History of Pirates | Golden Age of Piracy
The Golden Age of Piracy is a period in the 17th and 18th centuries, when maritime piracy in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Europe, and West Africa was at an all-time high. More than five-thousand pirates at sea – a terrifying thought for anyone who had anything to do with naval travel! It does not matter whether you were a trader relying on a shipment or a tourist undertaking a long voyage; if you were living during the Golden Age of Piracy, the image of pirates jumping aboard, looting, and killing passengers, was always in the back of your mind. All of this is not to say that the Golden age of piracy was, by any means, a novel phenomenon. People have always robbed others transporting goods on water. However, from the 16th century onwards, it became an increasingly common way of life for some. This could be attributed to mostly two events:
- The Vikings, the great shipbuilders that they were, were also marauders and looters. It was just a matter of time until they brought their two best skills together to eke out a living.
- The discovery of the Americas meant a larger influx of Spanish ships to loot.
The Corsairs used to sneak up to their targeted boats in the Mediterranean, kidnapping people for ransom. If the ransom was not paid, they would sell the kidnapped individuals into slavery. Then there were buccaneers on the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola, who used to attack and loot Spanish treasure ships. The Caribbean governors, some of them later placed by the colonialists, were fond of the financial activities on the island since they were a beneficiary. The modern portrayal of pirates looks to these islands for inspiration, for it was here that the golden age of piracy truly thrived. Let’s take a look at the most famous pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy.
1. Edward Teach (Blackbeard)
Edward Teach: Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was most likely a former English sailor and privateer. At the time, various European powers were locked in a race of global supremacy. It was common for the British army to issue a license to ships full of privateers for looting enemy ships. Therefore, Edward Teach possibly remained a pirate during the War of Spanish Succession at the beginning of the 18th century. He was born around 1680, so the timeline matches up. At some point, he found and linked up with Benjamin Hornigold, who used to launch raids off the coast of Jamaica. By raiding, plundering, and killing the very British he fought for, Blackbeard quickly earned a reputation for being ruthless. He became so notorious that his acts became the stuff of legends – almost a mythic figure in the later stage of his life. He received his nickname due to his appearance: he was a giant of a man, and a long black beard covered his face. He captured over 45 vessels, most of them while he held command of his massive flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge. He died in 1718 around the age of 38.
2. Benjamin Hornigold
Benjamin Hornigold: Hornigold was Blackbeard’s mentor, and while Blackbeard was a pirate to the end, Benjamin Hornigold accepted an amnesty from the British government. He would later become a pirate hunter and go after his former allies. However, all of this happened much later. As a pirate, Benjamin operated in the Bahamas and was a founding member of the Consortium, a collective of pirates who wanted to ensure their supremacy in the Bahamas. The Bahamas, especially New Providence Island, was a pirate’s paradise, and Benjamin wanted to keep it that way. He had positioned his men at Fort Nassau, through which he held watch over the comers and goers at the harbor. He became a pirate in 1713, appointing Blackbeard as his subordinate on his ship, the Ranger.
3. Bartholomew Roberts
Bartholomew Roberts Born in 1682, a Welshman named Bartholomew Roberts became one of the most successful pirates in the first year of his new career. A tall, attractive man, Bartholomew may not attract as much attention as some of the other pirates of the era. Still, he was one of the most successful pirates to have ever lived. Commanding his vessel, which he aptly named Royal Fortune, he sacked ships from Africa to the Caribbean and everywhere in between. Roberts had not joined the pirates of his volition but quickly developed a taste for it. He rose through the ranks to become a feared leader of men. Often referred to as Black Bart, he was considered a bad omen for any ship carrying gold. In his three years as a pirate captain, he amassed the spoils from over 470 ships – the most by any pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy. Successful as he was, it did not matter in the end. Man makes plans, and God laughs, as they say. In 1722, he was killed in a sea battle against a British warship, bringing an end to his boisterous saga at the age of 40. His death coincided with the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.
4. Edward Low & George
Edward Low & George Lowther Edward Low might be a lesser-known name, compared to the other characters on the list, but that does not diminish his career as a pirate. One of the most merciless pirates of the Americas, he came from humble beginnings – to be fair, most pirates had humble beginnings, but he was even more so. Born in poverty and a petty thief from an early age, he had been marooned for murdering a crewmate. He became a pirate and started a pirate organization with George Lowther. But, after a while, he decided to go solo. During this time, he became one of the most feared men around. Operating off the coast of New England and the Azores, he gained notoriety for his violent tendencies and his pirating skills. As for his companion, George Lowther, he terrorized the Atlantic for two years but could not sustain his operation. His luck ran out when a merchant ship spotted his ship, and legend claims that he managed to escape – but shot himself on a desolate island.
