Pirates have been a part of human history for centuries. These seafaring outlaws have captured the imagination of people around the world, appearing in books, movies, and television shows.

However, piracy is not just a fictional concept; it was a real phenomenon that existed for hundreds of years, with pirates operating on every major sea and ocean.

Who Were Pirates?

Pirates were essentially seafaring criminals who operated outside of the law. They typically attacked ships in order to steal their cargo, taking whatever they could get their hands on, from gold and silver to spices and textiles. Most pirates, as we will see, were former sailors of the Royal Navy.

Some pirates were motivated by political or religious beliefs, while others were simply in it for the money. However, piracy was not always a choice; many sailors were forced into piracy after being kidnapped by pirates and given the choice of joining the crew or being killed.

A Mainly English Pursuit

Throughout history, there have been countless pirates who have captured the imagination of people around the globe. Some of the most famous pirates include:

Blackbeard (Edward Teach)

Blackbeard was a notorious pirate who operated in the Caribbean in the early 18th century. He was known for his fearsome appearance, which included a long black beard and a collection of pistols and cutlasses.

A romanticised cigarette card showing Blackbeard (Edward Teach) and his crew handing out pirate discipline.

Blackbeard was notorious for his cruelty and was said to have tied his victims to the mast of his ship and forced them to watch as he tortured and killed their fellow crewmembers.

William Kidd (Captain Kidd)

Kidd was originally commissioned by the British government to hunt down pirates, but he soon turned to piracy himself. He sailed the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, attacking French and British ships. In 1699, Kidd was captured and brought back to England, where he was tried and executed for piracy.

Anne Bonny

Bonny was one of the few female pirates in history and operated in the Caribbean in the early 18th century. She was known for her fierce temper and was said to have dressed as a man in order to blend in with the crew. Bonny was eventually captured and sentenced to hang, but her sentence was commuted and she disappeared from history.

Henry Morgan

Morgan was a Welsh pirate who operated in the Caribbean in the late 17th century. He was commissioned by the British government to attack Spanish ships and cities, and he became famous for his raids on Panama City and Portobello. Morgan eventually retired from piracy and was appointed governor of Jamaica.

Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart)

Roberts was another Welsh pirate who operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean in the early 18th century.

Bartholomew Roberts was a pirate amongst pirates and was credited with the most captures.

He was known for his cunning and his ability to evade capture, and he captured over 400 ships during his career as a pirate. Roberts was eventually killed in battle with a British naval vessel.

Francis Drake

Drake was an English pirate who operated in the Caribbean in the late 16th century.

He was commissioned by the English government to attack Spanish ships and settlements, and he became famous for his raids on the Spanish Main. Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for his services to England.

Calico Jack (John Rackham)

Rackham was an English pirate who operated in the Caribbean in the early 18th century. He was known for his flamboyant clothing, which included a colourful jacket made of calico fabric. Rackham was eventually captured and hanged, along with his crew, in Jamaica.

Edward Low

Low was an English pirate who operated in the Atlantic and the Caribbean in the early 18th century. He was known for his brutality and was said to have murdered and tortured his victims. Low was eventually captured and hanged in Boston.

The Pirate Code of Conduct

Pirates had their own customs and traditions, which varied depending on the crew and the captain. One of the most famous pirate customs was the Jolly Roger flag, which was raised to signal that a ship was being attacked by pirates. The Jolly Roger was typically a black flag with a white skull and crossbones, although there were many variations.

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Some pirates would also fly a red flag, known as the “bloody flag,” which signalled that no quarter would be given to the crew of the ship being attacked.

The hanging of Captain Kidd. Capture was not an option for these men.

Pirates also had their own codes of conduct, which were designed to maintain order and discipline on board their ships. These codes typically included rules about dividing plunder, punishing crewmembers who broke the rules, and dealing with prisoners.

Some pirate crews were more democratic, with the captain being elected by the crew and decisions being made collectively.

