Famous Pirates

With the popularity of recent movies, the image of the pirate is deeply ingrained in the imagination, but much of what we believe about pirates is due more to literary and movie invention than historical fact. The reality is much more complicated. Many pirates were brutal scavengers, thieves, and criminals, but some sailed under the flags of certain governments and their attacks on the ships of enemy governments were considered heroic acts. Also, the idea of pirates attacking lone ships at sea wasn’t always the case; some pirates attacked whole cities and laid siege to forts, behaving more like warlords than thieves. Here are some of the most brutal and unusual pirates from history.

Francis l'Olonnais

l’Olonnais was a French pirate who plagued the Caribbean in the 1660s. He first came to the Caribbean as an indentured servant, but after he gained his freedom, he took up buccaneering, which is a term that describes pirates who attack Spanish ships. Most of l’Olonnais’ exploits were directed at Spanish ships. This was in revenge for a brutal attack he suffered early in his career, in which Spanish soldiers slaughtered l’Olonnais’ crew in Mexico. l’Olonnais only survived the attack by hiding amongst the dead. Later, he escaped to Tortuga, a popular refuge for pirates of the day, and sailed with a new crew. This crew took a town hostage, and when a Spanish ship was sent to intervene, l’Olonnais had the entire crew beheaded save one man, who he sent back with the message that, “I shall never henceforward give quarter to any Spaniard whatsoever.“ l’Olonnais went on to lead over 600 men in the sack of Maracaibo, in northwestern Venezuela. When he arrived, he found most of the population in hiding, but l’Olonnais’ men found and tortured many of the inhabitants in order to find their gold and hidden valuables. Over the course of the next few months, the pirates raped, pillaged, and burned much of Meracaibo before moving south to Gibraltar, where the outnumbered pirates slaughtered 500 soldiers to take the city and held it for ransom. Even after receiving a substantial ransom, l’Olonnais continued to ransack the city, effectively destroying it. Because of the infamy he gained from this, pirates flocked to join l’Olonnais’ crew. He next attempted an attack on the Central American mainland. He found some success, but was eventually overwhelmed by superior forces. l’Olonnais escaped to Panama, where he was captured by the Kuna tribe and eaten.

Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte was a French pirate and smuggler who operated out of the Gulf of Mexico in the 19th Century. He was a privateer, which means he was sanctioned by a government to attack enemy vessels during wartime, along with his brother, Pierre. The Lafitte brother were quite involved in political intrigue during their time. In the early 1800s, the Lafitte’s operated a warehouse in New Orleans, though which they smuggled goods, until the Embargo Act of 1807 was passed, which barred American ships from docking at foreign ports, prompting the brothers to move to an island off the coast of Louisiana to avoid government scrutiny. It was from this location that the brothers began to engage in piracy. They created a booming smuggling business on the island, helping merchants bypass the law in order to sell their goods.

Dissatisfied with how slowly goods traveled, the brothers bought a ship and began attacking ships, capturing slaves and goods. If a captured ship was worthy, the brothers would enlist it as an additional pirate vessel. The brothers continued to smuggle pirated goods, using their original ship and two other captured ones. As the War of 1812 began, many pirates received marquees, authorizing them to act as privateers on behalf of the US government against the British. Often, privateers would have such letters from many countries, and would submit booty captured from British ships to US authorities, while smuggling booty from other ships to be sold by the Lafittes. The American authorities became wary of the Lafittes and did invade the island in 1814, capturing most of Lafitte’s fleet. In exchange for a pardon, Lafitte agreed to help defend New Orleans against the British in 1815. Later, during the Mexican War of Independence, the Lafittes became spies for the Spanish, prompting them to move to Galveston Island, Texas. It was here that the Lafittes created a pirate colony called Campache, which he ruled. Lafitte even created letters of marque from a made-up nation authorizing all the ships sailing for him to attack ships of all nations. When the US government outlawed the importation of slaves in 1818, Lafitte took this opportunity to benefit. He would attack slave ships, capture the slaves, and then march them to New Orleans. There, the slaves would be turned in and sent to auction. A representative of the smuggler would buy the slaves and then sell them to the smuggler for half the price. The smuggler would then be lawfully able to sell the slaves. Eventually, one of Lafitte’s men fired on a US ship, and Lafitte was forced to leave Campache. He continued attacking Spanish ships, but the US government pursued him. In late 1821, he was captured and jailed, but escaped. He continued pirating and eventually became a lawful privateer for Columbia until he was wounded in a battle against two Spanish ships and died in 1823.

