The period in America from 1689 to 1718 is widely regarded as the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’. As shipping across the Atlantic and in the Caribbean increased, successful pirates, many of whom began their careers as privateers, were able to prey on merchant vessels in order to make a living.
As their fortunes flourished and their appetite for treasure grew, targets for plunder were soon no longer exclusive to small merchant ships. Pirates attacked large convoys, were able to fight off sizeable naval ships and became a general force to be reckoned with.
Below is a list of some of the most infamous and notorious of these pirates who continue to capture the imagination of the public today.
1. Edward Teach (“Blackbeard”)
Edward Teach (aka “Thatch”) was born in the English port city of Bristol around 1680. Although it is unclear when exactly Teach arrived in the Caribbean, it is likely he disembarked as a sailor on privateer ships during the War of Spanish Succession at the turn of the 18th century.
In the late 17th and early 18th century, many private ships received a licence from the British monarchy, under the commission of war, that permitted the plundering of vessels belonging to a rival nation.
Teach may have remained a privateer during the war, however it was not before the sailor found himself on the sloop of the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, who also launched raids off Jamaica. The main difference now was that Teach was stealing from and killing his old employers, the British.
Teach clearly made a name for himself. His ruthless nature and unrivalled courage led to his quick promotion up the ranks until he found himself equal to Hornigold’s level of notoriety. While his mentor accepted an offer of amnesty from the British government, Blackbeard remained in the Caribbean, captaining a ship he had captured and renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Blackbeard became the most notorious and feared pirate of the Caribbean. According to the legends, he was a giant man with a dark dusky beard covering half his face, wearing a great red coat to make him look even bigger. He carried two swords at his waist and had bandoleers full of pistols and knives across his chest.
Some reports even say that during a fight he stuck sticks of gunpowder into his long hair to make him seem even more terrifying.
We will probably never know exactly what he looked like, but there is no doubt that he was successful, as recent research has discovered he captured over 45 vessels, despite his relatively short career as a pirate.
On 22 November 1718, with an enormous bounty on his head, Blackbeard was eventually killed in a sword fight with Royal Marines on the deck of his ship. As a powerful symbol to any who dared follow in his footsteps, Blackbeard’s severed head was brought back to the governor of Virginia.
2. Benjamin Hornigold
Perhaps best known for mentoring Edward Teach, Captain Benjamin Hornigold (b. 1680) was a notorious pirate captain who operated in the Bahamas during the early 18th century. As one of the most influential pirates on New Providence Island, he had control over Fort Nassau, protecting the bay and the entrance to the harbour.
He was one of the founding members of the Consortium, the loose coalition of pirates and merchants that hoped to preserve the semi-independent Pirates’ Republic in the Bahamas.
When he was 33 years old, Hornigold began his pirate career in 1713 by attacking merchant ships in the Bahamas. By the year 1717, Hornigold was the Captain of the Ranger, one of the most heavily armed ships in the region. It was at that time when he appointed Edward Teach as his second-in-command.
Hornigold was described by others as a kind and skilled captain who treated prisoners better than other pirates. As an ex-privateer, Hornigold would eventually take the decision to turn his back on his former companions.
In December 1718, he accepted a King’s Pardon for his crimes and became a pirate hunter, pursuing his former allies on behalf of the Governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers.
3. Charles Vane
As with many of the famous pirates on this list, it is believed that Charles Vane was born in England around 1680. Described as precarious and capricious pirate captain, Vane’s fearless nature and impressive combat skills made him an incredibly successful pirate, but his volatile relationship with his pirate crew would eventually lead to his demise.
Like Blackbeard, Vane started his career as a privateer working on one of Lord Archibald Hamilton’s ships during the War of Spanish Succession. He was involved with Henry Jennings and Benjamin Hornigold during a famous attack on the salvage camp for the wrecked Spanish 1715 Treasure Fleet. Here he amassed a booty valued at 87,000 pounds of gold and silver.
Vane decided to become an independent pirate in 1717, operating out of Nassau. His remarkable navigational skills, dexterity and fighting prowess propelled him to a level of unrivalled notoriety in the Caribbean.
When word reached the pirates that King George I of Great Britain had extended an offer of pardon to all pirates who wished to surrender, Vane led the pirates who opposed taking the pardon. He was captured in Nassau by British Naval forces yet, on the advice of former private Benjamin Hornigold, Vane was set free as a sign of good faith.
