Pop culture positions pirates as daring swashbucklers who fight injustice while seeking fame and fortune. But, characters like Captain Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver don’t really present the truth about piracy. Most pirates lived short, dirty, and unpleasant lives. They rarely–if ever!–captured a ship or uncovered treasure, and most ended life at the end of the hangman’s noose, a great publicity stunt for an unpopular governor or mayor. The following is a list of eight popular pirates who were actually huge losers.
Stede Bonnet lived as a wealthy landowner and gentleman until the summer of 1717, when he bought a ship, hired a crew, and took to piracy. Bonnet wasn’t trying to escape prosecution or rebelling against the crown; instead, his reasons for becoming a pirate stemmed from “discomforts he found in a married state.” In other words, he became a pirate to escape a nagging wife. His complete lack of sailing experience led to serious wounds he sustained in a battle with a Spanish man-of-war. Bonnet then allowed Blackbeard to help out while he was incapacitated. Blackbeard stole all of Bonnet’s goods, recruited most of his crew, and left Bonnet with a stripped ship and a handful of marooned pirates. Bonnet swore revenge, but since he still couldn’t sail, he never did find Blackbeard. Still on the lam, Bonnet changed his name and the name of his ship to avoid capture. It didn’t work. After running aground during a battle with the Royal Navy, his ship was quickly boarded. Soon thereafter, Bonnet was imprisoned, berated by a long-winded judge, and hanged. At least he got away from his wife.
Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch
Blackbeard built a bloodthirsty reputation, plundering many vessels, and receiving equally as many pardons. Born as Edward Thatch, he abandoned pivateering to create the infamous Blackbeard pirate persona. But, despite the tall tales of a snarling tyrant, brandishing pistols and lighting cannon fuses with a smouldering beard, there is no evidence that he ever killed anyone. There is more evidence that he was a syphilitic drunk that made disastrously bad decisions. Despite having numerous hostages during his famous blockade of Charleston, his only demand was for a chest of medicines. This probably stemmed from his habit of sharing his wives with his crew, ensuring that everyone suffered from one STD or another. He was offered a pardon, in hopes that it would make him go away, but instead he got shit-faced, ran his ship aground, and engaged Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy while hungover. Blackbeard lost after twenty stab wounds, five bullet holes, and good-old decapitation. Suddenly, your drinking stories don’t feel as awesome.
First Century Cilician pirates
Cilician pirates were extremely clever sailors who raided a large number of ships on the Mediterranean and made a fortune from the slave trade. They went so far as to plunder Ostia. But, they were not prepared to meet Julius Caesar. Early in his career, Caesar was captured while travelling to Rhodes to study rhetoric. Knowing they had a prize in their hands, the pirates requested a ransom of twenty talents. Caesar, in a move that demonstrated the size of his brass balls, laughed at the size of the ransom, promised to have them crucified, and told the pirates to ask for fifty talents instead. He had the money raised, paid the pirates, and was set free. As soon as he got back, he raised a fleet, captured the pirates, and then beat them to death with his bare hands in a cage match. No, I’m kidding. He kept his promise and had them ruthlessly crucified.
Unknown Somali Pirates
Somalia’s pirates have become some of the most wealthy men in the area. A captured oil tanker or cargo ship in the Gulf of Eden brings in an average ransom of $2 million. But, before you pack your bags to become a new age pirate, remember this little tidbit from late 2005: A group of Somali pirates in speedboats–armed with riles and rocket-propelled grenades–attacked a cruise liner off the coast of Somalia. The pirates fired several times, panicking the passengers and lightly injuring one of the crew members. They were eventually driven off by “an on-board acoustic bang” which convinced the gunmen they were under fire. That’s right. These pirates were driven off by a loud noise. More recently, a group of Somali pirates were given a $3 million ransom to return an oil tanker but managed to capsize their boat, losing both the money and their lives by drowning in the process.
Henry Every managed to capture a trading ship bursting with swag on his first, and only, voyage. Believed to be the single largest haul in the history of piracy, the loot made Every and his crew extremely wealthy. Unfortunately, the ship belonged to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and this fact made it impossible for Every to settle down and spend his loot. After being turned away from the Bahamas and New England, Every managed to officially disappear in Ireland. According to Charles Johnson, one of the first piracy historians, Every attempted to sell some precious jewels to a group of merchants in Bristol. This was the only treasure he kept, presumably, because it was easier to carry around a handful of diamonds than several chests of gold. The merchants took his jewels, promised him large sums of cash, but stonewalled him indefinitely. Unable to ever get the full sum of money the merchants owed him, Every died a penniless vagabond. Meanwhile, several members of his crew had crowned themselves kings in Madagascar.
John “Calico Jack” Rackham
John Rackham, also known as Calico Jack because of his clothing, enjoyed a few small successes until he hooked up with Anne Bonny and Mary Read. After meeting them his life became interesting: ménage a trios, famous raids, and actual success as a pirate. But, he was an abysmally bad captain who was riding the coattails of Bonny and Read. This became clear when his ship was surprised in the night by a vessel of the Royal Navy. Bonny and Read had to defend the ship by themselves because Rackham and his men were drunk in the hold and slept through the entire ordeal. Rackham recieved the death sentence, but Read and Bonny avoided it because they were pregnant. Bonny visited him before his execution, staying long enough to say: “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.” Rackham was eventually hanged and gibbeted as a warning to other pirates, Read died in childbirth, but Bonny managed to disappear – presumably living long enough to emasculate several other men before dying of old age.
Edward England was a fairly average pirate that scored a few lucky prizes that gave him some notoriety. It wasn’t his inadequacy as a pirate that did him in, but rather his compassion. England positioned himself as a merciful–even ethical–pirate who refused to kill a captive. His crew wasn’t as understanding when they faced off against Captain Mackra and his men. Mackra and his men caused heavy casualties for England’s crew, and England’s crew was ready to murder Mackra by the time he gave up. But England, in a show of true pirate nature, shook Mackra’s hand and vouched for him in front of the pirate crew. Instead of commending him for his virtuous act, England’s crew marooned him with several others on Mauritius and sailed off to commit more dastardly deeds. England eventually escaped by building a raft, but even then he died a beggar. No good deed…
William “Captain” Kidd
William Kidd is a pretty big name in the world of piracy. He started out as a legitimate privateer who was funded by wealthy 17th century New Englanders – including Richard Coote, the 1st Earl of Bellomont. Much to the embarrassment of Coote and the other investors, Kidd found pirate hunting tedious and became a full-fledged pirate himself. He targeted the Indian Ocean, possibly because he never expected word of his indiscretions to make it back home from there, and achieved moderate success. Upon returning to New England, Kidd figured out that he would not be received graciously, so he buried some treasure as leverage and went to Coote seeking a pardon. But Coote and the other investors ignored Kidd’s pleas, tried him on charges of piracy and murder, and denied him representation. He was hanged and his body was placed in a gibbet for twenty years. Oh, and the buried treasure? Coote dug it up and used it as evidence against Kidd.