The pop culture movie references and depictions of pirates may have led us to think of their lifestyle as stylish and lavish (and brimming with a whole lot of pirate talk), but the life of a real pirate used to be full of vivid violence and risks. Not so long ago, when a major portion of trade between nations was carried out through the route of seas, the saline waters thrived with pirates who pounced on every opportunity to rob a shipping vessel that was not their own. Though the emergence of sea pirates dates far back to the time when the first of the trading routes between nations were established, it was the so called golden period of piracy – a period between 15th and 17th century that saw the age of pirates at its prime. During this period, many pirates came and made a name for themselves in the history – for their bravery, persistence and more often than not, cruelty. Here is a list of top 10 famous pirates of all time.
10. Edward Low (Late 1600s – 1723/24 AD)
- 10. Edward Low (Late 1600s – 1723/24 AD)
- 9. Blackbeard (1680 – 1718 AD)
- 8. Francois l’Olonnais (1630 – 1669 AD)
- 7. Anne Bonny (March 8, 1698 – April 22, 1782)
- 6. Heyriddin Barbossa (Died – July 4, 1546)
- 5. Bartholomew Roberts (1682 – 1722 AD)
- 4. Koxinga (1624 – 1662 AD)
- 3. William Dampier (1651 – 1715 AD)
- 2. Ching Shih (1775 – 1844 AD)
- 1. Cheung Po Tsai (1783 – 1822 AD)
Born in Westminster, England in an era known as the golden age of piracy, Edward Low spent the early days of his life in pick-pocketing and thievery. He was combative in nature and never hesitated to cheat his way out of tricky situations. As he grew older, these petty crimes turned into repeated burglaries. He traveled for 3 to 4 years before settling in Boston, and from there went on to mark his infamous name in history.
He started by leading a small pirate gang and then captured his first sailboat together with his newfound crew. As a pirate, he enjoyed quite a success – one of his early notable raids being the successful attack on thirteen fishing vessels from New England. He made a name for himself in the Caribbean and became famous for his aggression. His brutality on his victims was quickly crossing all known bounds of sanity. He captured over one hundred ships and sunk most of them to the bottom of the sea in the process. He was operational for only a few years, but it was enough to establish him as an efficient and ruthless pirate.
9. Blackbeard (1680 – 1718 AD)
There may have been numerous pirates in the history, but only a few could surpass Blackbeard when it came to pulling off the pirate attire and ferocity. Born British by the name of Edward Teach, before 1690, Blackbeard served as a young seaman in the British privateer based in Jamaica. Since his privateer was commissioned to ravage French and Spanish vessels in the Caribbean, he became a skilled and experience robber. When he stole yet another ship, he decided to become a captain himself and reinforced the ship with cannons. Time and again, he proved his competence by leading successful raids.
He had an impressively long beard with the end tied in a knot of black ribbons. He also stuffed a burning rope under his hat for extra effects which paid off pretty good – he looked unnervingly intimidating and ferocious for any pirate of his time. The story of his final showdown against the fleet of his ultimate nemesis Lieutenant Robert Maynard is the stuff of legends. Even though Maryland’s bullet landed on the spot, Blackbeard was about to take a final swing of his sword when a navy seaman came up from behind and slashed his throat.
8. Francois l’Olonnais (1630 – 1669 AD)
One of the most feared pirates, Francois l’Olonnais was notorious for the ruthless and barbaric treatment of his victims and enemies. He had this irrevocable grudge against the Spanish, and he went on to spend a better part of his life rampaging through Spanish ships and towns. He never intended to inflict his revenge by remaining in the shadows. So when he captured a rather unfortunate Spanish ship, he beheaded every crew member except one whom he sent back to deliver his message of imminent redemption. In fact, his early career as a pirate is fairly notable for the ferocious punishment he would inflict upon his prisoners – earning him a cruel reputation that stands out to this day.