It wasn’t long before Vane turned to piracy again. He and his crew, which included the famous pirate Jack Rackham, began to wreak havoc in the Caribbean yet again, capturing numerous vessels around Jamaica.
Problems began for Vane when the Governor Woodes Rogers arrived in Nassau where he was appointed Governor. Rogers had trapped Vane and his small fleet in the harbour, forcing Vane to turn his large vessel into a fireship and direct it towards Rogers’ blockade. It worked, and Vane managed to escape on a small schooner.
Despite evading capture for the second time, Vane’s luck was soon to run out. After his crew attacked a vessel that turned out to be powerful French Warship, Vane decide to flee for safety. His quartermaster, “Calico Jack” Rackham, accused him of being a coward in front of Vane’s crew and took over control of Vane’s ship leaving Vane behind in a small, captured sloop with just a few of his loyal pirate crew.
After being shipwrecked on a remote island after rebuilding a small fleet and subsequently recognised by a British Naval officer who had come to his rescue, Vane was eventually tried in a court where he was found guilty of piracy, and subsequently hanged in November 1720.
4. Jack Rackham (“Calico Jack”)
Born in 1682, John “Jack” Rackham, more commonly known as Calico Jack, was a Jamaican-born British pirate who operated in the West Indies during the early 18th century. Although he did not manage in his short career to amass incredible wealth or respect, his associations with other pirates, including two female crew members, managed to make him one of the most renowned pirates of all time.
Rackham is perhaps most famous for his relations with the female pirate Anne Bonny (who we will meet later). Rackham began an affair with Anne who was at the time the wife of sailor employed by Governor Rogers. Anne’s husband James learned about the relationship and brought Anne to Governor Rogers, who ordered her whipped on charges of adultery.
When Rackham’s offer to buy Anne in a “divorce by purchase” was sternly refused, the pair fled Nassau. They escaped to sea together and sailed the Caribbean for two months, taking over other pirate ships. Anne soon became pregnant and went to Cuba to have the child.
In September 1720, the Bahamas’ Governor Woodes Rogers issued a proclamation declaring Rackham and his crew wanted pirates. After publication of the warrant, the pirate and bounty hunter Jonathan Barnet and Jean Bonadvis started in pursuit of Rackham.
In October 1720, Barnet’s sloop attacked Rackham’s ship and captured it after a fight presumably led by Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Rackham and his crew were brought to Spanish Town, Jamaica, in November 1720, where they were tried and convicted of piracy and sentenced to be hanged.
Rackham was executed in Port Royal on 18 November 1720, his body then gibbeted on display on a very small islet at a main entrance to Port Royal now known as Rackham’s Cay.
5. Anne Bonny
Born in County Cork in 1697, the female buccaneer Anne Bonny has become an icon of the Golden Age of Piracy. In an era when women had little rights of their own, Bonny had to show enormous courage in order to become an equal crewmember and respected pirate.
The illegitimate daughter of her father and a servant, Bonny was taken as a young child to the New World after her father’s infidelity was made public in Ireland. There she was brought up on a plantation up until the age of 16, when she fell in love with a private named James Bonny.
After marrying James, much to the disapproval of her father, Bonny established herself in the pirate hideout of New Providence. The extensive network she built with numerous pirates shortly began to compromise her marriage, as James Bonny had become a pirate informer. Her feelings towards the notorious pirate Jack Rackham didn’t help matters either, and the two ran off together in 1719.
Aboard Rackham’s vessel Revenge, Bonny developed an intimate personal relationship with Mary Read, another female pirate who disguised herself as a man. Legend has it that Bonny fell in love with Read only to be bitterly disappointed when she revealed her true gender. Rackham was also thought to have become extremely jealous of the two’s intimacy.
After becoming pregnant with Rackham’s child and delivering it in Cuba, Bonny returned to her lover. In October 1720, Revenge was attacked by a Royal Navy ship whilst most of Rackham’s crew were drunk. Bonny and Read were the only crew to resist.
The crew of Revenge were taken to Port Royal to stand trial. At the trial, the true genders of the female prisoners were revealed. Anne and Mary did manage to avoid execution however by pretending to be pregnant. Read was to die of fever in prison, whilst the fate of Bonny remains unknown to this date. We only know that she was never executed.
6. Mary Read
The second of the famed and legendary female pirate duo was Mary Read. Born in Devon in 1685, Read was raised as a boy, pretending to be her older brother. From an early age she recognised that disguising herself as a man was the only way she could find work and support herself.
Read worked in various roles and for various institutions, often becoming bored very quickly. Eventually as an older teenager she joined the army, where she met her future husband. After revealing her gender to him, the two ran away together and married in the Netherlands.
Burdened with bad luck throughout her entire life, Read’s husband fell ill shortly after the marriage and died. In a state of despair, Read wanted to escape from everything and joined the army again. This time, she has boarded a Dutch ship that sailed to the Caribbean. Almost at the reach of its destination, Mary’s ship was attacked and captured by the pirate, Calico Rackham Jack, who took all English captured sailors as part of his crew.
Unwillingly she became a pirate, yet it was not long before Read began to enjoy the pirate lifestyle. When she had a chance to leave Rackham’s ship, Mary decided to stay. It was on Rackham’s ship that Mary met Anne Bonny (who was also dressed as a man), and the two formed their close and intimate relationship.
After months of sailing the high seas aboard Revenge with Anne, the two would be eventually be captured and put on trial, only to be spared execution by ‘pleading the belly’. Whilst the fate of Anne has never been discovered, Mary died in prison after catching a violent fever. She was buried in Jamaica on 28 April 1721.
7. William Kidd (“Captain Kidd”)
Active just before the dawn of the Golden Age, William Kidd, or “Captain Kidd” as he is often remembered, was one of the most renowned privateers and pirates of the late 17th century.
Like so many pirates before and after him, Kidd had originally begun his career as a privateer, commissioned by the British during the Nine Years War to defend its trade routes between America and the West Indies. He was later employed on a pirate hunting expedition in the Indian Ocean.
As was the case with many other pirate hunters however, the temptations of plunder and booty were too great to ignore. Kidd’s crew threatened mutiny on multiple occasions if he did not commit himself to piracy, which he succumbed to doing in 1698.
Kidd’s relatively short career as a pirate was very successful. Kidd and his crew captured a number of ships including a vessel called the Queda which they found to have onboard a cargo worth 70,000 pounds – one of the biggest hauls in the history of piracy.
Unfortunately for Kidd, it was now two years since he had begun his original voyage and whilst his attitudes toward piracy had evidently softened, attitudes in England had become a lot stricter. Piracy was to be stamped out and was now declared a criminal act.
What ensued was one of the most notorious pirate hunts in all of history. Kidd finally arrived in the West Indies in April 1699 only to find that the American colonies were gripped by pirate fever. Up and down the coast, everyone was on the hunt for pirates, and his name was at the top of the list.
The hunt for Captain Kidd was the first to be live documented in newspapers around the Atlantic world. The Scottish pirate managed to negotiate a pardon from the English authorities for his actions, yet he knew his time was up. Kidd sailed for Boston, stopping along the way to bury booty on Gardiners Island and Block Island.
The New England governor, Lord Richard Bellomont, himself an investor in Kidd’s voyage, had him arrested on 7 July 1699 in Boston. He was sent to England aboard the frigate Advice in February 1700.
Captain William Kidd was hanged on 23 May 1701. The first rope put around this neck broke so he had to be strung up a second time. His corpse was placed in a gibbet at the mouth of the Thames River and left to rot, as an example to other would-be pirates.
8. Bartholomew Roberts (“Black Bart”)
Three centuries ago, a Welsh seaman (born in 1682 in Pembrokeshire) turned to piracy. He never even wanted to become a pirate, yet within a year he’d become the most successful of his era. During his brief but spectacular career he captured over 200 ships – more than all his pirate contemporaries combined.
Nowadays pirates like Blackbeard are better remembered than this young Welshman, as either their notoriety or their wild appearance has captured the public imagination. Yet Bartholomew Roberts, or ‘Black Bart’ as he was known, was arguably the most successful pirate of them all.
Described as a tall, attractive man, who loved expensive clothes and jewellery, Roberts quickly rose through the ranks as a pirate under the Welsh captain Howell Davies and soon captured his own vessel in 1721, which he renamed Royal Fortune. This ship was close to being impregnable, so well-armed and protected that only a formidable navy vessel could hope to stand against her.
Roberts was so successful, in part, because he usually commanded a fleet of anywhere from two to four pirate ships which could surround and catch victims. In large numbers this pirate convoy could set its limits high. Black Bart was also ruthless and so his crew and enemies feared him.
His reign of terror finally ended however off the West African coast in February 1722, when he was killed in a sea battle with a British warship. His passing, and the mass trial and hanging of his crew that followed, marked the real end of the ‘Golden Age’.