Six Great British Pirates
With tales of treasure-seeking, desert islands and adventure, it's no surprise that pirate stories - both fictional and historical - continue to capture our imaginations.
These six Great British Pirates are surrounded by twisting tales of treasure and terror on the high seas. They may not be the greatest pirates ever, but each has a great claim to fame and a Trail or two near their hometowns!
The most famous pirate of them all was probably Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard was born in Bristol and started his career as a crew member for the pirate Benjamin Hornigold.
He definitely understood power dressing! Before a battle, he would dress all in black, strap several pistols to his chest and put on a large black captain’s hat. Then, he would put slow-burning fuses in his hair and beard. The fuses constantly sputtered and gave off smoke, surrounding him with a greasy fog. He looked like a demon, and most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight him.
But, despite his infamy, Blackbeard wasn't particularly successful when he was alive. His prizes were quite small compared to some pirates on this list, and he was only active for 15 months. But in death, he became a legend. This is probably thanks to his appearance in Daniel Defoe's "General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates", in which a mix of fact and fiction portrayed Blackbeard as one of the cruellest pirates to ever sail the high seas.
John "Calico Jack" Rackham was also born in Bristol and is known for two reasons. Firstly, he had two of the most famous and ferocious female pirates in his crew, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Secondly, his flag, a black one with a skull over crossed cutlasses, has been adopted as one of the most recognisable contemporary pirate flags.
Calico Jack sailed as a quartermaster under the infamous pirate Charles Vane and eventually took over the ship when the crew deposed their captain due to cowardice (although more likely due to Vane's personal greed). He accepted a pardon from Governor Woodes Rogers in 1719 and enjoyed shore leave in the Bahamas, where he met and began a relationship with Anne Bonny.
His retirement didn't last long, and Rackham turned back to piracy just a few months later, this time with Bonny, and later Mary Read, at his side. They were captured and tried the following year. While Jack couldn't avoid his fate, his relationship with Anne Bonny may have saved her life. Both Bonny and Read were pregnant, so their deaths were delayed. Read lost her life to fever in prison, but no one knows what happened to Bonny after her trial.
Captain Edward “Ned” Low (sometimes Lowe or Loe) was born in Westminster in the late 17th century. Although he was active for only three years, Low remains notorious as one of the most vicious pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy, with a reputation for violence and torture. He sounds like a really nasty piece of work!
Towards the end of his career in piracy, nasty Ned became more ambitious, more vicious, and supposedly started spiralling into madness. He unwisely turned on his own crew, which (unsurprisingly) led to their mutiny. They marooned Low on a desert island, and he was never seen again.
No one truly knows what happened to Low after he was left stranded by his crew. A French account says he was captured by a French ship and taken to Martinique, where he met his fate. Others say he was never captured and lived out the rest of his days in Brazil. There was even the rumour that the mutiny never occurred and that his ship sank in a storm with the captain and crew lost at sea. It's a real mystery!
He had a pretty dodgy start to his sailing career (yes, dodgier than being a pirate) but was forced into piracy when Captain Howell Davis captured the slave ship Roberts was the second mate of. When Davis was killed just six weeks later, the reluctant pirate Roberts was named captain.
He may not be as famous as some other pirates on this list, but he was arguably a 'better' pirate, with his success measured by the number of ships he had (four) and the number of pirates he controlled (hundreds). He and his crew captured and looted more ships than many of the other notorious pirates put together, and in just three years!
Sir Henry Morgan
Also born in Wales, in what's now a suburb of Cardiff, was Sir Henry Morgan. He was knighted by King Charles II for his services to the crown and even became acting Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica THREE times, despite being known as a famous Caribbean pirate and privateer! In fact, King Charles had even called for Sir Henry's arrest less than three years before knighting him.
Despite the many TV shows, movies and video games about pirates released in recent years, he’s still arguably the most prominent in popular culture. He’s had two novels written about him - John Steinbeck’s "A Cup of Gold" and Josephine Tey’s "The Privateer" – and appears on Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum labels!
Thomas Tew was one of the most famous pirates of the Red Sea. He was so famous, in fact, that King William III mentioned him by name in his Royal Warrant given to pirate hunters due to him being a "wicked and ill-disposed person".
Believed to have been born in Maidford, Northamptonshire, Captain Tew went on to be known as the Rhode Island Pirate and pioneered the Pirate Round route - from the western Atlantic, down past the tip of Africa, stopping at Madagascar or Comoros before finding the perfect spot to intercept ships from countries like India and Yemen.
His sea chest is the only known authentic chest with its origins leading back to a pirate! It can be seen in the pirate-themed museum in the Florida Keys, which perhaps makes him the most careless for losing it! It's believed that Tew used this iron strongbox to carry his ill-gotten gains from the Red Sea to Rhode Island but left it behind when he went on his final, fateful voyage.
How about some more?!
With so many fearsome British pirates leaving their mark on the high seas over the years, it's hard to whittle the list down to just six... So, here are a few more!
Of course, there's Mary Read, born in Devon (possibly Plymouth), who gained fame by sailing with Calico Jack and the Irish pirate Anne Bonny, as mentioned above. Then there's John (or Jack) Ward, known later as Yusuf Reïs, born in Faversham in the 16th century. Jack didn't have the best start to his piratical career, but through his outlandish ways and lack of morals, he somehow managed to amass a fortune and retire in Tunisia in comfort, spending the latter years of his life teaching navigation and gun skills to young corsairs. Jack Ward was also the inspiration for the fictional pirate Captain Jack Sparrow!
You might've noticed that we haven't talked much about buried treasure. Well, it turns out that not many pirates actually had big chests filled with gold and jewels that they buried on a desert island... Sorry! But one British pirate did just that. Captain William Kidd, born in Dundee, was known to have buried a small treasure trove on Gardiners Island, New York, which was recovered and used as evidence in his piracy trial. However, it's rumoured that even more of Captain Kidd's buried treasure is waiting to be recovered across the USA and maybe even around the world!
Last but not least is a relatively unknown pirate who caused heaps of trouble in Cornwall in the 16th century. Mary Wolverston, a gentlewoman from Suffolk, was the daughter of Phillip Wolverston, a 'gentleman pirate'. She married into the ancient Cornish Killigrew Family and, thanks to her husband's Governorship of Pendennis Castle and control of all shipping in the Carrick Roads harbour, the duo started preying on ships with pricey cargoes, raiding them and stashing the goods in Arwenack House, Falmouth. It's said that Lady Killigrew enjoyed the adventure of piracy far more than her husband did! She was still up to no good in her 60s when she was eventually arrested, tried and sentenced to death. However, she received a pardon from Queen Elizabeth I herself and lived for at least another five years as a free woman.
Set off on a pirate adventure
Turn your boring day out into a full-blown pirate adventure with Treasure Trails! Set off on a voyage of discovery with a treasure hunt, where you'll hunt around to crack the clues and reveal the location of the long-lost treasure trove.
There are over 1,200 Trails across the UK, including detective mystery and spy mission-themed adventures too! Discover hidden gems, learn fascinating facts and have heaps of fun unleashing your inner treasure seeker as you explore. Where will you go first?
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