Man Knowledge: 5 Pirates Every Man Should Know

by Chris on April 29, 2011 · 35 comments

in Manly Knowledge

Following up our recent article introducing you to the life and ways of pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, we will now look to some of the individual personalities that made this lifestyle so fascinating for generations to come.  From the sheer effectiveness of Black Bart Roberts to the fascinatingly flamboyant Blackbeard, these are a few of the pirates every man should know. They’re not necessarily the “best” pirates of all time, but they’re the pirates who made some kind of noteworthy contribution to pirate legend and history.

There is little original source material relating to pirates, and much of what does exist is a mix of truth and fiction.  Thus, much of who these men really were is left up to interpretation. As is often the case, such a lack of firsthand accounts of piracy has allowed for the growth of considerable amounts of folklore. With that said, we now present a dossier on some of the more legendary scoundrels of the seas.

William Kidd

Years active: 1696-1701

Location: Indian Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and off the east coast of North America.

Fate: Hung and gibbeted over the River Thames in London, where his body remained for over twenty years as a warning to those considering piracy as a profession.

Claim to fame: Originator of the idea of “buried treasure.”

Truthfully, the exploits of the legendary Captain Kidd were not very extraordinary.  Kidd participated in several small skirmishes with pirates and other vessels as a privateer commissioned by the British government, but none would have any substantial impact on history.  The legend of Captain Kidd, interestingly enough, really begins when it ends.  Throughout his career, many of his counterparts and superiors had suspected that Kidd had gone beyond the call of his letter of marque and dabbled in piracy on occasion.  When the evidence seemed overwhelming, English men-of-war were dispatched to bring him back to London.  Knowing what was to come, Kidd purportedly buried a vast treasure off the coast of New York on Gardiners Island as an insurance policy and a bargaining tool.  Unimpressed by (likely fictitious) tales of buried treasure, the British court ordered Kidd to the gallows.  There, with a short drop and a sudden stop, his story ended and his legend began.

Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts

Years active: 1719-1722

Location: Off the east coast of North America and the east coast of Africa.

Fate: Struck by cannon fire in battle against English Navy.

Claim to fame: Perhaps the most successful pirate ever.

Although he is by no means the most famous of pirates, Bartholomew Roberts was far and away the best at what he did.  Over the course of his career, Roberts is believed to have captured in excess of 470 ships while operating in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  Making his success even more remarkable is the fact that Roberts was reluctant to become a pirate in the first place.  As a young man aboard a merchant ship, he and his crewmates had been captured by pirates and held hostage.  Robert’s navigational skills quickly set him apart from other hostages, and he soon became a valuable resource to his captors.  Incredibly, as this relationship grew, he was eventually voted by the crew to become their captain.  Reluctant at first, history notes that Roberts eventually came to the famous conclusion that there was simply no reason good enough to struggle his way through an honest living, and that henceforth his motto would be “a merry life and a short one.”  When he was killed by grapeshot at age 39, the Golden Age of Piracy symbolically drew to a close.

Edward Teach aka “Blackbeard”

Years active: 1716–1718

Location: East coast of North America and the Caribbean Sea.

Fate: Killed in battle against English Navy.

Claim to fame: Successfully blockaded the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.  Also known for his flamboyant appearance and dark, full beard (to which he tied lit fuses as a method of intimidation during battle) which earned him his namesake.

Perhaps the most famous pirate ever, a claim that can likely be attributed as much to his catchy nickname as to his piratical prowess.  Much to his credit, however, was the fact that he managed to mobilize a rather large fleet of pirate ships which he led into various assaults.  Most notably, the flotilla under the leadership of Blackbeard (now referring to himself as Commodore) managed to blockade the harbor at Charleston, SC for several days.  During the blockade they captured several ships and took many hostages, all of which were eventually exchanged for various medicines required by his crew.  Teach terrorized the West Indies and the Atlantic coast for years at the helm of the Queen Anne’s Revenge before finally being bested by an English assault at the Battle of Ocracoke off the coast of North Carolina.  In his final moments, Teach is said to have fought off a multitude of Englishmen before succumbing to his wounds, which totaled at least five gunshots and over twenty sabre cuts.

Edward England

Years active: 1718-1720

Location: Caribbean Sea and Indian Ocean.

Fate: Marooned on Mauritius and died shortly thereafter.

Claim to fame: Design of his flag.

Like Black Bart, Edward England came into a life of piratry after he was captured by a ship of swashbucklers and forced to join the crew. After a brief stint in the Caribbean, he worked his way up the pirate ladder until he had gained command of his own vessel, which he used to sail the Indian Ocean, raiding slave ships.  But England is really remembered solely for the design of his flag, a skull over two crossed thigh bones, which went on to become the famous “jolly roger” flag associated with all pirates.

“Calico Jack” Rackham

Years active: 1718-1720

Location: Caribbean Sea.

