Pirates! They weren’t all Johnny Depp-swaying, dainty and witty denizens of the sea. Though they’ve been with us from the ancient world to the present wave of Somalian ship hijackings, most pirates were a 17th-century phenomenon whose short careers ended bloodily, leaving behind rumors of their fearsome beards as much as of their actual material gains. Here’s a list of the fifteen bloodiest, unluckiest or simply most fashionably dressed.
The Barbarossa Brothers (1474-1546)
Born Oruc Reis in 1474, the elder Barbarossa began working in the legitimate sailing business with his brothers. He quickly graduated to privateering and worked his way up the influence scale, eventually offering his services to the Ottoman Empire. On their behalf, he proceeded to systematically embarrass every European naval attempt to stop him from raiding their ships while establishing Turkish control of the Mediterranean (laying the steps for their later domination). After his death in 1518, his younger brother acquired his older brother’s nickname, Baba Oruc (Father Aruj). It sounded like “Barbarossa” to the Europeans, and as luck would have it Barbarossa did actually have a red beard, so the tag stuck as he continued his brother’s successful serial dressing-down of European ships. He later retired into private life to dictate five volumes of memoirs; years later, he’d get perhaps his most suitable namecheck from another red-headed stranger when Willie Nelson played an outlaw with his nickname in 1982’s Barbarosa.
John Ward (1553-1622)
The profane, unapologetically bloodthirsty John Ward quickly became the best-known English pirate of the 17th-century. Unhappy with Navy life, Ward jacked his first ship, used it to capture a larger French vessel, then sailed to Tunis. Hailed in ballads and poems, Ward settled down and lived semi-peacefully, pirating in season and living in cheerful sin the rest of the year until he died of the plague. The English were scandalized, especially after Ward converted to Islam; rumors spread that Jews offered their sons for his sexual pleasure. Meanwhile, Ward became an antihero, whose biographers stuck ever more outrageous taunts in his mouth: “Go, go tell the king of England, go tell him this from me,” one song went, “If he reign king of all the land, I will reign at sea.”
Henry Morgan (1635-1688)
Never technically a pirate, Morgan acted at the pleasure of the British government, terrorizing Spain for years. He plundered Panama, then returned to an England that had made its peace with Spain and arrested. Later made deputy governor of Jamaica, he spent the latter days of his career hanging his former pirate-mates to bring the peace. Nowadays, though, he’s best remembered as the inspiration for Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood, and the gaudiest-looking bottle of rum you can get pretty much anywhere.
William Kidd (1645-1701)
As a boy growing up in Scotland, Captain Kidd wanted to be a pirate-hunter and made his way to New York accordingly. But when he turned to privateering on behalf of the British government, the money stopped coming in. As his crew grew more and more disgruntled, Kidd had to execute a gunner to stave off mutiny. To keep his voyage together, Kidd committed his only act of piracy by stealing an enormous boat from the British East India Company. Returning to New York, he was promptly arrested. Sentenced to death in England, he had to be hung twice (the rope broke the first time). Rumors of his buried treasure have fueled Treasure Island and endless pirate cliches ever since.
Henry Every (1653-1696)
Aside from having some excellent aliases (“Long Ben” first and foremost), Every was best known for getting his big score, then retiring into oblivion without getting caught or hung. In 1695, Every raided one of India’s ships. After raping the women and torturing the crew to pry out the location of their hidden goods, Every was left with 600,000 pounds worth of silver and jewelry, making him the richest pirate in the world. His crew got 1,000 pounds apiece — the equivalent of 80 years of honest seamanship. A decidedly unamused Privy Council and East India Company responded with the first global manhunt in recorded history, followed quickly by the first failed global manhunt in recorded history. Every smartly disappeared from the record, leaving behind hilariously improbable rumors he’d founded a new monarchy; in reality, there’s a good chance he died a poor sailor on London’s streets.
Thomas Tew (?-1690)
The things Tew probably didn’t do are more interesting than much of what’s verifiable. A standard privateer-turned-pirate, Tew was hunted down and disemboweled. He held his stomach together until dropping it, a gory end that led his crew to surrender immediately. Tew was allegedly involved in the founding of Libertatia, a communal pirate state in Madagascar that may or may not have existed. Tew also may or may not have fathered one of the country’s future rulers as the result of a liaison with a woman given him as a courtesy. Two fictional kingdoms for the price of one pirate!
Strapped like Machete and bearded like Charles Manson, Blackbeard (one Edward Teach) built his reputation in two bloody years. He captained by consent and spared his prisoners’ lives but understood the value of image: from pigtails to beard, his face was covered, and burning ropes placed under his hat gave off smoke. Covered with knives and guns, his appearance could encourage ships to surrender without a fight. When one passenger wouldn’t give up a ring, he allegedly chopped off his finger. As hard to kill as his image suggested, he died in battle after twenty-plus sword lacerations and five musket wounds. Fittingly, his head was chopped off and hung as a trophy.
