Famous Historical Pirates (And Privateers)

250px-Flag_of_Edward_EnglandAhoy Mateys! Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day. What sort of piratical activities be ye getting up to this fine morning? To assist you in getting into a properly piratey frame of mind, here be some stories o’ some great and mighty pirates who’ve sailed the seven seas! Let them be an inspiration to ye as ye walk, talk, and dress like a pirate on this grrreat day!

Historical note

The difference between privateers and pirates is very small and easily confused, but it is also very important. The difference amounts to this—pirates were independent vessels that often operated as a democratic government with their own charter and even shares of the booty. Privateers were independent ships authorized by their government to attack enemy vessels. Some pirates could agree to be privateers in wartime, but more often privateers were part of the navy who changed their colors when engaging in piratical activities. Privateers were used commonly on both sides during the period from 1584 to 1604 known as the Anglo-Spanish War.


General_History_of_the_Pyrates_-_Blackbeard_the_Pirate_(1725)Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard,) was a notorious English pirate who operated around the West Indies and the eastern coast of the American colonies. Although little is known about his early life, he was probably born in Bristol, England in or around 1680. His ship was called the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was a refitted French merchant vessel and carried 40 guns. His pirate name derived from his thick black beard and fearsome appearance; he was reported to have tied lit fuses under his hat to frighten his enemies. A shrewd and calculating leader, Teach spurned the use of force, relying instead on his fearsome image to elicit the response he desired from those he robbed. Contrary to the modern-day picture of the traditional tyrannical pirate, he commanded his vessels with the permission of their crews and there is no known account of his ever having harmed or murdered those he held captive. He was romanticised after his death and became the inspiration for pirate-themed works of fiction across a range of genres.

Grace O’Malley

Grace2Often known as the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley (known in Gaelic as Granuile) was a cheiftan of the Irish clan. She was a contemporary of Elizabeth I at a time when England was trying to consolidate her hold over Ireland. O’Malley’s trading and shipping business was often regarded as an act of piracy by the English who thought that they should be paying taxes instead. Grace O’Mally captained her own ships and was an accomplished sailor. She gave birth to her second son at sea. When she finally met Queen Elizabeth she insisted on being treated as a fellow queen. Her life and exploits have been the subject of many songs, stories, poems and plays and given rise to a number of legends over the years.

Captain Kidd

Hanging_of_William_KiddCaptain William Kidd was a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians deem his piratical reputation unjust, as there is evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer. Kidd’s fame springs largely from the sensational circumstances of his questioning before the English Parliament and the ensuing. His actual depredations on the high seas, whether piratical or not, were both less destructive and less lucrative than those of many other contemporary pirates and privateers. He buried three treasure chests on Gardiner Island in 1699. After his trial it was dug up and handed over to the government. The booty included gold dust, bars of silver, Spanish dollars, rubies, diamonds, candlesticks, and porringers (small silver bowls.)

Lady Mary Killigrew

1652-mrs-killigrew-by-wence-3Mary was the daughter of a former Suffolk pirate. Mary’s husband Sir Henry Killigrew, a former pirate himself, was made a Vice-Admiral by Queen Elizabeth I and tasked with suppressing piracy. Whenever her husband went to sea Mary engaged in piracy using the staff of her castle as crew and possibly with the Queen’s knowledge. After her capture and subsequent pardon in 1570 she gave up pirating and took up fencing stolen goods until she died several years later.

Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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