Hayreddin “Redbeard” Barbarossa

Barbarossa/Redbeard’s name has become synonymous with “pirate” because several writers have named pirate characters after him. The real Redbeard bore very little resemblance to these characters, though. Born in the 1470s in the Ottoman Islands, Barbarossa, originally “Khizr,” was the son of a potter, one of four boys. Khizr might’ve been of Greek, Turkish, or Albanian heritage; no one’s sure, but all four brothers eventually became seamen, following in the footsteps of the oldest brother, Aruj. Khizr sailed under Aruj, who was a very successful seaman who conducted multiple raids and attacks, first as a pirate, and later, in the Mediterranean sea in the name of the Ottomans. After a political coup, the older Aruj moved to Egypt and conducted scores of raids against Christian ships with his younger brother. The name “Barbarossa” is a corruption of “Baba Aruj,” which means “Father Aruj,” an honorific name assigned to Aruj by the Muslims he was known as helping and defending against Christian aggressors, and developed into “Barbarossa” which is Italian for “Red Beard.” The brothers captured enough ships to comprise their own fleet and also built munitions factories to support their efforts.

The brothers were extraordinarily successful, no longer attacking single ships but going after whole armadas, such as the Spanish fleet on several occasions. While fighting the Genoese fleet, the brothers captured 23 ships in less than a month including the flagship. The brothers waged war against the Spanish, attacking fortresses as well as capturing the city of Algiers, which Aruj ruled over, declaring himself Sultan. Aruj was eventually killed during an overland attack on Algiers. After Aruj’s death, his younger brother, Khizr, adopted the name and became Barbarossa, or Redbeard. The younger Khizr continued a successful overland campaign against the Spanish in dozens of battles, attacking parts of Southern France as well, and helping spread the Ottoman Empire dramatically. Over the next two decades, he became a powerful adversary against the Spanish and a valued asset for the Ottomans. It’s important to realize that one of Khizr’s chief rivals, at this point, was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who frequently gave support to the Spanish against the Ottoman efforts. And yet, even against the wealth and might of the pope’s forces, Khizr won battle after battle, driving the Spanish from port after port. Even when victory wasn’t assured, Khizr would simply abandon the city or fort, sail out to sea, and bombard it from a distance, making it a costly acquisition for his enemies. Over the course of his career, Khizr transformed himself from his early days of piracy and privateering to a powerful warrior and high-ranking admiral. Khizr also stands out from other pirates in that he was able to retire and enjoy the fruits of his exploits, a rare feat for a pirate.

Pier Gerlofs Donia

Known as “Big Pier,” Donia was a Frisian warrior, rebel, and pirate who lived in the late 1400s and the early 1500s. He spent much of his life as a farmer, until his village in northern Germany was attacked by a band of soldiers who were ostensibly charged with putting down a rebellion, but mostly abused and extorted the locals. The soldiers reportedly raped Donia’s wife and burned down his home and holdings, as well as the local church. Enraged, Donia began a guerilla campaign against the Habsburgs, against whom the soldiers had been fighting. Donia’s men were pirates who attacked English and Dutch ships. Their largest battle involved the capture of 28 Dutch ships in 1515. Donia waged a war against the political leaders he saw as responsible for the death of his wife and destruction of his home, which helped propel his reputation beyond the level of a mere pirate to a freedom fighter. Donia fought many battles in Holland over the next five years, and though he had a great deal of success, capturing several castles and plundering several cities, he wasn’t able to drive the Habsborgs out of Frisia. He died, disillusioned but peacefully, in his bed in 1520. His son continued his campaign. Donia was known for his great size and strength. He was rumored to be seven feet tall and wielded two great swords, each 2.15 meters in length and 6.6 kilograms in weight. He was said to be able to wield both in order to behead foes simultaneously. He was also alleged to be so strong he could bend coins using only his thumb, index, and middle finger. A huge helmet is currently on display in the town hall of Sneek and supposedly belonged to Donia. Because of his nearly mythic size and strength and the somewhat noble nature of his exploits, Donia has become something of a legend.

Black Bart

Black Bart was a Welsh pirate who attacked and raided ships off the Americas and West Africa in the early 1700s. He was one of the most successful pirates of all time in terms of number of ships captured, taking over 470. He operated during what was known as the Golden Age of piracy when pirates frequently attacked ships in the Caribbean. Bart’s real name was Bartholomew Roberts. He began as a legitimate sailor, but when the slave ship he crewed was taken by pirates, he agreed to join them (possibly to avoid death, as was often the choice given to captured sailors). Roberts’ abilities as a navigator soon became apparent, and he became a trusted crew member. A few weeks into Roberts new career, the ship he now sailed on had to dock for repairs. The true identity of the seamen (i.e. that they were pirates) was discovered, and the captain was ambushed and killed. A new captain was needed, and the crew elected Roberts by an overwhelming majority. Roberts allegedly took to piracy reluctantly, but stated that it was better to be a captain than a common sailor and accepted the honor. His first act was to return to the port and avenge the death of their former captain, and his career as a pirate was begun. Possibly because of his reluctance towards becoming a pirate, Roberts was known as one of the most just pirates. He only killed prisoners when absolutely necessary, for example, and is credited as creating a code of behavior for his crew, which they all voted to accept, known, now, as the Pirate Code. This included ideas of democracy one might not expect amongst pirates, such as all the crew sharing loot equally and providing a fund for injured crew members, and also rules of a moral nature even more surprising such as forbidding gambling. Other parts of the code were much more straightforward and practical, such as rules for all crew members to keep their weapons in good repair. Roberts and his men were very successful, raiding ship after ship until they nearly brought trade in the West Indies to a standstill. At this point, they headed to West Africa. Roberts eventually died in a battle against a British ship, and his crew weighted his body down and threw it overboard before it could be captured. His death shocked the pirate world as well as the British, who’d considered him invincible. Roberts was considered an unusual pirate in many ways. He was known as a teetotaler, preferring tea to rum, and ordered his musicians to be allowed to have Sundays off.