His reputation was also built on the massive pirate fleet of eight ships and hundreds of men he owned – and the coast of South America had to bear the brunt of his might. And did we mention he also happened to be bat shit crazy? One time when he was cornered by a significantly superior Spanish force, he managed to escape by capturing a few Spanish crews. Convinced that they won’t tell him a safe passage out of the area, he sliced his sword inside a prisoner’s chest, took his heart out and began to bite through it like a hungry carnivore. This obviously scared the living daylights out of remaining crew he held and they gleefully told him his way out.
7. Anne Bonny (March 8, 1698 – April 22, 1782)
Anne Bonny was a strong, independent woman and exhibited an impressive feminine adventure that, one might say, was way too ahead of her time. For a pirate, she had a fairly ordinary childhood – she only stabbed some maid over a heated argument when she was 14 and then beat the crap out of a drunken moron who tried to rape her a year later. She ran away with a small-time pirate named James Bonny at a young age of seventeen. But soon, she was swinging around with anyone she found daring enough – eventually joining the crew of pirate Captain “Calico Jack” Rackham.
She would dress like a man, drink profusely and fight with anyone who was mental enough to challenge her. Over time, she became proficient in pirate lifestyle – fighting and looting under Rackham’s command and developed a very close bonding with fellow female pirate Mary Read (another female pirate whose name was also linked in pirating history). When the British navy attacked Rackham’s pirate crew, only Anne and Mary were able to hold their ground and fight back for everyone else was too drunk to stage a battle. Everyone was sentenced to death except for the two of them since they claimed to be pregnant at that time.
6. Heyriddin Barbossa (Died – July 4, 1546)
In the famous climatic battle of Preveza in 1538, on one side stood the titanic might of the combined forces of Venice, the Vatican, Genoa, Spain, Portugal and Malta led by the great Italian admiral (who also enjoyed being bare-chested all the time) Andrea Doria. On the other end was Heyriddin Barbossa who owned the title of Kheir-ed-Din – The Defender of the Faith. In the face of imminent obliteration at the hands of Italian alliance, he was calm and calculated and bore a frown on his face – not because all hopes were gone, but because he was rather unimpressed of the adversary that he was about to face. Here is why. In his early years, when he led an honest life of a merchant, he was forced to leave his country courtesy of some bad politics.
Soon he became a pirate and stationed his base in the area around present-day Tunisia. But, his enemies took over his base and kicked him off his own hideout again. By this time, Barbossa has had enough and formed a new country named “Regency of Algiers” for himself by pledging alliance to the Ottoman empire (and getting a huge load of ships and ammunition in return). He gained such intimidating power that when the Italian alliance came knocking down the Ottoman Empire’s doors, he was immediately summoned for defense. Needless to say, Admiral Andrea faced the most humiliating defeat of his life as the Italian alliance was brought to knees. Heyriddin remained unimpressed all the while.
5. Bartholomew Roberts (1682 – 1722 AD)
Back in the golden age of piracy, sailing in the navy or on a merchant’s vessel as a seaman was not the most lucrative of career options. The pay was never enough, there wasn’t much respect and fun in doing the job, and pissing off your senior officers almost guaranteed being turned into a dead meat. Bartholomew Roberts aka Black Bart was stuck in one of these hell-holes.
When he was invited to join the crew on a pirate ship (along with a threat of deadly consequence if he declined the offer), even though tad reluctant, he said yes. But soon, with his quick thinking, cunning, and exceptional navigation skills, he proved his worth by masterminding a number of daring loots. So when the captain was killed, he was elected the new leader of the crew, for everyone agreed he would be a better commander than a common man in the ship. What he accomplished as a competent pirate captain was far beyond their wildest dreams. How big of a name did be made for himself, one might ask – he is said to be one of the most successful pirates of all time having plundered around 400 ships throughout his stint as a pirate.
4. Koxinga (1624 – 1662 AD)
Born sometime in 1624, Koxinga’s mother was Japanese and his father was one of most notorious pirates from Southern China. Again, much like many pirates in this list, Koxinga’s early life is more shrouded with legends than facts – one of the more popular legends claiming that he trained as a samurai under a highly-respected Samurai master when he was only six years old. Little did anyone know he would go on to become probably the only pirate to be worshiped as a living god by his followers.
