The most notorious pirates stole ships, gold and other treasures.
History is filled with notorious pirates that terrorized the seven seas. The exploits of these ship plunderers remain famous to this day, but they were very different from the friendly pirates seen in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise and other films.
Many of history’s most famous pirates began as privateers — state-sanctioned sailors for hire who attacked their countries’ enemies at sea and harassed commercial ships in designated zones. But those being plundered saw those guns for hire as pirates. Others who started out in state-sanctioned work became pirates when the lure of gold was too great, and they struck out under their own flag to illegally raid rich merchant vessels.
Some pirates were so successful that they became feared by sailors around the world. Here are eight of the most notorious pirates in history.
Blackbeard is probably the best-known pirate in history, even though his life is shrouded in mystery. Much of what we know about him and other pirates of his time comes from a 1724 book, published under the name Capt. Charles Johnson, called “A General History of the Pyrates”. Charles Johnson is a pseudonym, not the author’s real name, and the book is often attributed to author Daniel Defoe, who wrote famous novels such as “Robinson Crusoe.” However, nobody is sure who wrote it, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Some of the book is backed up by government documents of the time while scholars have proven other parts to be false, so it isn’t an entirely reliable source.
The book says Blackbeard was born in Bristol, England, under the name Edward Thatch, and served as a privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701 to 1714). In 1716, he turned to pirating in the Caribbean Sea and off the coasts of South Carolina and Virginia in his ship, named “Queen Anne’s Revenge.” He earned a fearsome reputation in these regions, which, according to historian and journalist Colin Woodard, Blackbeard used to his advantage. “He did his best to cultivate a terrifying image and reputation, which encouraged his foes to surrender without a fight,” Woodard previously told All About History magazine.
Thatch’s huge beard “came up to his eyes,” and while in action, he carried “three brace of pistols, hanging in holsters like Bandoliers; and stuck lighted matches under his hat,” in order to cloud himself in an ominous haze of smoke, according to the 1724 account. Blackbeard was killed in November 1718 after his ship was ambushed by Royal Navy officers near Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, according to the National Park Service.
One of the most successful pirates in history was a woman named Ching Shih, sometimes called Cheng I Sao or Zheng Yi Sao. Born into poverty as Shih Yang in Guangzhou, China, in the late 18th century, Shih was a sex worker until she married a pirate named Ching I in 1801 and took the name Ching Shih, which meant “the wife of Ching,” according to a case study by the University of Oxford’s Global History of Capitalism project.
The pair began consolidating control of the region’s rival pirate gangs into a confederation, according to a 1981 article in the journal Historical Reflections by Dian Murray. Ching died in 1807 and widow Shih seized sole control of the pirate confederation. According to Murray, Shih secured control of the pirates through careful alliances and a strict code of laws. “The code was severe. Anyone caught giving commands on his own or disobeying those of a superior was immediately decapitated,” Murray wrote.
At the height of her power, Shih, also called the “Pirate Queen,” controlled a fleet of 1,200 ships crewed by about 70,000 pirates. Shih broke up the confederation in 1810 and negotiated a generous surrender deal with the Chinese government. Not only were the pirates pardoned for their crimes, but some were allowed to keep their vessels and joined the Chinese army. Some even took positions in the government, according to Murray.
Sir Francis Drake was a noble to some and an outlaw pirate to others. Born in Devon, England, around 1540, Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe as a sailor, according to the BBC. But this feat was not a planned exploration but rather a byproduct of his goal to raid Spanish ships.
The robbing of Spanish ships was legitimate from an English perspective, but to the Spanish, Drake was a menacing pirate they nicknamed “El Draque,” according to an article on the University of Plymouth website by Elaine Murphy, an associate professor of maritime and naval history at the university in England. Drake brought back plenty of treasure from his circumnavigation and shared his riches with Queen Elizabeth I, by whom he was knighted. He was also a leading naval commander who fought against the Spanish Armada, a fleet of Spanish ships that attempted to overthrow the queen in 1588.
Drake’s legacy is further muddied by his involvement in slavery. He helped start the English slave trade in Africa by making multiple trips to Guinea and Sierra Leone with his cousin and naval commander Sir John Hawkins and enslaved up to 1,400 African people, according to Murphy. Drake died of dysentery off the coast of Panama in 1596.