Little is known about the early life of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. His name came from his thick, black, beard and fearsome appearance, which included tying lit fuses to his hat to frighten enemies. Though the legend of Blackbeard portrays him as a vicious criminal, Teach was actually a shrewd man who used his appearance to strike fear into his prisoners and isn’t known to ever have harmed anyone he captured. He also commanded his ships in a democratic fashion, taking votes and listening to his crewmembers. In the early 1700s, Teach moved from Jamaica, where he’d lived after participating in Queen Anne’s War, and settled on a formerly uninhabited island called New Providence which became a pirate haven. The earliest known account of Teach was as a member of another pirate’s crew. Teach was placed in command of a sloop, but eventually was demoted by the crew because he refused to attack British ships, possibly because Teach was a former British citizen.

Teach recovered and eventually came to control a flotilla of captured ships. One of his more impressive feats was to blockade the port of Charleston, South Carolina, USA, for ransom. Teach dropped off the radar several times during his career, which makes it difficult to piece together his exploits. He was granted a pardon at one point by England, but quickly returned to piracy. He was especially troublesome to the new colonies along the east coast of America. The governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia particularly disliked him and pursued him. In 1718, he was attacked and killed by colonial forces. His head was displayed for reward. Even though Teach was well-known because of his successful image, he wasn’t actually the most successful of pirates. Still, the iconic black beard and frightening visage continues to influence our perception of pirates.

William “Captain” Kidd

Kidd was a Scottish sailor and possible privateer and pirate who was tried and executed of piracy in 1701. There’s been much debate as to whether he was a pirate or a privateer, but during the time of the trial, he was one of the most famous (alleged) pirates in history. His first known exploit occurred in 1689 when he and other crewmembers aboard a French-English pirate ship mutinied and Kidd became captain. The crew became privateers for the governor of the island of Nevis, in order to defend it against the French. Kidd and his crew performed a great deal of privateering in the ensuing years. Ultimately, this led to Kidd being considered a trusted ally of the American colonies. He was then asked to pursue pirates and funded by British nobles. Kidd sailed for Africa but found little success. He became desperate to recoup his financial losses and fund the expedition, and his crew began to talk openly of mutiny. Kidd had lost half of his crew at this point who had been impressed, or forced to serve, in the British Navy. He’d replaced these men with outright pirates, and several more of his crew had deserted him. Kidd passed up several opportunities for legal attacks on ships, and his crew was demoralized and openly discussing mutiny. Kidd had problems controlling his crew, so much so that at one point, the crew attacked and looted a ship while Kidd and the captain conversed innocently, unaware, in Kidd’s cabin. When Kidd discovered what had happened, he forced his crew to return the loot, but their discontent was only deepened. Back in England, Kidd was losing support. Early on, he’d been ordered to supply even more men for the British Navy, but had sailed away to avoid losing crewmembers. This act led to him being accused of piracy early on. Later, he took an Armenian ship, which was legal for a British privateer since the ship had flown French colors. Upon capturing it, Kidd learned that the captain was British and authorized to sail under French colors. Kidd tried to convince his crew to free the ship and return the loot, but they refused, and Kidd relented in order to maintain what tenuous control he could over them. This further cemented accusations of piracy. Kidd sailed to Madagascar and encountered his first pirate, named Culliford, who had actually stolen a ship from Kidd years before. Accounts differ as to what occurred. Some of Kidd’s crew later attested that Kidd greeted Culliford cordially.

Others say that he attempted to attack the pirate, but that his crew refused and threatened mutiny. Regardless, most of Kidd’s crew left Kidd and joined Culliford. Kidd and his 13 remaining loyal crew members returned to New York, where Kidd was captured and eventually tried and hanged for piracy. Before returning, he’d buried much of his loot, which led to legends. Kidd claimed, until his death, that he was simply a privateer and not a pirate, and some believe that he was more of a victim of circumstance than a willing pirate.


1. Real-Life Pirates Who Roved the High Seas http://www.history.com/news/8-real-life-pirates-who-roved-the-high-seas

2. The Brief History of Pirates http://us.piratestorm.com/history-of-pirates

3. Biographies of Famous Pirates http://brethrencoast.com/Pirate_Biographies.html

4. The Most Notorious Pirates Ever http://www.livescience.com/11389-notorious-pirates.html

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