Written by Nicholas Suarez
So long as trade has traveled over the seas, there have been people who have tried to steal it. Piracy is old, perhaps older than history itself, and as such there is a long list of people who have made a name for themselves taking what isn’t theirs and turning it into, well, theirs. From the colonial cities of the Caribbean to the shores of the Mediterranean, to the coasts of Madagascar and further along to the South China Sea, piracy is a truly global phenomenon.
Or was, rather. Today, piracy is largely contained across the world, mostly from the efforts of global navies like the United States and others. But the legacy of these figures lives on, and today we have for you a few names from that long list of famous pirates. Some of them you may recognize, and others that you may not, but they all earned their places, one way or another. These are a few of the most notorious pirates in history.
Starting off with the absolute easiest entry we could possibly pick, we have the most famous pirate in the entire history of the subject: Blackbeard. Blackbeard is one of those characters that has been referenced so many times, in so many different mediums, that sometimes it’s hard to remember if he was an actual person or not.
Well, he was an actual person, specifically an Englishman by the name of Edward Teach. Teach was born in the city of Bristol in western England, and we know precious little about his early life. Spoiler, this becomes a theme for most pirates, who weren’t known to speak at length about the difficulties of their childhood that drove them to raid and plunder. Nevertheless, we do know that by the turn of the 18th century, Teach was in the Caribbean, and when the War of the Spanish Succession broke out 1701 and dragged England into war against France and Spain, Teach joined up on a privateer’s ship.
A quick primer: a privateer is basically a pirate that’s been hired by a government. By several accounts, Teach was a courageous fighter, and is said to have served in the war until its end in 1714. Two years later, Teach found himself in the port of Nassau, in the Bahamas. Nassau, historically, was a pirate stronghold in the same vein as Tortuga, and this was certainly the case when Teach arrived. He liked what he saw, and then joined up with a renowned pirate by the name of Benjamin Hornigold, a former privateer who, like Teach, was out of a job following the end of the war.
Many privateers were out of work, as a matter of fact, and if there’s one thing people don’t like doing, it’s switching careers. These privateers, as a result, ended up turning en masse to piracy instead, often preying on the cargo ships of their old employers. Hornigold was an outlier, preferring to attack only French and Spanish ships, since he was an Englishman who had fought for England. But his crew thought differently, as the once-English, now-British trading ships sailed by laden with expensive products just begging to be stolen.
A vote was taken, and Hornigold was demoted as Captain. He would retire from piracy afterwards, while Teach was given command of two of his ships. Teach didn’t waste time, and immediately captured a French ship, La Concorde, and renamed it Queene Anne’s Revenge, after the British queen that he’d fought for only some years prior. With three ships under his command, Teach started ramping up his piratical efforts, seizing cargo and, when he was refused, winning the fights that followed.
But Teach didn’t exactly like to fight. He was shrewd, and knew that any losses would be costly to replace. In the spirit of Sun Tzu, he preferred to win without fighting. To that end, he cultivated his reputation, presenting himself as a terrifying captain of the seas. He also began growing his beard to huge lengths; this detail was mentioned in the reports of his ransacking of cargo ships, earning him that famous nickname, “Blackbeard”.
Blackbeard and his crews, which, interestingly, included several black sailors and freed slaves, proceeded to pirate their way up and down the Caribbean Sea, mostly in the region of the Bahamas and even detouring up the American East Coast to blockade a town in South Carolina. But in 1718, he was faced with a difficult choice. The British government, feeling the pinch from all the piracy in the Caribbean, decided to issue a blanket pardon to every pirate in the Caribbean Sea. If he wanted, Blackbeard could retire and live the rest of his life in peace, instead of slitting up sailors who didn’t immediately turn over their valuables.
Blackbeard ultimately decided to take the pardon, settling in North Carolina. But old habits die hard, and soon enough he went right back to piracy. A pirate’s life, not a quiet life, I suppose. The governor of neighboring Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, decided that Blackbeard had to be removed, and that if he had to overstep his jurisdiction across colonial borders to make it happen, he would. He assigned a man, Robert Maynard, to take two ships and a crew to end Blackbeard’s career, which they did in one last battle in the Ocracoke Inlet, in North Carolina. Blackbeard and his crew were taken by surprise, and after a short, bloody fight, the notorious pirate was dead.
