5 Famous Pirates of the 17th & 18th Centuries

Here are five of the most famous pirates from the 17th and 18th centuries, along with swashbuckling tales of their daring exploits.

Feb 14, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
famous pirates of 17th 18th centuries
The capture of the Pirate Blackbeard by J.L.G. Ferris, 1718, from Bettmann/Getty Images, via Time

 

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, piracy in the Atlantic became an immensely profitable (and illegal) enterprise. The colonization of the Americas drew new markets, new trade, and new conflicts between the colonial powers. Some famous pirates started out as privateers, hired by governments to attack enemy shipping, but when their contracts ran out, they often continued what they were doing, adding their former employers to their new list of targets.

 

Some famous pirates transitioned from legal seafaring into illegal seafaring. Other famous pirates simply jumped on the bandwagon and went straight into being an outlaw everywhere. With the lure of vast wealth and plunder in an area difficult to police, piracy became a massive problem for Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. The “Golden Age of Piracy” made many pirates wealthy, but it was also an incredibly dangerous enterprise. Many pirates had their lives cut unmercifully short, dangling at the end of a rope. Here are 5 of the most (in)famous pirates throughout the Golden Age of Piracy.

 

1. Captain William Kidd

famous pirates captain kidd
A cigarette card of Captain Kidd, from Heritage Images / Getty Images, via ThoughtCo

 

Better known as “Captain Kidd,” this famous Scottish pirate was active just before the peak of the Atlantic pirate phenomenon. Beginning his career as a privateer in the employ of the British to protect their trade routes during the Nine Years War, Captain Kidd’s crew threatened to mutiny several times unless he turned to a life of piracy. Eventually relenting, Captain Kidd started his career as one of the most famous pirates in history.

 

One of his biggest achievements was capturing the Quedagh Merchant, an Indian ship laden with cargo worth 70,000 pounds, making it one of the biggest hauls in pirating history. It also marked Kidd as a high priority for pirate hunters, as the English government had taken a tough line on piracy. When he arrived in the West Indies in 1699, he discovered that the agents of the English were searching for him everywhere he went. He sailed to Boston, where he was given up to the authorities by the governor of New England, who had promised Kidd clemency. After the betrayal, Kidd was sent back to England to stand trial.

 

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Captain Kidd’s treatment was extremely harsh, as the authorities sought to make an example of him. His wife was also imprisoned. During his trial, he was found guilty of not only piracy but also an incident in 1697 where he accidentally killed one of his mutinous crew members by hitting him on the head with a bucket. Surprisingly, it was this incident for which he was sentenced to death.

 

On May 23, 1701, Captain Kidd was hanged twice. The rope snapped the first time and, ignoring shouts from the crowd that it was an act of God and Kidd should walk free, the executioners strung him up again.

 

2. Edward Teach, Blackbeard

famous pirates blackbeard image
Blackbeard, from Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images, via history.com

 

No list of famous pirates would be complete without the mention of Edward Teach, more commonly known today as Blackbeard. Also known by his nickname “Thatch,” Blackbeard was born in Bristol in 1680. It is unclear when he arrived in the Caribbean, but it was probably as a crewman on board an English privateer during the War of Spanish Succession.

 

His career as a pirate began under the captaincy of Benjamin Hornigold, who operated out of Jamaica, plundering ships from all nations unlucky enough to venture into his crosshairs. Under the tutelage of Hornigold, Blackbeard became infamous in his own right as captain of a ship he had captured and renamed “Queen Anne’s Revenge.” While Hornigold accepted an offer of amnesty from the British government, Blackbeard did not. He stayed in the Caribbean to seek his fortune as a pirate.

 

The fearsome reputation of this famous pirate was matched by his image. According to legend, he was a giant of a man well over six feet tall. He carried two swords and six pistols, and when he went into battle, he had long burning fuses stuffed into his beard, hair, and hat.

 

During his short career as a pirate (1716 – 1718), he captured around forty ships, although the exact number is unknown. On November 22, 1718, his reputation finally caught up with him, and his vessel was caught and boarded by Royal Marines under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard. The ensuing fight was vicious, and when Blackbeard finally fell, he had 20 sword lacerations and five musket-ball wounds on his body. The exact details of the battle are unclear, but it is widely believed that a British sailor hacked off Blackbeard’s head as he was about to kill Lieutenant Maynard.

