarded as the richest pirate in history, with current estimates placing his wealth at over 120 million dollars.
Sam Bellamy was a skilled captain and tactician. He captained his crew to capture over 50 ships without necessarily damaging most of them.
Dubbed the Prince of the Pirates, he treated his crew and even captives fairly and respectfully, unlike other pirate captains who preferred to rule with terror and chaos.
But as all good things come to an end, Bellamy met his end abruptly, unexpectedly, and gruesomely. On April 26, 1717, his ship, the Whydah, was caught in a violent storm.
The heavily loaded ship capsized, and Bellamy, along with his treasures and 145 men in his crew, went down with it.
While female pirates were an uncommon phenomenon, especially on the coast of Asia, in the 19th century, the legendary Ching Shih went against the grain to stake her claim as arguably one of the greatest pirates of all time.
She also escaped retribution for her actions in any way, unlike most other pirates who were mostly eventually apprehended and executed.
Zheng Yi Sao, also known as Ching Shih, took over the “Red Flag” fleet when her husband, Zheng Yi, died, and she significantly grew the fleet into a confederate of 1,500 ships and 80,000 pirates.
She dominated the entire Guangdong province and controlled nearly all the criminal elements in the South China Sea. Her elaborate network included thousands of male and female pirates, children, spies, financial officers, farmers enlisted to supply food, etcetera.
She was a good military strategist, fantastic administrator, and skillful diplomat. She consolidated her authority by establishing a strict system of laws remarkably progressive code of laws that even protected female captives from sexual assault.
Ching Shih was considered an enemy of the state, and the Chinese emperor implored the aid of several naval superpower nations, including British and Portuguese navies, to help take her down.
These combined forces waged war on Ching Shih’s organization for two years but had little success taking her out.
Eventually, she was offered amnesty in exchange for a peace treaty. She retired from being a pirate and started running a Casino instead, enjoying the full aristocratic privileges of an elite citizen.
Edward Teach, more famously known as Blackbeard, is undoubtedly one of the most famous pirates. He was so notorious that he was almost a mythic figure later in his life. Feared and admired by pirates throughout the West Indies, Black Beard conveyed a demonic persona through his image.
There were claims that he charged into battle with his long black beards lit in fire, a sword in both hands, and several loaded fuses concealed under his hat.
His ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, is one of the most famous pirate ships in history. He commanded a pirate army that captured over 45 vessels. It was claimed that there were treasure chests with lavish amounts of gold buried in secret locations known only to Black Beard
On November 22, 1718, Queen Anne’s revenge came across an ambush that marked the end of Black Beard’s reign over the waters of the North American coast.
After a ferocious battle, Black Beard’s crew were rounded up, and his head was decapitated and hung on the front of the ship to warn other notorious pirates to stop their treacherous lifestyle.
About centuries after Black Beard’s death, archeologists discovered the sunken remains of Black Beard’s famous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and more than 300,000 artifacts had been recovered from the site.
Black Beard has etched his name in history as one of the most famous pirates. Legends of his flaming beards and buried treasures spread like wildfire and have been immortalized in numerous stories and movies.