What is a Pirate?
A pirate is defined as “a person who attacks and robs ships at sea,” by Oxford languages. The first significant pirates, who roamed the Mediterranean around 1276-1178 B.C.E., were known as the Sea Peoples, who were made up of a myriad of ethnicities. Accounts of their destruction were recorded by the last king of Ugarit, Ammurapi, whose kingdom fell victim to this mysterious force. However, the origin of this fearsome group is unknown and remains a mystery to this day. Nonetheless, this practice of abandoning sailor jobs in exchange for a life of piracy became common during the late 1600s to early 1700s which is known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.” Here’s a list of some notable pirates throughout history.
During this time, piracy was popular among Black people, as it was one of the few ways they could attain power in the West. Often given only two choices, fugitive slaves would often choose the life of piracy over eternal captivity. While discrimination was still apparent, some captains did treat their crew members equally regardless of race. However, the same can not be said for prosecution. As white pirates were hanged, Black pirates were either returned to their owners or resold into slavery. Black Caesar or Henri Caesar, is the most acclaimed Black pirate as he escaped captivity aboard a slave ship with the help of a sailor. Thereafter he would pose as a stranded sailor to rob vessels that offered their aid. Legend has it that he buried his treasure on Elliot Key. He would soon join Blackbeard’s crew in the early 1700s and would even come to witness his death. After their defeat, Black Caesar was captured and taken to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1718 to be hanged.
Arguably the most successful pirate in history, outnumbering Blackbeard in terms of ships with 70,000 sailors, 800 large junks—Chinese sailing ships—and about 1,00 smaller vessels, Madame Cheng is not to be forgotten. Though her name was Ching Shih, she was also referred to as Cheng I Sao, which translates to “wife of Cheng.” Little is known about her early life. She was born in 1785 at an unknown location. For the majority of her life, she served as a prostitute in the city of Guangzhou. But in 1801, she married Cheng Yi, a famous pirate captain. During this time, many unorganized ships were unified into professional fleets to serve the Tây Sơn dynasty of Vietnam, who were at constant battle with the Chinese. When the Tây Sơn was conquered in 1802, instead of scattering the Cheng’s unified rival Cantonese pirates and were divided into different squadrons. Cheng Yi soon died in 1807, yet Madame Cheng soon took charge and appointed her husband’s protegé Zhang Bao as the captain of her most powerful fleet. He would soon become her lover and eventually her new husband. It is said that Madame Cheng was ahead of her time in terms of rights to women, as any carnal abuse of female captives was punishable by death. There were even accounts of those who were commanders who were ordered to capture her and damaged their own ships in order to avoid conflict. By 1810, tension increased between two of her fleets, causing the unison to be unstable. This led to Madame Cheng accepting the Chinese government’s pardon in exchange for a peaceful surrender in 1810. The rest of her life was quite peaceful, living off of her husband’s military earnings until she died at the age of 69.
While male pirates dominate history, there were plenty of notable female pirates, too, such as Anne Bonny. Born in Cork, Ireland, around 1700, Anne Bonny was known for her tough spirit. There is little information known about her, but it is said that she married a poverty-stricken sailor at the age of 16. Her father did not approve of this and disowned his daughter. The couple would soon turn to the life of piracy and join Calico Jack’s crew. It is said that she “dressed like a man, while she fought, drank, and swore like one too.” Legend has it that while Bonny appeared as a man, she developed feelings for Mary Read, who joined the crew later on and was also dressed as a man. They would both switch between men’s and women’s clothes as necessary. However, this adventure would soon come to an end in October in 1720, when the ship would fall to Captain Jonathan Barnet to collect their bounty. Records say that, while the rest of the crew caved into surrender, the two women fought to the end and called the men cowards. They were tried and found guilty of several crimes, but their execution was delayed as it was discovered that both women were pregnant. However, it is unclear whether this is true or if the two lied to save themselves. It wouldn’t be until five months later that death would take Mary Read in prison.
Much like Anne Bonny, Mary Read’s history is unknown. She was born around 1690 in England to a widow. It is said that her mother passed her off as a boy to get money from Mary’s grandmother. Later, Read continued to dress a man and would even get a job as a sailor. Later on, she revealed her secret to a Flemish soldier she met during the War of the Spanish Succession and would come to marry. Together they ran The Three Horseshoe Inn in the Dutch town of Breda. After her husband died, she would return to the war dressed as a man, though when peace was signed, Read looked for adventure elsewhere in the West Indies. While navigating the waters, she was soon attacked and was captured by pirates. She then joined them, living life as a free pirate until 1718, when she signed a king’s pardon in exchange for hunting down others who did not acquire the pardon. Read would eventually make her way onto the ship of Calico Jack, where, as stated before, there were accounts of her and Anne Bonny forming a romantic relationship. In any case, it is said that the two were the most ruthless of them all, each carrying a pistol and machete. But as stated above, the ship was captured, but despite this, the two fought till the end. It is unclear what exactly happened to Mary Read during their containment, but records do show that she was buried on April 28, 1721, at St. Catherine Parish in Jamaica.
— Maya Ross
Black Pirates and the Tale of Black Caesar
Five Pirate Myths That Are Actually True
Pirates in the Ancient Mediterranean
Biography of Anne Bonny, Irish Pirate and Privateer
Biography of French Pirate François L’Olonnais