Pirates: A Rogues Gallery

Blackbeard and Henry Morgan are probably two of the best known pirates, but there were many colorful "Gentlemen of Fortune" during the Golden Age of Piracy. Here are the stories of a few:

Captain William Kidd

Captain Kidd (left) was perhaps one of the unluckiest pirates in history. He was done in not by a cutlass or pistol shot, but indecision, bad judgment and politics. Ironically, many historians believe he wasn't even really a pirate.

Kidd was born in Scotland around 1655. By 1689 he was in command of a vessel named the Blessed William which was operating as a privateer in the West Indies (A privateer ship is a warship that is privately owned, but has government permission to attack enemy ships. The privateer must split any spoils with the government). He was successful, but in 1691 his crew mutinied and left him stranded on the island of Antigua.

Kidd went to New York where he married well and became a merchant. Kidd might have spent the rest of his life on Wall Street, but apparently the sea was still in his blood. In 1695 he traveled to London to ask to be put in command of a privateer again. He got the Adventure Galley, a 237-ton vessel with 34 cannon. His primary backer on this venture was Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellamont, but other nobles (including the King) also had a stake in the voyage.

Kidd sailed out of the Chatham dockyard and immediately was boarded by the Royal Navy, who took many of his best sailors for their own ships. Kidd was forced to replace them with disreputable sailors with pirate leanings. In New York he added more crew, then set off for the Indian Ocean. Kidd's public mission was to clear the sea there of pirates, but it was probably understood by his backers that he would also take every opportunity to capture any enemy ships that had valuable cargo.

Months went by and no acceptable victims were found. The crew pressured Kidd to turn pirate and attack anything. Kidd got into a fight and killed a gunner after refusing to plunder an English ship they'd sighted.

Finally, in February 1698, a Indian-owned ship, The Quedah Merchant, was spotted and Kidd captured her easily. She carried a cargo worth some 710,000 pounds. Best of all she had French papers which made her a legal target for Kidd under his privateer commission.

Meanwhile, back in London, politics were turning against Kidd. Exaggerated reports of his adventures were coming in from the Indian Ocean and the enemies of his backers were using them to denounce the Whig party to which many of Kidd's powerful friends belonged. Kidd's friends finally distanced themselves from him labeling him an "obnoxious pirate" and a price was set on his head.

Kidd got wind of this and abandoned the damaged Adventure Galley, transferred the Quedah Merchant treasure to a small sloop, and ran for New York where he thought his patron Governor Bellamont could help him.

Outside New York, Kidd buried the bulk of the treasure on Gardiner's Island (one of the few verified instances of a pirate actually burying a treasure) and attempted to use it as a bargaining chip for a pardon. It didn't work. Kidd was arrested and imprisoned and the treasure recovered.

Despite his protests that he was only a privateer, Kidd was tried in London and executed in 1701. The papers that might have proved his innocence disappeared in Bellamont's hands and his logbook was burned. His corpse was displayed in an iron cage on the dock at Thames Estuary for several years as a warning to other would-be pirates.

Kidd's name is still associated with a supposed buried treasure on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, but it is doubtful that he is responsible for whatever is located there.

Calico Jack

John Rackham, whose striped pants earned him the name "Calico Jack," was one of the few pirate captains who had women as a part of his cutthroat crew.

Anne Bonny (left), daughter of a prominent Cork, Ireland lawyer, ran away from her husband to take up with Rackham. Together they stole a sloop, gathered a crew, and went a pirating. They captured a Dutch ship and many of the crew joined Rackham's gang. Among them was a slight, young man. Anne was shocked to find out that the newcomer was another woman named Mary Read.

Read was born in England and as a girl was apprenticed as a servant, but her nature was wild and, dressing as a man, she signed on as a ship's cabin boy. Eventually she became a crewman aboard the Dutch ship Rackham captured.

Rackham invited the girl to join the crew. She did and both she and Anne Bonny were very good at the business of pirating, never shirking from battle. According to one witness, none among the crew were "more resolute, or ready to Board or undertake any Thing that was hazardous."