5. Henry Avery
Henry Avery: Henry Avery only captured around a dozen ships in his life. He may not have been as shrewd as the infamous Blackbeard, nor as ruthless as Edward Low, but he was truly lucky. Just after a mutiny against Charles II, he became a pirate, hitting the jackpot in the Indian Ocean in his early days. He managed to capture Fateh Muhammad and Ganj-i-Sawai, two ships of great significance, particularly the latter. It was the flagship of the Grand Mughal of India. Loaded with gold and jewels, it would have been worth around 200 million pounds today. He and his crew were quite content with the haul and decided to retire before greed got the better of them. So, they paid off a governor and disappeared off the horizon. Henry was a rarity in the pirate world in that he took his loot and disappeared. Usually, pirates were known to the authorities at large and had to hide in plain sight. Those who were not known had to keep their gold close to avoid attracting the attention of their fellow pirates.
6. Charles Vane
Charles Vane: Charles Vane was another British-born pirate who served as a privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession. This allowed him to come to grips with the art of seafaring. He collaborated with Henry Jennings and Benjamin Hornigold for conducting an attack on a Spanish camp, from which he gathered sufficient loot. Since he operated out of Nassau, he was on good terms with Benjamin Hornigold – most of the time. He was an intelligent pirate with a sharp set of navigational and combat skills. When a pardon was offered to pirates and Benjamin crossed over to the other side, Vane led the army of the remnants. He was captured at Nassau but was later set free on the advice of Benjamin. Shortly afterward, Vane returned to piracy. He was captured by the British Navy and hung in 1721.
7. Samuel Bellamy or “Black Sam”
Samuel Bellamy or “Black Sam” Bellamy had been a sailor in the Royal Navy but fell into piracy. Under the guidance of Benjamin Hornigold, he became very popular. When he assumed command of his own ship, he captained his crew to capture 53 ships! Even though his career lasted for just a year, what he managed to pull off in that short period is astounding. His first return trip gave him the biggest haul of his career in the form of the Whydah Gally, a slave trade ship. Well-liked and charismatic, he was the face of the Golden Age of Piracy and is best known as the wealthiest pirate in recorded history. He likened himself to Robin Hood and was called the “Prince of Pirates.”
8. Jack Rackham
Jack Rackham, No discussion of piracy could be complete without mentioning the famous pirate duo, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. “Calico Jack” Rackham was the most flamboyant of pirates and served under Charles Vane. After the crew voted Vane out, Jack took over the ship and amassed an incredible amount of wealth. Jack escaped with his muse, Anne, aboard his vessel, Revenge. He was eventually granted a pardon and spent the rest of his life in peace and comfort. It is believed Bonny later developed an intimate relationship with Mary Read, a woman who disguised herself as a man. Considering the epoch, one can wholly understand why she may have felt the need to do so. We know that Mary Read and Anne Bonny avoided execution upon capture, but the fate of Anne remains shrouded in mystery to this day.
9. Mary Read
Mary Read was Raised in Devon as a boy, Mary Read found it easy to incorporate her upbringing into a practical necessity. Disguising herself was an easy way to work. And so, she did. Mary ran away from the army with her husband, who died shortly afterward. When she rejoined the army, fate supposedly brought her another soulmate in the form of Anne Bonny. On her way to the Caribbean aboard a Dutch ship, Calico Jack captured her. At first, she resisted but quickly came around to the life of piracy. It was here that she met Anne Bonny. The two were later captured and just avoided execution by pretending that they were pregnant. Unlike Anne, we do know what happened to Mary in jail. In 1721, she became ill and died in prison.
10. William Kidd – or Captain Kidd
William Kidd: William Kidd – or Captain Kidd – arrived just at the beginning of the Golden Age of Piracy. Kidd is a little bit of an outlier since he was active shortly after the buccaneering period that lasted from 1650 to 1680. Most of the people on this list were active during either the Pirate Round, late 17th century to early 18th century, or the post-Spanish Succession period that lasted from 1715 to 1726. Therefore, he preceded the more popular pirate figures by a few years. Captain Kidd was a privateer, but the temptation of gold and loot was too great to ignore. He finally succumbed to doing it in 1698. His short stint as a pirate was met with success, and his biggest loot came from a vessel named Quedagh Merchant. Up until this point, the British had been fairly lenient with the plundering, but when they started getting a taste of their own medicine, they began clamping down on the Golden age of piracy in the next few years. So, Kidd became a big target for them; they chased him all over, finally catching and hanging him in 1701. While there are other pirates like Olivier Levasseur, who allegedly hid the biggest treasure in pirate history with a list of clues, and Henry Jennings, who sailed with “Black Sam” Bellamy, those mentioned here easily make up a comprehensive list of the ten most famous pirates to have ever lived.