Pirate Ships

Pirate ships were often modified to suit the needs of their crews. They were typically faster and more manoeuvrable than other ships, with shallow drafts that allowed them to navigate shallow waters. Many pirate ships were armed with cannons and other weapons, and some were equipped with specialised weapons, such as grappling hooks and boarding axes, that allowed pirates to board and capture other ships.

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Pirate ships were crucial to the success of pirates and their infamous raids on merchant ships. Pirates had to be skilled navigators, sailors and fighters, but their ships were also essential to their ability to outrun, out manoeuvre and board their targets. Here are some of the most famous pirate ships in history:

Queen Anne’s Revenge

This was the flagship of the infamous pirate Blackbeard, and it was named after Queen Anne, the reigning monarch of England at the time.

A remarkable model of Blackbeard’s ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Blackbeard captured the ship in 1717 and outfitted it with 40 guns and a crew of over 300 men. Queen Anne’s Revenge was used in several successful raids before it was grounded off the coast of North Carolina in 1718.

Whydah Gally

This was the flagship of the pirate Samuel Bellamy, and it was one of the most successful pirate ships of the early 18th century. Bellamy captured the ship in 1717 and outfitted it with 28 guns and a crew of over 150 men. Whydah Gally was used in several successful raids before it sank off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717.

Revenge

This was the flagship of the English pirate Bartholomew Roberts, and it was one of the most successful pirate ships of the early 18th century. Roberts captured the ship in 1719 and outfitted it with 40 guns and a crew of over 250 men. Revenge was used in several successful raids before it was sunk by a British naval vessel in 1722.

The Black Pearl

This was the flagship of the fictional pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. The Black Pearl was known for its speed and agility, and it was said to be able to outrun any ship in the Caribbean. The ship’s name was actually inspired by a real-life pirate ship called the Black Prince, which was captained by Sir Henry Morgan in the late 17th century.

Adventure Galley

This was the flagship of the English pirate William Kidd. It was originally commissioned by the British government to hunt down pirates. However, Kidd soon turned to piracy himself and used the ship to attack French and British ships in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. Adventure Galley was captured by the British navy in 1699 and Kidd was subsequently executed for piracy.

The Golden Hind

A replica of Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind in London.

This was the flagship of the English pirate Francis Drake, and it was named after the female red deer that he encountered on the coast of Patagonia. Drake used the ship to circumnavigate the globe in the late 16th century, and it was instrumental in his successful raids on the Spanish Main.

The Royal Fortune

This was the flagship of the Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts, and it was said to be one of the fastest and most heavily armed pirate ships of the early 18th century. The ship was outfitted with 52 guns!

The Beginning of the End

The golden age of piracy, which spanned from the late 17th century to the early 18th century, came to an end in the mid-1720s. Several factors contributed to the decline of piracy during this period.

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One factor was increased naval presence in pirate-infested waters. The Royal Navy and other navies around the world began to take piracy more seriously and dedicated more resources to combating it.

Another factor was the decline of the pirate havens in the Caribbean. Many of these havens were located on islands that were claimed by European powers, and these powers began to crack down on piracy in their territories. As a result, pirates had fewer places to hide.

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Additionally, changes in international trade and commerce made piracy less profitable. As European powers established more formal trade relationships with each other and their colonies, there were fewer opportunities for pirates to capture valuable cargoes.

“Haunts of the ‘Brethren of the Coast’. Ultimately it wasn’t treasure to be found here for pirates. It was death.

Finally, increased international cooperation among nations also played a role in ending piracy. The Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, included provisions that required signatories to cooperate in suppressing piracy. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, also included provisions related to piracy.

While piracy did not completely disappear, it became much less prevalent after the mid-18th century. The last known pirate raid in the Caribbean took place in 1824, and piracy was largely stamped out in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans by the early 19th century. However, piracy has not been completely eradicated and continues to be a problem in some parts of the world today.