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10 most famous pirates in history

Updated on January 27, 2014

Meet some of the most famous pirates

Who is the most famous pirate in the world? I'd hazard a guess that these days most people would unhesitatingly answer: Jack Sparrow. There is only one problem - Jack Sparrow was a Hollywood invention, not a real person. Yet the piracy itself was very real and history is full of tales of formidable sea bandits. Who was the greatest of them all? Who were the most famous pirates of all times?

There are enough legendary pirate names to fill a book but for the purpose of this article, let's focus on 10 most memorable characters in history of piracy.

Photo source

10. William Kidd

William Kidd public domain (copyright expired)
William Kidd public domain (copyright expired)

Bad fortunes of William Kidd

Some call William Kidd 'the Unfortunate Pirate'. Some say that he was not a pirate at all. One thing is certain - he died as one.

Kidd was born in Scotland in 1654. We don't really know how he started his maritime career (there may have been some pirating involved from the very beginning...), but we can be sure that he made it to the captain by the time he was forty. At first he worked for governors of American colonies, but eventually he got promoted - his talent was brought to attention of the King of England himself.

Kidd, a government employee, was comissioned to... hunt pirates. He was given a handsome ship, the Adventure, was supplied with fine weaponry and allowed to pick the crew. Here's where his bad luck begun - large part of this crew was filched off by the British Navy, forcing Kidd to recruit additional sailors in New York. As he was pressed for time, he ended up with a bunch of criminals and rascals who would cause trouble on the voyage and Kidd's eventual downfall.

The expedition was not a successful one. No pirates were caught, no French ships sunk, no booty won, no treasure found. Instead, there were sailors on the brink of mutiny (Kidd even killed one of the rebels) and financial hardship. The desperate captain ordered the attack on Quedagh Merchant, an Armenian ship with French papers and English captain. Having taken over the ship with its precious cargo, they renamed it Adventure Prize and sailed on. Finally the mutinious crew was satisfied with the takings.

Unfortunately, Kidd's employers were far from happy with such a turn of events. They branded him a pirate and a murderer (remember the rebellious crewman?) . The jinxed captain hoped to use protection of some powerful friends in high places but it didn't work. He was tried and sentenced to death by hanging - for piracy.

Even the gallows proved uncooperative - it is said that during his hanging the rope snapped and he had to be hung again. As unlucky as it gets...

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The end of Captain Kidd

The end of Captain Kidd
The end of Captain Kidd

A Treasure Chest of Pirate Lore

The Mammoth Book of Pirates: Over 25 True Tales of Devilry and Daring by the Most Infamous Pirates of All Time
The Mammoth Book of Pirates: Over 25 True Tales of Devilry and Daring by the Most Infamous Pirates of All Time

If you're interested in pirates stories, here's the book for you: over four hundred pages filled with eyewitness accounts of pirate raids from 'the golden age of piracy'

 

9. Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley and Elisabeth I public domain - copyright expired
Grace O'Malley and Elisabeth I public domain - copyright expired

Grace O'Malley - the famous pirate queen

Known also as 'The Sea Queen of Connaught', Grace O'Malley was very bold and very Irish. She was born sometime during the reign of Henry VIII (yes, it's the six wives king) into a chieftain family and in due time herself became a ruler of her lands.

Grace O'Malley may not fit a popular description of a pirate - she was more of a politician who happened to own a fleet than a corsair 'proper'. She seems to have been a bit of a tom-boy too - even as a child, when told she can't go on a sea voyage because of her long hair, she cut the locks off herself (or so the story goes). In due time she became a fierce fighter protecting and extending her land as well as extracting tolls from ships travelling through her territory. She also actively opposed the English rule, which earned her a prominent place in the Irish memory.

Between her political and military exploits she also found time to marry twice and have four children, so there was a family side to our pirate queen. In fact, it was the family that prompted her to meet with another queen, Elisabeth I, with whom she is famed to have met personally to plead for lives of her son and brother, captured by the English. The same fact tells us that she also managed to get educated somewhere between intriguing and battling - the conversation was reputedly carried out in Latin. Elisabeth must have been sympathetic to Grace's plight as the captives were released and a short-term truce established. Girl power in action?