Life took a colossal turnaround for Koxinga when the Ming dynasty fell in 1644. Being a loyalist, he kept on resisting Manchu invasion. So when he was forced off the mainland China in 1661, Koxinga took 25,000 of his people across the 100-mile strait of Taiwan – at that time a near inhabitable place under the Dutch control. He then used his might to overpower the Dutch stations besieging their garrisons for almost a year – compelling them into surrendering. Having successfully shifted an entire population and settled everyone in a surprisingly harsh and isolated location, he declared himself the pirate king of Taiwan and created the first Chinese-controlled government of Taiwan in the process.
3. William Dampier (1651 – 1715 AD)
William Dampier was a man of many facets. He was a keen observer of nature. He also was the first person to circumnavigate the world three times. In fact, many would find it fitting to call him a pioneer in scientific exploration. But again, there were moments when he would get bored off all these heavy duty explorations. He would then plunder Spanish ships and settlements into bits and pieces to let off some steam. He was a pirate who had the brains, and the brawn – two of qualities he put to good use in his pirating career. In fact, he is as much known for his explorations as he is known for his frequent stints as a brawny pirate who terrorized the Spanish settlements around Peru, Galapagos Islands, and Mexico.
He may have described countless flora and fauna he came across during his explorations, he may also have had a massive influence on the likes of Charles Darwin and many more, but he is best known for pulling off probably the most audacious voyage of his time. It was right around the end of his first trip around the world when he decided he wasn’t done yet. So he voluntarily marooned himself off the coast of Thailand and told his crew to bug off. Three years later he showed up in England in a native canoe, accompanied by a tattooed slave prince.
2. Ching Shih (1775 – 1844 AD)
One of the most feared pirate leaders to have ever sailed across the coasts of imperial China, Ching Shih led probably the most revered pirate fleet in the history that went by the name of ‘Red Flag Fleet’. This fleet of pirates maintained such flamboyant financial and military success across China that previous pirate crews had not even dreamt of. Much of the information on Ching Shih is bridled with legends made about her. Even her name literally translates into ‘Widow of Ching’, Ching being her late husband and the former commander of the ‘Red Flag Fleet’.
When she took over the control of the fleet, legends has it that she summoned all the crew and said, “Under the leadership of a man you may have all chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourselves under the hand of a woman”. Soon, the Imperial government decided to put all their might to bring an end to this. They laid a trap by blockading on the bay of southern waters and gun fires were blazed for three whole weeks. But at the end, they were no match for the ruthlessness and will of Ching Shih and her fleet – the Red Fleet strolled through the wreckage of government ships. Ching Shih went on to lead a wealthy and respected life, dying at the age of 69.
Born to a modest fisherman family, Cheung Po Tsai was kidnapped by a pirate at a young age of 15. But soon, Cheung found himself making the most out of his newfound pirate life and quickly rose in ranks with the help of his charisma and cunning. It was fate that he was noticed by the commander of his pirate fleet – Ching. Ching and his wife, the legendary Ching Shih, later adopted him and he became the captain of the infamous Red Flag Fleet when Ching Shih took over the commandership. Eventually, he became the commander and went on to become a legendary pirate with an unparalleled fleet of 600 ships and more than 50,000 men under his command.
He ruled over his fleet with discipline, shared the loot with all the members and forbid his fellow pirates from ever injuring or killing women during raids. The experience of leading such a huge force came to good use when he was given the position of an officer in the Chinese Navy after the fall of once massive ‘Red Flag Fleet”. He had such an impact on the subsequent generations of pirates and pop culture that the character of Sao Feng – one of the main villains in the popular pirate movie series ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was based on him.
These are some of the best-known pirates in the history of piracy. Of course, a list of only 10 famous pirates of all time might not do justice to those who could not make it on the list. Pirates like Turgut Reis, Sir Francis Drake, Henry Every and Black Caesar among others deserve an honorary mention. Clearly, being a pirate wasn’t the best of occupation for it required constant vigilance and the Pirates never had best of the life expectancy. But those who were brave and bold enough to take on the mettle of a true pirate and indulge into a criminal lifestyle (of course, robbery was always a crime), made the most out of it and ensured their names went down in history.