 

3. Anne Bonny

famous pirates anne bonny
Anne Bonny, via pirateshowcancun.com

 

Anne Cormac was born in 1697 as an illegitimate daughter of her father, William Cormac, and a servant. To get away from his wife, William Cormac took his mistress and their daughter to the New World. It was there that Anne grew up on a plantation in Carolina. At the age of 16, she met and married a private named James Bonny, to the disapproval of both families.

 

Her husband was a pirate informer, and they established themselves on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. Anne Bonny thus spent much of her time with pirates and developed an interest in the famous pirate “Calico” Jack Rackham. Disguised as a man, Anne deserted her husband and ran off with Jack Rackham, joining his crew. On board Rackham’s vessel, “Revenge,” Anne Bonny developed feelings for another female pirate, Mary Read, who was also disguised as a man.

 

Along with Mary Read and Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny stole a ship called “William” and recruited a new crew, and for the next few years, continued a life of piracy, operating out of Jamaica. Bonny took part in combat alongside the men and gained a fearsome reputation.

 

In October 1720, Rackham and his crew were boarded by a crew of sailors hired by the governor of Jamaica. Most of Rackham’s crew were too drunk to fight, and they were captured. Mary Read and Anne Bonny “pleaded their bellies,” claiming they were pregnant to avoid being hanged. Read died in prison after giving birth, but there were no subsequent records for Anne Bonny. Her fate remains a mystery. Some sources claim she returned to Carolina and died in 1782. Nevertheless, she cemented her reputation as one of the most famous pirates in history.

 

4. Bartholomew Roberts

black bart birthplace
The birthplace of Black Bart Robert, via lovemoney.com

 

Better known as “Black Bart” Roberts, this famous pirate was a Welshman born in 1682 in Pembrokeshire. By sheer number of ships captured, he was the most successful pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. With a small fleet (usually between two and four ships), Black Bart Roberts captured over 400 vessels, arguably more than all his famous contemporaries combined.

 

Roberts started his career in the merchant navy, where he earned very little and had no chance of promotion. He was the second mate aboard a slave ship when it was captured, and Roberts was pressed into piracy by his captors. His captain was shot dead on the way to meet the governor of Príncipe in the Caribbean, and his crew elected Roberts to replace him. His first act was to exact revenge. After killing a large portion of the inhabitants of Príncipe, Roberts won the admiration of his crew.

 

black bart roberts
Detail from a portrait of Bartholomew Roberts, via the JCB Library

 

Black Bart Roberts’ career spanned much of the Atlantic. He raided ships off the coast of Brazil all the way north to Newfoundland and all the way east to the coast of Africa. This put his activities on the same route as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and his targets were often slave ships. He would capture slave ships and demand gold from their captains for their return. When one captain refused, Roberts burnt the vessel, killing all its crew and “cargo.” He was absolutely merciless.

 

His career came to an end in 1722 when the Royal Navy captured him along with his crew. In the biggest piracy trial ever held, Black Bart Roberts was hanged along with 52 members of his crew.

 

5. Henry Every

famous pirates henry every
Henry Every, from Getty Images, via history.com

 

Henry Every was a famous English pirate who sailed the Atlantic and Indian oceans in the 1690s. Every was the first mate aboard the English warship “Charles II” when the crew grew discontented over unpaid wages and mutinied, electing Henry Every as their new captain.

 

On September 7, 1695, Henry Every led a combined force of pirates in one of the most famous pirate raids in history. He attacked a 25-ship convoy from India making a pilgrimage to Mecca. The loot from the raid was estimated at £600,000, which is about £97 million ($110 million) in 2022. The raid caused significant problems with British and Indian relations, and the first worldwide manhunt in history began.

 

Many of his crew were captured, but Every himself evaded capture, and the rest of his life is a complete mystery. Over the course of just two years, his career in piracy made him one of the most famous pirates in history.

 

calico jack flag
The flag attributed to Calico Jack Rackham, via Shoestring Weekends

 

There were, of course, many more pirates whose notoriety gained them widespread attention, all of which had peculiarities that made them unique. The late 17th and early 18th centuries saw the high seas filled with famous pirates, especially around the Caribbean and in the Atlantic, where they preyed on merchant vessels plying the new trade routes opened up by the colonization of the New World. Pirate careers were short and very bloody, with many famous pirates ending their days dangling at the end of a rope. The Golden Age of Piracy came to an abrupt end with the harsh edicts and vigilant watch of the Royal Navy.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.