A Rogues Gallery
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 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.
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.
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
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."
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
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.