Those of Blackbeard’s crew who had survived were returned to Virginia and hanged; Blackbeard’s severed head was hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship. Maynard expected a significant reward for bringing down the famous Blackbeard, but in true British fashion, Spotswood stiffed him and Maynard ended up with almost nothing. He would fade into obscurity, while Blackbeard, laughing in his grave, would go on to become the most famous pirate in history.
Which is interesting, because his career as a pirate was both incredibly short and hardly very successful. Blackbeard was only active as a pirate for two years, and of the loot he acquired, he was outstripped by most of his contemporaries: the lesser-known Bartholomew Roberts may have looted as much as five times what Blackbeard had. So, why has Blackbeard outlived them all? Why does he spring to mind when we think of pirates? Perhaps his short career benefitted him in that sense, allowing us to fill in the gaps ourselves and think of him as the archetypal pirate. It makes sense, then, how the legend has outgrown the man.
The Brothers Barbarossa
Our next entry is a double-up, and will take us across the Atlantic, away from the Spanish colonies and into Spain proper, where a centuries-long war on the seas was playing out. Across the Mediterranean Sea from Spain and Italy was an area of North Africa, known as the Barbary Coast. The term “Barbary” is derived from the word “Berber”, one of the primary ethnic groups of North Africa and one of the oldest cultures in the region.
North Africa had routinely shown itself to be a perennial headache for the Spanish kingdoms in Iberia, first by carving out a number of sultanates in Iberia itself during the Middle Ages, and after the Reconquista in 1492, by being a haven for barbary pirates. These corsairs, as they were called, were rampant, even more so than in the Caribbean; it’s estimated that in the city of Algiers, the piracy “industry” accounted for as much as 25% of the city’s workforce at its height.
But the Barbary Coast’s legacy as a collection of pirate states really begins with its most famous pirates, the brothers Oruç and Hizir Reis, better known by their pirate names of Oruçand Hayreddin Barbarossa. We know very little of their early lives; the two were born sometime between 1466 and 1478 on the Greek island of Lesbos, to a father who was either Turkish or Albanian. They were the second and third sons of their parents, and first started out as a traders. The brothers would both become accomplished sailors in their own right, at first focused primarily on trading.
Oruç was imprisoned for some time by the Knights of St. John, a Christian holy order dating back to the Crusades which had turned to, funnily enough, piracy. Don’t worry, it was piracy in the name of God, so it’s all good. But in a prelude to what the rest of their lives would look like, Oruç made a daring escape was made with the help of his brother, and the pair retreated to Anatolia, and the Ottoman Empire. There, they were enlisted by a local governor to lead a fleet of galleys and fight the Empire’s enemies on the sea. These included the Knights, who were menacing Ottoman ships, and the occasional Italian city.
Over the next several years, Oruç and Hizir made names for themselves as capable naval commanders, winning battles and capturing ships as prizes. Their reputations spread into Christian Europe, where the nickname for Oruç – Baba Oruç, or “Father Oruç” – was nominalized into Barbarossa, or “Redbeard” in Italian.
They raided coastal settlements and took captives, and many of those captives would end up being sold into slavery, which… isn’t good. But that’s how piracy works, I guess. However, their legacies would be felt most in the Western Mediterranean, in the aforementioned Barbary Coast. In 1516, the brothers captured the city of Algiers, which had been conquered by the Spanish, first for being a pirate haven, and second for being a Muslim pirate haven. The brothers moved in and turned the city into their base of operations, and Oruç declared himself the new sultan of Algiers. There then started a two-year long conflict between the brothers, Spain, and the old ruler of Algiers, who was not too keen on these Ottoman pirates ruling land that was supposed to be his.
In short, Oruç and Khizir won, although not by much. Oruç himself died in 1518, leaving his brother Hizir to take his place as ruler. It was around this time that Hizir was given an honorary title, Khayr al-Din, or Hayreddin, an Arabic honorific meaning “best of the faith”. Hayreddin then petitioned for his sultanate to be annexed by the Ottomans to get Spain off his back, and so Algeria became a part of the growing empire, almost by accident.