Fate: Hung and gibbeted in Port Royal, Jamaica.

Claim to fame: First known pirate captain to allow women on board.

Calico Jack did little to warrant his place in pirate lore.  A meagerly successful pirate, he focused most of his activity on capturing small fishing vessels and commercial ships.  During a brief attempt at retirement in 1719, Rackham met and fell in love the now infamous Anne Bonny, who would join him on his future adventures, disguised as a man to conceal her identity.  Later, when Rackham’s crew captured a Dutch merchant vessel, they unknowingly took another disguised woman, Mary Read, on board.  Bonny and Read proved to be excellent pirates, and it is their success that made Jack Rackham famous.  So ill-suited to be captain was Rackham that when his ship and crew were finally captured he was too drunk to even put up a fight, and only Anne and Mary defended the ship and crew.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adam Waz April 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm

None of these pirates seemed to have a very lengthy career for being so famous…

2 Chris Hutcheson April 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm

@Adam,

That’s a testament to the perils of piracy, and showcasing those perils was precisely why their “years active” was included. You’ll notice that the majority of the men listed had their career ended when they had their life ended!

3 Jim April 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Interesting list. Surprised to see Henry Morgan wasn’t up there too though. He did some awesome things in his lifetime.

4 Andrew April 29, 2011 at 12:52 pm

No Peter Easton? The man was an admiral! He plundered 30 ships at one time, and had a fleet of over a thousand ships and boats (granted, many were fishing boats, but still.) He lived long enough to retire to France and become the Marquis of Savoy. Black Bart can’t hold a candle to this guy.

5 Musket Mike April 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I used to think pirate stuff was cool, then I ran across a book called “Pirates and the Sodomy Tradition”. Didn’t think they were so cool after reading that book, then the comedian “Carlos Mencia” really put a funny spin on pirates. They have lots of fun and games Pirate groups that put on shows for parades and functions around Newport, but since Carlos stung them, I have to laugh every time I see them.

6 Henrique Vilhena April 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Rackam is the inspiration behind The Red Rackam pirate from the Tintin books. Daniel Craig will be doing that role in Spielberg’s coming adaptation of Hergé’s work.

7 Henrique Vilhena April 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I spelled it wrong, it’s Rackham :P

8 Cameron Barker April 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Anyone really interested in Piracy should pick up the non-fiction book “The Many-Headed Hydra.” It’s an interesting take on Piracy, Motley Crews, and the beginning of American Democracy. We romanticize piracy quite a bit, but there was a lot of important ideas and philosophies that came out of what they did. Black Bart was voted captain by a crew of his equals, not raised to position because of his birth or heritage.

9 Michael D. Denny April 29, 2011 at 2:09 pm

pfffttt.
I could jog from my house to the place in Bath, N.C. where Blackbeard settled and married for a short time, and I grew up right next to the Ocracoke/Swan Quarter ferry. Everything around here is Pirate themed, from the cafe’s to the B&B’s to the area University (Home of the East Carolina University “Pirates”) and the novelty wore off years ago.
The pirates were just unwashed, disease ridden rapists and muggers that modern times have (inaccurately) pasted a veneer of romance and adventure upon.

10 Phrosty April 29, 2011 at 2:22 pm

No Jean Lafitte? Really? Barataria Bay and involvement in defending New Orleans from the British in 1815 isn’t noteworthy enough? You’d have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t know about Lafitte where I live.

Also, as one of the others mentioned, Henry Morgan also deserves a shoutout.

11 Shane April 29, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Jean Lafitte is definitely the most important pirate in American history. America would have lost the Battle of New Orleans without him.

12 Gordo April 30, 2011 at 1:27 am

I highly recommend Peter Leeson’s recent book on the economics of pirates, “The Invisible Hook” published by Princeton University Press.

13 Paul Kyriazi April 30, 2011 at 6:25 am

Wow, Kid’s body hung for twenty years over the Thames River? That would not only turn me off of becoming a pirate, but turn me off on becoming a tourist. Informative article.

14 Mark Bersch April 30, 2011 at 7:12 am

In Illinois, our pirates start as Secretaries of State, get promoted to Governors and end up in prison.

15 Alan Worthington April 30, 2011 at 8:04 am

About your first line in Kidd’s profile…it was the book Treasure Isle by Stevenson that started myths about buried treasure. Other than that good article. :)

16 Ammon April 30, 2011 at 9:52 am

Great post (as usual)!

Here’s my top 5 fictional pirates list:
1) Dread Pirate Roberts in all incarnations (from the Princess Bride)
2) Captain Jack Sparrow (from the Pirates of the Caribbean series)
3) The Ghost/Zombie Pirate Le Chuck (from the Secret of Monkey Island series)
4) Long John Silver (from Treasure Island)
5) Captain Feathersword (hey, I have kids)

17 Clockwork May 1, 2011 at 8:32 am

You HAVE to have Henry Morgan on this list, he was the first “mega pirate”. And before someone falsely brings it up: he bacame a pirate after he was a privateer.