Charles Vane (1680-1721)
Noted for his cruelty (disobeying the pirates’ code and torturing and killing the crews of ships he captured), Vane rose from obscurity to a series of mishaps. After staging a retreat, his crew accused him of cowardice and deposed him for someone who could be more consistently bloodthirsty. Cast off with a loyal crew, he started fresh, only to be marooned in the Bay of Honduras, where he lived on fish and bananas. One passing ship refused to pick him up except as as prisoner; the captain said he knew he’d instantly overthrow him. The next passing ship didn’t recognize him at first, but soon he was spotted and hung shortly thereafter.
Black Caesar (?-1718)
The most famous of black pirates, Black Caesar (died 1718) was an African chief lured aboard by a slaver with promises of gold and treasure. When the boat was wrecked by a hurricane, Caesar escaped with his one friend onboard, forcing the captain and crew to stand back while they stole a longboat. Allegedly the only two survivors, they used their shipwrecked appearance to lure ships close, then threatened to blow up the craft unless they were given guns and ammunition. Later, he ran a brothel with over 100 women. Sailing with Blackbeard, he was about to blow the ship up when everyone was captured; instead, he ended up hanging in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722)
Notable as the most successful pirate of his age, Bartholomew (actually John)captured some 400 ships by many estimates. Ruthless in the extreme, “Black Bart” made enough of an impression to have his posthumous nickname later stolen by a Wild West stagecoach robber. Roberts had a thing for torching ships (he once burned 80 slaves and their ship alive because it was faster and more efficient than freeing the men). Killed in battle, his body was tossed overboard at his request; his crew was rounded up and executed in the largest pirate trial in history, ending piracy’s golden age.
Samuel Bellamy (1689-1717)
In a career scarcely lasting a year, Bellamy acquired the nickname “Prince of Pirates” for his fairness to captives; his crew called themselves “Robin Hood’s Band.” For love of 15-year-old Maria Hallett, Bellamy set forth(she gave birth to his child after he left, leading to arrest and exile) and captured over 50 ships. After taking The Whydah Gallery (and its 30,000 pounds of silver), Bellamy and crew promptly sank in the new ship, casualties of a Massachusetts sandbar that left eight survivors from a 146-man crew. The ship was found in 1984, the only confirmed pirate ship to have all that legendary booty still on board.
Howell Davis (1960-1719)
Primarily noted for his nattiness, Davis managed to be exceptionally clever for the space of a year until his luck inevitably ran out. He was the first mate of a slave ship captured in 1718 by pirate Edward England, who offered him the boat. Davis took the offer, planning to sell the vessel in Brazil; his crew steered to the Bahamas instead, where Davis took up piracy. Released three months later, he convinced a group of the anti-piracy governor’s men to take up plundering. Arriving in the Cape Verde Islands, Davis claimed to be a governmentally sanctioned privateer, then proceeded to loot at will. With his penchant for appearing as a well-dressed gentlemen, Davis was able to pull off feats like having dinner with the governor of Gambia, then kidnapping him for ransom. His luck ran out when his attempts to convince the Portuguese governor he was actually a pirate hunter failed; he was shot down promptly.
Edward Low (1690-1724)
Probably the most violent of the Golden Age’s pirates, Low was a straight-up sadist. Working as a ship-rigger, he disliked his master and tried to shoot him; marooned in a rowboat, he and a crew of 12 commandeered another ship and declared “war on the world.” A man tried to dump his valuables overboard: he cut off his lips and fed them back to him, then personally killed the entire crew. He took seven ships from St. John’s, Newfoundland and demanded fresh water and supplies for their return. After the governor complied, he kept one ship anyway and burned the cook because he was a “greasy fellow” who’d burn well. Another time he boarded a ship and killed 53 people aboard, then burned it for good measure. His crew was equally drunk and violent, and eventually they threw him overboard to be hung by the French.
Anne Bonny (1702-1782)
For most people, stabbing someone with a table knife at age 13 would be the violent highlight of their lives. Young Anne, however, was just getting started: after that alleged stabbing and killing, she married pirate James Bonny. He wanted her father’s plantation, but instead her father disowned her. Bored with her blackmailing husband in the Nahamas, she ran off with John “Calico Jack” Reckham. On-board, legend says a feisty Bonny — an undisguised female pirate, pretty much the only kind of her kind (the disguised Mary Read was on the same ship) — stabbed the first person to complain about the woman onboard. In 1720, she and Read fended off pirate-hunters while the men cowered below. Pregnant, they escaped. Calico Jack didn’t, with Read telling him “if you’d have fought like a man you needn’t hang like a dog.” With that parting shot, she disappeared from history.
Pedro Gilbert (1800-1835)
Being last isn’t always safest, as Gilbert found out when he committed the last recorded act of piracy in the Atlantic. He and his crew were fond of setting fire to shorelines to hail passing ships’ assistance, then raiding them. Gilbert’s undoing came when he raided the Mexican; after plundering, he told his men to burn the ship and its crew alive. (More colorfully, he told them “Dead cats don’t mew. You know what to do.” When his boat departed, the crew freed themselves and put out the fire. A manhunt ensued, and a year later Gilbert and his men were found off the African coast, extradited to Boston and hung from the neck until dead.