Unusually for a pirate, Grace O'Malley died in her seventies.

Photo source

Connaught shore

Connaught shore
Connaught shore

Photo by Tiggered

Did you know...

Grace O'Malley was not the only female pirate in history. If you're into pirating girls, check out those three names: Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Ching Shih.

Curiously, Anne Bonny also was Irish ;)

8. Cheung Po Tsai

chinese junk public domain: copyright expired
chinese junk public domain: copyright expired

The most famous pirate from Hong Kong

Do you remember Sao Feng from Pirates of The Caribbean? He is the imaginary version of a real character - Cheung Po Tsai.

Cheung Po Tsai began his pirate career as a teenager, when he was kidnapped and then adopted by another famous Chinese pirate, Cheng I and his (just as ferocious) wife Ching Shih. In due time, he took over his parents' 'business' and one simply has to say that it was a massive inheritance - his army was 50,000 strong and used 600 ships.

After some years of looting and ravaging, Cheung Po Tsai surrendered to the Chinese government and... became a high official in the imperial navy. He remained comfortably employed until his death in 1822 - a somehow unusual end to a pirate story.

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7. Samuel Bellamy

pirate treasure public domain
pirate treasure public domain

Samuel Bellamy - Prince of Pirates

If you like drama, here's a pirate for you. Samuel Bellamy is famous both for his generosity towards the vanquished and for his love story.

Born in England in 1689, he quickly took to the sea and at some stage arrived in Cape Cod, where he's said to have met the love of his life, teenage Maria Hallett. The romantic versions of his story conveniently overlook the fact that by this time he may have already been married to an English girl, but well... Anyway, whether to support Maria or to appease her snobbish parents, he swore to get rich and get rich quick, choosing the sea as the source of his profits. Initially he planned to 'liberate' underwater treasure, i.e. gold from Spanish wreaks, but after some fruitless attempts he took to ordinary piracy. He joined the crew of another famous pirate, Benjamin Hornigold. After some disagreements he led a mutiny and became the captain himself - this is where the big pirate adventure started for good. Some say that during a single year when he was active, he took as many as fifty ships. The biggest prize was an English slaver ship called Whydah Gally, which became his flagship (and made him and his crew very rich indeed). Yet he wasn't given a lot of time to enjoy his riches...

Whydah Galley perished in a storm just off Cape Cod in 1717, with only eight or nine survivors. Bellamy was not one of them (which may be for the better, considering the fact that most of the survivors were soon hanged for piracy anyway). He has almost made it back to his beloved... But almost, as usually, proved to be the key word. He was 28.

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Pirate ship

Pirate ship
Pirate ship

6. Henry Morgan

henry morgan public domain : copyright expired
henry morgan public domain : copyright expired

Captain Morgan's namesake

I have drained many bottles of Captain Morgan before I've learned who is the drink called after.

Henry Morgan was a Welsh buccaneer (bluntly speaking - a pirate who works for the government) pestering Spanish colonies and ships for the greater glory of English crown, all happening in the 17th century. He carried out many successful attacks against places like Porto Bello, Maracaibo, San Lorenzo and Panama City.

The Panama City raid actually landed him in trouble, or so it seemed. Unknowingly to Morgan, England and Spain had signed a peace treaty just before his aggression, thus making it illegal. He was arrested and transported to England on charge of piracy. It looked like he would suffer the same fate as the unfortunate William Kidd, but Morgan's 'friends in high places' proved to be far more influential - not only was he released, but also knighted and employed as a governor of Jamaica.

During his 'career' he gathered enough money to retire on his own plantation - another example of a non-pirate end to a pirate's life.

Photo source

Privateers, buccaneers, pirates - what's the difference?

Privateers worked for a government - thus they were not punished for their violent actions (unless captured by the enemy), but had to follow orders of their employers.

Buccaneers were a particular 'brand' of privateers - employed by the English to attack Spanish ships and colonies in the Caribbean. They were active during 17th century.

