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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

Pirates, who were they really?

Pirates, the swashbuckling madmen that roam the seven seas in search of treasure and mayhem. We know them from movies as unhinged individuals who shuck the law and civilization for a life at sea spent stealing ships, gold, jewelry, and killing those who get in their way. They wear fancy clothing, brandish swords, and are in many cases anti-social. But, was all this accurate? Were the real pirates of the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries an angry Johnny Depp? Mark Hanna appropriately titled his article, “A Lot of What Is Known about Pirates Is Not True, and a Lot of What Is True Is Not Known.”

As it turns out, pirates played an important role in colonial America to the economy, infrastructure, and development of port towns on the Atlantic coast. Pirates didn’t roam the seas without an endgame, in many cases they made enough money to settle down on land, buying homesteads and animals to live a normal life. Some even became respected members of society, joining the town’s elite and taking positions in business and government. They were welcomed into their communities, with pirates like James Brown marrying the Governor of Pennsylvania’s daughter and being appointed to the Pennsylvania House of Assembly, according to Mark Hanna.

Robert Rich portrait in gold and red

“Robert Rich, Second Earl of Warwick, who was instrumental to the development of the American colonies and commanded a fleet of privateers, was painted by Anthony van Dyck around 1632.” Image from National Endowment for the Humanities.

Piracy was common, and pirate attacks were familiar to colonial people as part of maritime life, which may be why we don’t know much about the specifics of many pirates, or what they did in “retirement” after time on the sea. In the past, they have been seen as dangerous rebels, malcontent marauders to be avoided and eradicated. Some historians tell stories of pirates with fear and disgust of crews who await death at the hand of a life poorly lived. In the 21st century, they are glorified with movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Halloween costumes with plastic swords and eye patches. We seem to have moved from fear and hatred to developing a romanticism around pirate life, perhaps linked to the western idea of freedom and answering to no one. It may not come as a surprise then, that the truth is somewhere in between.

Pirate ship on the sea chasing another vessel

Popular style of pirate ship with the skull and crossbones flag on the ocean. Image from History Extra.

Pirates sailed under many flags, usually their own country’s. According to Hanna, before the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht piracy was more of an act than a way of life. It is likened to a child who steals candy, who would not forever be labelled a thief, and if that child grew up to become a doctor would not be referred to as “criminal”, but rather “doctor”. Similarly with “pirates”, many of them committed piracy at one time or another and others were looking for one good score so that they could live a comfortable life with the elites of colonial society. Why weren’t pirates in it for the long haul? Life at sea is difficult and dangerous. Even now, with all the safety regulations and technology, offshore work is one of the most hazardous occupations in the world. Back then, crews had to worry about ship repair, food, water, disease, recruitment, and selling stolen goods for money. What good was all this hardship if it didn’t eventually pay off in a nice, relaxed life on solid ground?

Add to this that for some time, piracy was supported by locals and sometimes entire communities through pirate nests, or safe havens for privateers. This support started near Britain, but spread to Ireland, and eventually all the way to the east coast of North America. Governors and other officials supported the illegal activities, but Parliament eventually convinced people through culture, politics, and economics that legal trade provided better long-term benefits compared to piracy’s short-term spoils. According to Hanna, a retired pirate named Moses Butterworth was arrested and subsequently freed by efforts of his beloved local community in 1701, but by 1704 captained a sloop that hunted pirates. Soon after, the expansion of commercial trade and the desire for stability led to the “War on Pirates'' from 1716 to 1726. Outlaws at sea no longer had coastal support, and became rebels who attacked their own country. This is where many of the most famous pirates fit in history, legendary pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny. But around this time, eastern ports started hanging pirates, and with nowhere else to go, piracy was all but eradicated by the late 1720s. Here are a few of the most famous pirates that sailed the seas.

Edward Teach (Blackbeard)

The battle where Blackbeard was captured

“The Capture of the Pirate Blackbeard by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)”. Image from Royal Museums Greenwich.

Possibly the most famous pirate ever to exist, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, lived from 1680 to 1718. He began his adult life as a British privateer during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1713), plundering Spanish ships for Britain. He turned to piracy under Captain Benjamin Hornigold, where he commanded a sloop, and later captured a frigate he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. The new vessel had 40 guns and a crew of 300, but would only last a year before it was scuttled and he moved to a smaller ship, the Adventure. He cultivated his image of a fearsome pirate in many ways: he had a beard that reached his waist, during fights he would put fuses in his hair and light them so his face would be shrouded in smoke, and his flag showed a skeleton stabbing a heart and toasting the devil. It wasn’t all appearance, stories spread, mixing tall tales and real encounters to create a frightening picture of torture and a man that would turn on his own crew without notice. All of this blended together to keep order inside his circle while scaring those outside it.

He was based on an island off the coast of North Carolina where he bribed the Governor for pardons and a privateer title to lend some legality to his deeds. At one point he blockaded the port of Charlestown with his eight vessel flotilla, plundering nine vessels before requesting medical supplies or his prisoners would be beheaded. He sent three people to town and when they didn’t come back, he moved into the harbor until his supplies were delivered and his prisoners returned. His illicit activities eventually upset the Governor of Virginia and a pirate-hunting force was dispatched, commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard. They located him on Ocracoke Island where he lived, but Teach saw the ships coming, cut anchor and let his cannons fly, destroying much of the invading force. According to Royal Museums Greenwich, the pirates moved in with grappling hooks, smoke, and grenades, but Maynard held a large force under decks that overwhelmed the pirates. At the end of the battle on November 22, 1718, Blackbeard was dead with at least five gunshot wounds and more than twenty blade cuts. Almost all of his crew was hanged.


