A Brief History
On May 23, 1701, Scottish Captain William Kidd was hanged in London for piracy and murder. Captain Kidd is one of the better known pirates, and here we list 10 of the most famous or infamous of them all. For today, we will stick to real people, so Captain Hook and Long John Silver will have to wait for a fictional list.
10. Anne Dieu-le-Veut.
The last name is actually a sobriquet meaning “God wills it” or “God Wants.” She was given this nickname because it seemed she achieved everything she tried. Sent to Tortuga against her will by the French government to be married to colonists there, she married a pirate, and when he was killed she became one herself and married another pirate. Captured by the English, Anne was imprisoned for 3 years before being released, with her activities and circumstances of death after that unknown. Unlike many other women pirates, Anne wore normal female clothing and did not hide her gender while on ship. Unlike the stereotype of a woman on a ship being bad luck, Anne was seen more of a good luck charm, hence her nickname.
9. Black Caesar.
An African slave that turned pirate when captured, Black Caesar prowled the Florida Keys until he hooked up with Blackbeard and became one of his lieutenants. Black Caesar was one of 5 Africans in Blackbeard’s main crew and survived the battle in which Blackbeard was killed, only to be taken prisoner and hanged. Caesar’s Rock, an island north of Key Largo is named for him and was his base of operations. Note: The pirate has no connection to the 1973 “blaxploitation” film, Black Caesar.
8. Mary Read.
A fascinating person, Read was born illegitimately and raised as a boy, later joining the British Army disguised as a man and distinguishing herself in battle on the continent. There she married a Flemish soldier and when he died she went back into a man’s clothing and back in the Army. During a period of peace, Mary quit and went to find her fortune in the West Indies, but was captured by pirates on the way. Forced to join them, she was pardoned by British authorities, becoming a privateer. When the crew mutinied, she joined them in becoming pirates and became part of Calico Jack’s crew. When Jack’s girlfriend, Anne Bonny, took a romantic interest in “Mark,” Mary revealed herself as a woman. Mary fell in love with a male prisoner, and when she was captured by authorities she announced that she was pregnant, and thus could not be hanged. Mary died in prison awaiting childbirth.
7. Black Bart.
Bartholomew Roberts was an incredibly successful pirate, perhaps the most successful of all, with over 470 ships taken by his crew. Never known as Black Bart in his lifetime, Roberts started out as a pirate when captured by pirates and forced to join them. Eventually he took to the life and roamed up and down South America to North America and the Caribbean, straying all the way to Africa. When Roberts died in battle with the Royal Navy in 1722, both pirates and authorities were somewhat shocked as he had been considered almost invincible. Cracked fact: Roberts and his crew developed the 11 article Pirate Code of rules for pirates to live by.
6. Anne Bonny.
Anne was of an Irish family that had moved to the Caribbean when she was a girl. In the Bahamas she met and circulated amongst pirates, meeting and falling in love with John Rackham, aka Calico Jack the pirate. In 1720 when the Royal Navy surprised the pirates, only Anne, Mary Read, and one other crewman fought the boarders with vigor, the rest of the crew including Calico Jack sleeping off a drunk meekly surrendering. Like Read, Bonny was pregnant when captured, and her hanging was delayed until after the delivery of her baby, but she was spared and lived until 1782 dying at a remarkable 93 years old. The last time she spoke to Calico Jack, she told him, “If you fought like a man, you wouldn’t have been hanged like a dog.”
5. Captain Kidd.
William Kidd was actually a privateer, a sea captain given a charter from his government to engage in capturing and looting merchant ships of France, a country at war with his own. He was also supposed to attack and seize any pirate ships he encountered. Kidd and his crew stretched the limits of privateering to the point where he was labeled a pirate for attacking ships not covered by his commission. Arrested in Boston, held for a year, and then sent to England in chains, Kidd went on trial for piracy and murder, and was found guilty. The murder charge shocked him, as apparently he thought it was proper for him to hit a crewman in the head with a bucket that had insulted him, causing the crewman’s death. When he was hanged, the rope broke and he had to be hanged a second time. His body was then hung up in public as a warning to pirates. Kidd was railroaded at trial, with his financial backers undermining his case and not paying for his defense to avoid implication themselves. Evidence that Kidd may have used to win acquittal mysteriously disappeared or was not allowed in court.
4. Calico Jack.
John Rackham earned his nickname for the colorful clothes he wore. His “Jolly Roger” pirate flag consisting of a skull above 2 crossed swords was a distinctive feature flying atop his ship, and the 2 famous lady pirates in his crew, Anne Bonny (his more or less wife) and Mary Read are also on this list. Jack met his end at the end of a hangman’s noose in Jamaica in 1720, left to hang in public as notice to the fate of pirates. Rackham is remembered in many cultural references, including books, movies, and the current Starz cable television series, Black Sails. Like Captain Morgan below, Calico Jack is the name of rum sold today.
3. Sir Henry Morgan.
A successful privateer sometimes commanding a fleet of ships, Morgan raided Spanish settlements in the New World amassing wealth for himself and his crews. His forays sometimes stretched the limits of privateering and he was accused of piracy in a 1683 book, leading to a lawsuit by him for libel. Morgan won the suit, but his reputation as a bloodthirsty pirate remained, and remains to this day. The raids and attacks on ships certainly required an amount of ruthlessness, and of course many Spaniards and other were killed by Morgan and his crews. Morgan is commemorated today in an extensive list of books, movies, television shows, songs, and of course, like Calico Jack, a rum is named Captain Morgan. Morgan died at age 53, possibly of tuberculosis.
2. Sir Francis Drake.
A naval officer and privateer, Drake so bedeviled the Spanish navy and merchant fleet that the king of Spain put a bounty of 20,000 ducats on his head ($6.5 million in today’s dollars). As a naval officer, Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, and as a privateer he was the scourge of the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts of North and South America, continuing his travels through the Indian Ocean and around Africa, becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Along the way he and his crew took many treasure ships, giving the British Crown a huge influx of cash, more than the rest of the Crown’s income for the whole year. Drake died an inglorious death at age 55 in 1596 of dysentery and was buried at sea in his full armor, and placed in a lead coffin. His remains have been searched for, but not found.
1. Edward Teach (Blackbeard).
The pirate that embodies the stereotype of pirates, the big, fearsome looking devil of a pirate struck fear along the American coast. Despite given a pardon, Teach and his crew went back to pirating until authorities (Royal Navy) finally caught up with him off North Carolina and fought a ferocious battle, vanquishing the mighty pirate and his crew. (See our November 22, 2013 article.) No longer would the hellish vision of Blackbeard with ribbons and matches (slow burning cords) tied in his big bushy beard befoul the eyes of terrified sailors. The legend of Blackbeard’s ferocity was certainly true, as it took over 20 sword slashes and 5 gunshot wounds to take him down, a fitting end for the Number 1 Pirate!
Question for students (and subscribers): Who else would you include? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cordingly, David and Charles Captain Johnson. General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Lyons Press, 2010.
Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate. Wiley, 2007.
You can also watch a video version of this list on YouTube: