The critically and commercially acclaimed swashbuckling pirate adventure series Black Sails, which premiered on HISTORY (DStv channel 186) on August 18 and airs every Tuesday at 21.20 has raised the interest in all things pirate in South Africa! The show has certainly captured the imaginations of HISTORY viewers and the series is proving to be very popular.
While Black Sails is set in the early 18th century – “The Golden Age of Piracy” – piracy wasn’t confined to any single place and time and has been around since man first went to sea. Indeed, as we know – it’s still with us today as witnessed by events off the coast of Somalia on a regular basis.
Here, pirate expert Angus Konstam reveals the ten most notorious pirates in history. Some were highly successful – others less so – but all have left their piratical mark.
10. William Kidd. Although born in Dundee, he first rose to prominence in New York, where he became a respected privateer captain. In 1695, a group of aristocratic backers in London gave him a ship, and Kidd sailed off to hunt pirates in the Indian Ocean. He only captured one prize – an Indian merchant ship whose captain carried French papers. This was a legitimate prize of war, but when Kidd returned to New York he was accused of piracy, tried and executed in London in 1701, after his secret backers abandoned him.
9. Henry Jennings. A Jamaica-based former privateer who seized one of the richest prizes in the Americas. In 1715, a Spanish Treasure Fleet was overtaken by a hurricane and wrecked on the eastern coast of Florida. Jennings and his men drove off the Spanish guards and plundered the wrecked ships, making off with a fortune in Spanish silver. As a pirate, he couldn’t return to Jamaica, so he established himself in Nassau, which he used as a base for further raids on the Spanish wrecks. He was eventually pardoned, and got to keep his ill-gotten gains.
8. Francois L’Olonnais. This buccaneer was known as “the Flail of the Spaniards” because of his brutal treatment of Spanish prisoners. He ranged the Spanish Main in the 1660s, attacking Spanish ships and towns, torturing and killing all the Spaniards he captured.
He reputedly ripped the heart out of one unfortunate and then gnawed at it. In 1668, this psychopathic pirate was attacked and killed by cannibals after being shipwrecked on the coast of Nicaragua. He was probably eaten; a fitting end for such a vicious cutthroat.
7. Henry Every. A seaman who led a mutiny in 1694, and was elected captain by his fellow mutineers. They turned to piracy and hunted the Indian Ocean, capturing several prizes before heading into the Red Sea where they came across two treasure ships belonging to India’s Great Moghul. On capturing them, everyone discovered they were filled with gold, silver and jewels. This haul – the richest pirate plunder of all time – was divided among the crew. Every retired to England where he disappeared, taking his share of the treasure with him.
6. Ching Yih. Born into a Vietnamese pirate family, Ching Yih inherited the family business in 1801 and moved his pirate operation to China, where he built a huge pirate confederation, with a force of 600 ships. He and his pirates extorted money from Chinese merchants and even from the Chinese Imperial government. He died in 1807 – washed overboard in a storm.
5. Koxinga inherited his father’s trading fleet in the late 1630s, but he made his name as a soldier, fighting to preserve the Chinese Ming dynasty. When the Manchu invaders conquered the Chinese mainland, he withdrew to Taiwan and used the island as a base for pirate attacks on Manchu towns and ships. By 1650, his pirate fleets controlled most of the Chinese coastline. Koxinga remained a thorn in the side of the Manchu dynasty until his death in 1662.
4. Sir Francis Drake. It seems strange to see a so-called hero like Drake on this list, but while he was a hero in the UK, the Spanish saw him in a very different light. He led his first raid on the “Spanish Main” – the Spanish-owned Caribbean – in 1570, and returned there several times during his long career. In 1579, off the coast of Peru, he captured a Spanish galleon, which produced one of the richest hauls of treasure ever seized by a pirate. When he returned to England with his plunder, the Spanish demanded his head, but instead, Queen Elizabeth knighted him, calling him “my pirate”.
3. Sir Henry Morgan. Began his buccaneering career in 1664, using Port Royal in Jamaica as his base. He led several major raids against Spanish settlements, the greatest of which was his capture and plunder of the Spanish city of Panama in 1671. His buccaneering raids won him a fortune, and he eventually settled down to become a Jamaican plantation owner and the island’s Deputy Governor.
2. Bartholomew Roberts. The most successful pirate of the “Golden Age”. In a 30-month period from 1719 and 1722, he captured as many as 400 ships off the American and African coasts, and amassed a fortune in plunder. The Welsh pirate was tall, handsome, debonair and probably bisexual. He was also ruthless and highly skilled – a master of his criminal profession. “Black Bart” was finally cornered by the Royal Navy in February 1722, and was killed in a sea battle.
1. Blackbeard. Edward Teach – better known as “Blackbeard” – was probably the most notorious pirate of the “Golden Age”. He was certainly the most recognisable, as he cultivated a frightening appearance, with his long black beard, and pieces of burning slow match tucked under the brim of his hat. The Bristol-born pirate’s most dramatic feat was his blockade of Charleston in 1718. He was eventually cornered and defeated by the Royal Navy off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Today he is arguably the best-remembered pirate in history – an iconic figure from a turbulent age.