Barbarossa portrait with swords in hand

“Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy”. Image from Britannica.

Khiḍr was born in Lésbos in the Aegean Sea in the 1470s and would become one of Ottoman Empire’s greatest heroes, according to Britannica. He was known as Barbarossa, Italian for Redbeard, and along with his brother ʿArūj, who together were known as the Barbarossa brothers. They were experienced pirates in the Mediterranean, but when the Spanish began to attack the coastal cities in North Africa where Muslim immigrants took refuge, the brothers were upset by the attacks on fellow Muslims and went to serve as privateers. When the Ottoman sultan they served under died in 1512, they fled to North Africa to continue their fight against Spain. According to Britannica, after successfully attacking Algiers, the “Ottomans then offered the nominal titles of governor of Algiers to ʿArūj and chief sea governor of the western Mediterranean to Khiḍr, but the brothers were not yet full-fledged subjects of the Ottoman Empire.” ʿArūj died in 1518, and Khiḍr, who was by then known as Hayreddin, called himself Barbarossa and continued fighting. Barbarossa eventually became Governor of Rhodes, grand admiral of the Ottoman Empire, and admiral in chief of the Ottoman navy. He once won a huge battle by using galleys to attack the sailing ships of the enemy. Due to their agility and reliance on oars instead of sails, 122 galleys achieved victory over 300 sailing ships. He died in 1546 in Constantinople.

Anne Bonny

Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read

“Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Hulton Archive/Getty Images”. Image from ThoughtCo.

The pirate life wasn’t just for men - the most well known female pirate has to be Anne Bonny. Although her life is somewhat speculative due to a lack of sources, she is believed to have been born in Ireland in 1697, the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer and his servant woman, according to The Way of the Pirates. Her father, William Cormac, was forced to leave Ireland and settled in South Carolina. Anne took care of the household after her mother died, but eventually she fell in love with a pirate named James Bonny and they married. James eventually became a pirate informer, and Anne left her husband for a pirate captain named Calico Jack Rackam. She became pregnant and stayed in Cuba to have the baby. No one knows exactly what happened to the child, but after a few months she returned to the ship where Mary Read was now on board. The two women became close friends. Rackam’s ship, called “Revenge”, was anchored with a drunken crew when it was attacked by Captain Barnet, commander of the British Navy and ex-pirate. Anne and Mary were the only ones who fought back and everyone was captured. At trial, Anne and Mary did not receive the death penalty because they both claimed to be pregnant. Mary died in prison, but Anne was thought to have been ransomed by her father and brought back to Charlestown where she remarried and had eight children, passing away in 1782.

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake portrait with his hand on a globe

“Samuel Lane’s 19th-century portrait of Sir Francis Drake reflects the evolution of the Elizabethan sailor into a British imperial hero.” Image from National Geographic.

Drake was born in the early 1540s in England, the son of a tenant farmer. He went to sea at 18 years old and eventually commanded his own vessel. Drake and his cousin sailed to Africa to join the slave trade and upon arriving in New Spain (where selling their captives was illegal) they were trapped by a Spanish attack, but escaped to England. According to History, Drake was granted a privateer’s commission by Queen Elizabeth I - and with this new authority to plunder Spanish ports he captured the port of Nombre de Dios in 1572, returning to England with a haul of Spanish treasure. He was commissioned to lead an expedition through the Straits of Magellan around South America in 1577, beginning an arduous journey. Three men shared command, which caused conflict ending in Drake having one of the men beheaded for allegedly planning a mutiny. Five ships sailed, two lost to storm, one turned back to England, and another disappeared, leaving Drake to complete the journey himself in his ship, the Pelican, later renamed Golden Hind. He finally reached the Pacific in October 1578. He tried to find a northern passage to the Atlantic, but cold had him turn his ship around and he anchored near present-day San Francisco. He crossed the Pacific west and made his way around the Cape of Good Hope, becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world, and a hero despite complaints of piracy from the Spanish government. He was knighted aboard his ship by Queen Elizabeth.

Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind (replica) on the water

Golden Hind replica. Image from The Golden Hinde.

When England and Spain again came to blows in 1585, Drake commanded a 25 ship fleet to plunder Spanish ports along Florida and the West Indies. He led a 30 ship fleet “into the Spanish port of Cádiz and destroyed a large number of vessels being readied for the Spanish Armada”, according to History. He was second in command to Admiral Charles as the English proved victorious over the Spanish fleet in 1588. His last two expeditions in 1589 and 1596 were failures, the last ending with Drake sick with fever and dysentery, dying at age 55 near Puerto Bello.


It may be surprising to learn that hundreds of years of piracy are often distilled into the actions, clothing, and attitudes of only the last decade of pirate activity. What we see in popular culture is a Hollywood version of a small period from 1716 to 1726: outlaws wearing fancy clothes, living on the sea with no safe haven save for the ship under their feet. For many years before, pirates were people rebelling against what they saw as unjust regulations and laws, supported by a colony that felt the same way. These were people who wanted to fight for a cause - be it their own or their country’s - then go live a comfortable life as a stand up member of their community. Some even saw themselves as Robin Hood-esq individuals who were robbing from the overbearing elite country and giving to the new small towns. Pirates became government officials, military leaders, were knighted, and even grew old with families. It seems the pirate life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and is more a means to an end - whether that’s power, justice, riches, or a quiet life at home.


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