On a night in October, 1720, Rackham's ship was attacked by a privateer commissioned to take pirates. Witnesses from the privateer stated that only two of the pirates had put up any fight. These two fought like wildcats using pistols, cutlasses and boarding axes. One of them fired a pistol into the hold where the other pirates were hiding while screaming they should come up and fight like men. When the pair were finally overpowered it turned out that they were Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

A trial followed and Rackham, Bonny, Read and many other members of the crew were sentenced to hang. When asked if they had anything to say the women replied, "Milord, we plead our bellies." Both were pregnant. The court decided it could not hang any woman who carried a child.

Mary died of a fever before she could deliver her child. It is not known what happened to Anne, but she may have been paroled because of her father's influence.

Rackman requested that before he was hanged he be allowed to see Anne one more time. This was granted, but she only had scorn for him, telling him, "Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog."

Black Bart Roberts

Bartholomew Roberts (left) was known even in his own day as the "Great Pyrate Roberts" and was the undisputed king of the "Gentlemen of Fortune." He was a handsome, fearless man who loved elegant clothes. Even during battle, he wore a rich crimson waistcoat with breeches and scarlet plumed hat. On his chest he wore a massive gold chain with a jeweled cross that he had liberated while it was on its way to the King of Portugal, for whom it had been designed.

Born in 1682, he began his pirate career at the rather advanced age of 36 when his ship was captured by the pirate Howell Davis. Davis was looking for recruits and took Roberts on board. Roberts, who had been a 2nd mate before joining Davis, learned quickly and when Davis was killed in action a month and a half later, the crew elected Roberts the new Captain.

Roberts immediately took revenge for Davis's death by leveling the Portuguese settlement where Davis had been ambushed. Seeking to further settle the score, he sailed to Brazil and boldly sailed into a Portuguese treasure fleet at anchor. His approach was so brazen the Portuguese didn't realize what was happening until Roberts had boarded the largest vessel: a vice-admiral's forty-gun ship that was packed with valuable goods and 80,000 pounds in gold coins. He made off with it before the warships assigned to guard the convoy could catch him.

Roberts was an unusual pirate in that he was a teetotaler. He also forbid gambling on board and encouraged prayer. Nobody viewed him as weak, though. He assembled a fleet of pirate ships so formidable that naval squadrons sent out to capture him turned back at the sight of his flotilla.

Even with a single ship, Roberts seemed invincible. In June of 1720 he entered Trepassey Bay in Newfoundland with a small ten-gun sloop and a crew of sixty. There were some twenty-two ships at anchor there with 1,200 sailors on board. A the sight of Roberts flag and the sound of his war drums and trumpets, the terror-stricken crews of each of the vessels piled into long boats and rowed for shore.

Roberts plundered and sank twenty-one of the ships. The twenty-second, a large brigantine, he loaded with all the booty and sailed away. When he encountered a flotilla of French ships on his way out of the harbor he attacked and sank all but another brigantine, which he made his flagship, Royal Fortune.

Later in October of that year, Roberts went on a four-day spree in the Caribbean where, according to one official he, "seized, burned or sunk fifteen French and English vessels and one Dutch interloper of forty-two guns..."

Having emptied the Caribbean of most of the treasure there, Roberts sailed onto Africa where he took eleven French, English and Portuguese ships on a single day.

Finally in February of 1722, "Black Bart's" luck finally ran out. The Swallow, a fifty-gun Royal Navy warship caught Roberts' fleet at Parrot Island off the Guinea coast. Roberts, thinking the Swallow was a merchantman, sent one of his ships out to catch it. The Swallow's captain, Chaloner Ogle, lured the pirate vessel out of sight of Roberts' fleet, then sank it.

Five days later the Swallow returned flying a French flag. One of the pirate crew recognized its' true nature, though, and warned Roberts. Robert's first instinct was to run: his crew was hungover from much drinking the night before and not ready for a fight. But then he made the mistake of turning to attack. One of the Swallow's first broadsides killed the pirate captain. Without their fearless leader, the pirate crew lost their nerve and surrendered. Many were executed. The Swallow's captain was knighted.

"Black Bart's" corpse was never found. Following his wishes, the crew, before they were captured, threw his dead body overboard : finery, jewels and all.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1998. All Rights Reserved.



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