Pirates looted for themselves and didn't follow anyone's orders - but they didn't enjoy legal protection and were prosecuted by whoever caught them

5. Calico Jack

calico jack public domain: copyright expired
calico jack public domain: copyright expired

Calico Jack - pirate made famous by women

Properly Jack Rackham, he got his nickname from what he wore - calico was a rather cheap fabric of Indian origins. Born in Jamaica to English parents, Calico Jack was a rather typical small fry pirate of early 18th century. He became a captain by leading a mutiny on a sloop where he served as a quartermaster. His fame does not come from any particular military success, but from the fact that two women served in his crew - remember Anne Bonny and Mary Read? Bonny was Calico's lover, Read joined the crew later, dressed up as a man. Eventually her disguise was discovered, but no one seemed to mind - least of all Anne Bonny who was said to harbour more than friendly feelings for the other girl. Whatever the particulars, the story became wildly successful with general public and thus was Calico Jack immortalised. He is also credited as an original designer of a Jolly Roger flag.

The whole crew was captured in November 1720. The ladies survived by claiming to be pregnant, but Jack Rackham was hanged and his body gibbeted.

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Another pirate ship :)

Another pirate ship :)
Another pirate ship :)

Pirates: disgusting ruffians or charming rogues?

Pirates of the Caribbean portrait pirates as charmers and noble souls who only accidentally stray onto the wrong side of the law - cruel and evil law, anyway. But do you think this image has anything to do with the reality? I have a funny feeling that real pirates may have had nothing to do with the romantic stories written about them, that they were as nasty a bunch of criminals as it gets (just think of personal hygiene in 18th century!).

What do you think?

Real pirates were...

Disgusting!

Disgusting!

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    • Colin323 3 years ago

      Thieves!

    • Lawrence Hebb 5 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      history is written by the victors, but this time I'll go with what's written.

    Charming!

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      4. Francis Drake

      sir francis drake public domain: copyright expired
      sir francis drake public domain: copyright expired

      Francis Drake - the pirate of Her Majesty

      Of all the people I mention in this article, Francis Drake is probably the most famous of them all. Why didn't I let him occupy the #1 position on my list then? The answer is pretty simple: while some people indeed feared him and called him a pirate (or even Francis the Dragon), other people see him as a national hero. It is also quite easy to identify the two groups: Drake was a nightmare to the Spanish, a blessing to the English.

      As a typical example of a privateer, Drake was looting and killing in the service of Her Majesty the Queen Elisabeth I (doesn't she pop up rather often when history of piracy is considered?). He robbed literally tons of precious metals off Spanish ships and harassed Spanish port cities. Drake was also the first Englishman who successfully circumnavigated the globe and he played a major part in defeat of the Spanish Armada. He died of dysentery somewhere off Panama coast and was buried at sea - a fitting end to a maritime giant that he was.

      His ship, the Golden Hind is always as famous as Sir Francis himself. Proof - the airfix model of the Golden Hind half-assembled on my table :)

      Photo source

      The Spanish Armada

      The Spanish Armada
      The Spanish Armada

      3. Henry Every

      henry every public domain: copyright expired
      henry every public domain: copyright expired

      Henry Every - King of Pirates

      While not too well known in popular culture, Henry Every was probably the most successful pirate of all times. During two short years of sailing as a captain of a pirate ship (1694 - 1696) he managed to gather wealth to last him a lifetime and even more than that in entirely different coin: fame.

      Every's greatest prize was the exotically named Ganj-i-Sawaj, a Mughal ship full of gold and precious stones. It was part of a 25-strong convoy on pilgrimage to Mecca. Attacked by pirates, the convoy scattered, allowing Every to go for the kill. Richness of the booty surprised even the captain himself. Each of his crewman got a share larger than an honest sailor's pay during a lifetime and still enough was left for Every to retire in luxury.

      He is one of the few pirates who managed to survive his sea adventures, even though he was vigorously hunted. At some stage he managed to simply disappear and probably managed to live the rest of his life in peace and comfort.

      Photo source

      WANTED! Henry Every...

      WANTED!  Henry Every...
      WANTED! Henry Every...

      2. Bartholomew Roberts

      bartholomew roberts public domain: copyright expired
      bartholomew roberts public domain: copyright expired

      Bartholomew Roberts - when quantity matters

      If this list was organised by the number of ships captured, Roberts most certainly would occupy the first place. He took over more than 470 hundred ships, the most famous of which was Royal Fortune.