18 Gevin Shaw May 1, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Peter Leeson has written several papers on the economics and politics of piracy. Taking into consideration the anarcho-libertarian bias of his writing (which leads him to conclude that we don’t need government because we form institutions to replace the functions governments fail to fulfill, missing that point that those institutions are governments) he has some interesting insights into the pirates’ lives.

While we remember these famous capitans, a pirate ship was usually run by an elected captain, in charge of battle, and an elected quartermaster, in charge of the other aspects of the ship, including making sure the division of the loot followed the agreement. A balance and division of power.

The decision to become a pirate often wasn’t the choice between either becoming a pirate or living some comfortable seamans life. It sucked being a sailor for the Navy of any country and piracy offered you a say in the operation of the pirate enterprise and better pay.

A pdf of “An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization” is available at his site: http://www.peterleeson.com/Papers.html.

19 kowalski May 1, 2011 at 3:48 pm

sir frances drake should also be included in this list.

20 Mick May 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Every country has pirates, not just the americas. Just that these days they don’t necessarily go to sea and they never call themselves pirates either. No! They like to be called Politicians!

In all seriousness though, Piracy was not limited to just the americas. There were just as many, if not more pirates in and from the asian countries, and there still are to this day.
Cheng ho, a Chinese Eunuch in the 15th century on his first trip out on a state endorsed raid to the ‘Western oceans’ took 317 vessals. Cheng ho raided further and further afield with ongoing success. It is thought that he only stopped raiding when the Mongol threat to China was re-newed. His skills wee possibly required in land based operations.

21 Mick May 1, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Damn we need an edit function here…I meant to say ‘his skills were’, not, ‘his skills wee’. Sorry.

22 carelessninja May 1, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Actually, Mrs. Cheng was the most successful pirate of all time: http://www.pantherbay.com/bio_cheng.php

23 TimothyPilgrim May 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Piracy is alive and well, especially around the Horn of Africa (i.e. Somalia) where some 650 hostages and 35 ships had been taken by pirates as of late 2010. Of course, these pirates aren’t sexy like the grimey sea-folk of days gone by.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Somalian_Piracy_Threat_Map_2010.png

24 Seth Albion May 2, 2011 at 7:02 pm

The book “The Pirate Hunter” by Richard Zacks reads like fiction. I recommend it to anyone; pirate lover or not. It’s a fascinating true account of Captain Kidd’s journeys. trials and tribulations. I’ve read it twice – I don’t read many books twice.

25 Russ May 4, 2011 at 7:34 pm

What??? No Capt. Morgan — They guys got a brand of rum with his name on it!!!

26 Andrew May 5, 2011 at 1:22 pm

small point but here goes anyway
the past tense of hang when refering to a person is hanged.
yesterday I hung a picutre on the wall
the pirate Calico Jack was hanged in Jamacia

27 Tengu May 6, 2011 at 7:02 pm

No William Dampier?

The Educated man who gave us such useful words as `pineapple` and `sealion`??

And who dies of old age at home?

28 Kirk May 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm

@Ammon: What, no One-Eyed Willy (from The Goonies) on your list of Top 5 Fictional Pirates? Walk the plank! :p

29 Ben Dover May 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm

I love a discussion of the difference between hanged and hung…Like in “Blazing Saddles…where the worker on the railroad sees Sheriff Bart and thinking he had been HANGED said…”Bart, i thought you was HUNG” and Bart replies…”And you was RIGHT”…nobody but a classic known liberal like Mel Brooks could get away with it then and even HE could not do that movie today…well, westerns are pirate movies, only in a different placing…

30 wtp May 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

What, nothing about the greatest Pirate of all time, Roberto Clemente?

31 Karl Godt September 12, 2013 at 2:28 pm

In Germany (North) Klaus Störtebeker is the “oldest known pirate” :
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St%C3%B6rtebeker

Nice site, knew about Long John Silver and Black Beard – but most I did not knew before .

32 Dave October 9, 2013 at 12:51 pm

To everyone who thinks Henry Morgan should be mentioned, you may be interested to know that Morgan was NOT a pirate. He was a privateer. In other words, every act of “piracy” he commited was endorsed by the government. Pirates were outlaws. Morgan eventually became the governor of Jamaica and even helped to hunt down pirates.

33 Blakeny November 25, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Koxinga, he was Chinese and the only pirate to ever be worshipped as a living god. How’s THAT for success?

34 Jake December 9, 2013 at 11:54 pm

Henry morgan was a buccaneer. First commissioned to be a privateer, during peace between england and spain, morgan continued to attack the spanish with his crew of english and spanish buccaneers, thus becoming a buccaneer and no longer a privateer

35 grace January 19, 2014 at 9:27 am

this really helped! I now know why the Caribbean is associated with pirates

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