Pirate History: Famous Carribean Pirates

by Pirate Matty on March 29, 2008

Famous Caribbean pirates

Blackbeard

Main article: Blackbeard

Perhaps the most famed pirate from this period was known as “Blackbeard.” He was born about 1680 in England as Edward Thatch, Teach, or Drummond, and operated off the east coast of North America in the period of 1714-1718. Noted as much for his outlandish appearance as for his piratical success, in combat Blackbeard placed burning slow-match (a type of slow-burning fuse used to set off cannon) under his hat; with his face wreathed in fire and smoke, his victims claimed he resembled a fiendish apparition from Hell. Blackbeard’s ship was the two hundred ton, forty gun frigate he named the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Blackbeard met his end at the hands of a British fleet specifically sent out to capture him. After an extremely bloody boarding action, the British commanding officer of the fleet, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, killed him with the help of his crew. According to legend, Blackbeard suffered a total of five bullet wounds and twenty slashes with a cutlass before he finally died.

Henry Morgan

Main article: Henry Morgan

Henry Morgan, a Welshman, was one of the most destructive pirate captains of the seventeenth century. Although Morgan always considered himself a privateer rather than a pirate, several of his attacks had no real legal justification and are considered piracy. A bold, ruthless and daring man, Morgan fought England’s enemies for thirty years, and became a very wealthy man in the course of his adventures. Morgan’s most famous exploit came in late 1670 when he led 1700 buccaneers up the pestilential Chagres River and then through the Central American jungle to attack and capture the “impregnable” city of Panama. Morgan’s men burnt the city to the ground, and the inhabitants were either killed or forced to flee. Although the burning of Panama City did not mean any great financial gain for Morgan, it was a deep blow to Spanish power and pride in the Caribbean and Morgan became the hero of the hour in England (and also lent his name to a popular brand of present-day rum). At the height of his career, Morgan had been made a titled nobleman by the English Crown and lived on an enormous sugar plantation in Jamaica. Morgan died in his bed, rich and respected—something rarely achieved by pirates in his day or any other.

Bartholomew Roberts

Main article: Bartholomew Roberts

Less famous than Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts was far more successful, capturing and pillaging more than 400 ships. He started his freebooting career in the Gulf of Guinea in 1719 when Howell Davis‘s pirates captured his ship and he proceeded to join them. Rising to captain, he quickly came to the Caribbean and plagued the area until 1721. He commanded a number of large, powerfully armed ships, all of which he named Fortune, Good Fortune, or Royal Fortune. Efforts by the governors of Barbados and Martinique to capture him only provoked his anger; when he found the governor of Martinique aboard a newly captured vessel, Roberts hanged the man from a yardarm. Roberts returned to Africa in 1721, where he met his death in a naval battle and his crew were captured.

Stede Bonnet

Main article: Stede Bonnet

Probably the least qualified pirate captain ever to sail the Caribbean, Bonnet was a sugar planter who knew nothing about sailing. He started his piracies in 1717 by buying an armed sloop on Barbados and recruiting a pirate crew for wages, possibly to escape from his wife. He lost his command to Blackbeard and sailed with him for some time as a guest or prisoner. Although Bonnet briefly regained his captaincy, he was captured and hanged before he could return to the West Indies.

Charles Vane

Main article: Charles Vane

Charles Vane, like many early 18th century pirates, operated out of Nassau in the Bahamas. He was the only pirate captain to resist Woodes Rogers when Rogers asserted his governorship over Nassau in 1718, attacking Rogers’ squadron with a fire ship and shooting his way out of the harbor rather than accept the new governor’s royal pardon. Vane’s quartermaster was Calico Jack Rackham, who deposed Vane from the captaincy. Vane started a new pirate crew, but he was captured and hanged in Jamaica in 1720.

Edward Low

Main article: Edward Low

Edward – or Ned – Low was notorious as one of the most brutal and vicious pirates. Originally from London, he started as a lieutenant to George Lowther, before striking out on his own. His career as a pirate lasted just three years, during which he captured over 100 ships, and he and his crew murdered, tortured and maimed hundreds of people. After his own crew mutinied in 1724 when Low murdered a sleeping subordinate, he was rescued by a French vessel who hanged him on Martinique island.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Main article: Anne Bonny
Main article: Mary Read

Anne Bonny and Mary Read were undoubtedly the most famous pirates never to hold the position of captain; both spent their brief sea-roving careers under the command of Calico Jack Rackham. They are noted chiefly for their gender, highly unusual for pirates, which helped to sensationalize their 1720 trial in Jamaica. They gained further notoriety for their ruthlessness — they are known to have spoken in favor of murdering witnesses in the crew’s counsels — and for having resisted far more fiercely than their male crewmates when Rackham’s ship was taken. The capstone to their legend is that they alone of all Rackham’s crew escaped execution, as both were newly pregnant at their trial and their sentences were commuted to avoid harm to their unborn children.

Privateers

Main article: Privateer

In the Caribbean the use of privateers was especially popular. The cost of maintaining a fleet to defend the colonies was beyond national governments of the 16th and 17th centuries. Private vessels would be commissioned into a ‘navy’ with a letter of marque, paid with a substantial share of whatever they could capture from enemy ships and settlements, the rest going to the crown. These ships would operate independently or as a fleet and if successful the rewards could be great — when Francis Drake captured the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios (Panama’s Caribbean port at the time) in 1573 his crews were rich for life. This was repeated by Piet Hein in 1628, who made a profit of 12 million guilders for the Dutch West India Company. This substantial profit made privateering something of a regular line of business; wealthy businessmen or nobles would be quite willing to finance this legitimized piracy in return for a share. The sale of captured goods was a boost to colonial economies as well.

Buccaneers

Main article: Buccaneer

Specific to the Caribbean were pirates termed buccaneers. Roughly speaking they arrived in the 1630s and remained until the effective end of piracy in the 1730s. The original buccaneers were escapees from the colonies; forced to survive with little support, they had to be skilled at boat construction, sailing, and hunting. The word “buccaneer” is actually from the French boucaner, meaning “to smoke meat”, from the hunters of wild oxen curing meat over an open fire. They transferred the skills which kept them alive into piracy. They operated with the partial support of the non-Spanish colonies and until the 1700s their activities were legal, or partially legal and there were irregular amnesties from all nations.

Traditionally buccaneers had a number of peculiarities. Their crews operated as a democracy: the captain was elected by the crew and they could vote to replace him. The captain had to be a leader and a fighter—in combat he was expected to be fighting with his men, not directing operations from a distance.

Spoils were evenly divided into shares; when the officers had a greater number of shares, it was because they took greater risks or had special skills. Often the crews would sail without wages—”on account”—and the spoils would be built up over a course of months before being divided. There was a strong esprit de corps among pirates. This allowed them to win sea battles: they typically outmanned trade vessels by a large ratio. There was also for some time a social insurance system, guaranteeing money or gold for battle wounds at a worked-out scale.

One undemocratic aspect of the buccaneers was that sometimes they would force specialists like carpenters or surgeons to sail with them for some time, though they were released when no longer needed (if they had not volunteered to join by that time). Note also that a typical poor man had few other promising career choices at the time apart from joining the pirates. According to reputation, the pirates’ egalitarianism led them to liberate slaves when taking over slave ships. However there are several accounts of pirates selling slaves captured on slave ships, sometimes after they had helped man the pirates’ own vessels.

In combat they were considered ferocious and were reputed to be experts with flintlock weapons (invented in 1615), but these were so unreliable that they were not in widespread military use before the 1670s.

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