      Bartholomew Roberts was born in Wales as John Roberts. He began his maritime career on a slaver ship (as did most pirates). Things got more serious when... he was captured by pirates himself. Forced to join a pirate crew, he quickly started to enjoy the new lifestyle and when captain Howell Davis fell in battle, Roberts succeeded him as a commander. Next three years were spent on raiding ships and settlements along the West coast of Africa and in the Caribbean. But even such a successful corsair eventually met with his nemesis.

      The Royal Fortune was chased down by a British navy ship, Swallow. In the ensuing battle, Roberts was one of the first to fall. His crew, deprived of a captain, quickly surrendered. Needless to say, all were sent to the gallows. Thus ended one of the greatest pirate stories of all times.

      Photo source

      1. Blackbeard

      blackbeard public domain: copyright expired
      blackbeard public domain: copyright expired

      The most famous pirate of all times - Blackbeard

      It is really hard to say why Blackbeard should become the most famous pirate in history - compared to other characters on my list, his story was rather dull. Yet, if you ask an average Joe what pirate names can he recall, chances are that you will hear - Blackbeard. Right after Jack Sparrow, that is...

      Blackbeard, or, more properly, Edward Teach was active for only two years, between 1716 and 1718. At the beginning he was a crew member for another famous captain: Benjamin Hornigold. Pretty soon he received his own command and started adventuring on his own when Hornigold retired in 1717. After another year of raiding (interrupted by two months of being a good boy on royal pardon) he was cornered and killed in battle. That seems to be it.

      If you ask me, it must be the beard. An early example of brand recognizability :)

      Photo source

      Blackbeard goes to Hollywood

      It has nothing to do with (the real) Blackbeard's history, but it's a damn good pirate movie :)

      Vote for the most famous pirate

      I chose who's to appear on my list and in what order, but I am only human and can be wrong at times. If you don't agree with my selection and persuade me with your votes, I might move numbers around a bit :)

      Oh, we're talking historical pirates here. Jack Sparrow doesn't count :)

      Who is the most famous pirate of all.times?

      See results

      C'mon, add your own! Or just say 'hi' :)

      Any famous pirates that I missed?

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        • NibsyNell profile image

          NibsyNell 4 years ago

          I'd love to go back in history and meet some of these people! I wonder how different/similar they were to the way we've come to think of them. :)

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          anonymous 4 years ago

          Real pirates were... _________. Hmmm? Real pirates were sometimes employed in an official capacity by the government. Perhaps you missed famous pirates that might be addressed as "Your Majesty" or "Your Highness" rather than by their names :) Enjoyed this lens very much.

        • oldpaperandprints profile image

          oldpaperandprints 4 years ago

          I think Blackbeard got a big boost from the Disney movie, Blackbeard's Ghost. He was my first pirate!

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          anonymous 4 years ago

          As a frenchman, even though he's not as famous as Blackbeard, I must vote for Jean Bart, a corsair who single-handedly kept the English and Dutch at bay (pun intended) for almost 30 years during the period when the Channel and North Sea were the busiest economic center in the world. He captured or held for ransom an insane number of boats during his lifetime and managed to save a 120 strong wheat-filled armada just captured by the Dutch to end a famine in France. Pretty badass if you ask me.

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          anonymous 5 years ago

          ching shih

        • profile image

          ideadesigns 5 years ago

          I enjoyed my visit here about pirate history. I've heard of blackbeard way before pirates movies. I love the pirates movies too by the way. Brings it all to life in a way I couldn't have thought. Thanks for introducing us to all the pirate names.

        • BestRatedStuff profile image

          BestRatedStuff 5 years ago

          Really well put together. Found this lens both interesting and informative.

        • profile image

          anonymous 5 years ago

          WOOW, you did a great job with this lens. i like this

        • lawrence01 profile image

          Lawrence Hebb 5 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

          Really enjoyed this lens, especially the Historical stuff, It was said that when Drake circunavigated the globe they took so much Gold from the Spanish that they threw the silver overboard and it came to a value of 3 million pounds in the sixteenth century (imagine the value today, it would be trillions!)

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          anonymous 5 years ago

          i must say great lens and very informative

        • Zut Moon profile image

          Zut Moon 5 years ago

          Great Lens ...Blessed