Hayreddin Barbarossa spent the rest of his life raiding and pirating up and down the Mediterranean with his private fleet, occasionally being called to service with the empire to lead the navy personally. He amassed a huge fortune and a reputation as one of the finest naval commanders in the region, before he retired in 1545 and died the following year. But the Barbary Coast would carry his legacy for another three centuries, being one of the most pirate-dense regions in the entire world until the North African coast was conquered by European powers in the 1800s.
Today, the brothers Barbarossa have largely slipped by as footnotes, but in Istanbul there is a mausoleum for Hayreddin, and the street of Barbaros Boulevard is named after him. Fittingly, it connects to the Bosphorus Bridge, over the sea.
Zheng Yi / Zheng Yi Sao
Our last entry on this list will take us to the other side of Asia, to the Gulf of Tonkin. As we said at the start, piracy was a worldwide phenomenon, and East Asia was no exception. Japanese pirates, known as the wokuo, plagued the coasts of China and Korea for several centuries, and in the late 18th century, China oversaw a truly stunning increase in the number of pirates harassing trade.
Statistics are always a little bit bigger when it comes to China, but this was truly an order of magnitude larger than most other places. Between 1715 and 1725, around 5,000 individuals were active as pirates in the Caribbean during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy. In China in 1805, there was a confederation of pirates numbering between 40,000 and 60,000, on anywhere from 400 to 600 vessels. Blackbeard had 4.
That astonishing number can essentially be chalked up to the leadership of one man, Zheng Yi, and his wife/lover, Zheng Yi Sao. Zheng Yi was born in 1765 in Guangdong, one of the two major maritime centers of Imperial China. With the port city of Canton and the Portuguese trading post of Macau, this region was the first stop for any long-distance traders looking to do business in China. And China was quite an attractive market, having both porcelain dishes and the all-important tea, which Chinese merchants would only sell to Europeans for silver or gold, often by the boatload.
In other words, plenty of yuan to be made by an aspiring pirate. Zheng Yi’s family had been in the piracy business for generations, but he would take it to a whole new level, taking advantage of the Qing Dynasty’s complete disinterest in naval affairs to establish himself as a dominant pirate leader in the South China Sea. He muscled in on the salt trade in particular, with every merchant paying “protection” money to him. But he wasn’t done yet.
Zheng Yi wasn’t the only pirate in town. Or at sea, rather – you know what, you know what we meant. But instead of trying to compete with these groups, Zheng Yi decided to work with them. He fashioned his own organization, the Red Flag Fleet, into a confederation with several other fleets of pirates, with a code of conduct and a proper business organization, managed by his wife, Zheng Yi Sao. Let’s talk about her for a bit.
Zheng Yi Sao, which literally translates to “Zheng Yi’s Wife”, was born in 1775, also in Guangdong. She was born low in the social hierarchy, and is believed to have worked in a brothel in Canton. In 1801, however, she caught the eye of Zheng Yi, who married her. She would prove to be every bit as capable as her husband, running the business affairs of the pirate confederation that he’d put together. He was the brawn, she was the brains.
And she’d soon have the chance to prove it to everyone. In 1807, Zheng Yi died at the age of 42, supposedly swept overboard in a typhoon and drowned. Zheng Yi Sao proposed that she should be the next to lead the confederation, and with the support of Zheng Yi’s adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai, she got her wish.
Zheng Yi Sao, following in the footsteps of her husband, took the piracy up a notch. Where before the pirates had stuck to muscling in on businesses and raiding merchant ships, Zheng Yi Sao made preparations to start raiding the Pearl River Delta itself, including that major port city of Canton. In two battles, the pirates destroyed a large number of Qing ships, clearing the way for them to raid with impunity. Which they did – burning villages, killing soldiers, and taking captives for ransom.
It was also around this time that Zheng Yi Sao started a romantic relationship with her husband’s adopted son. Which is… weird? Yeah, that’s weird. Let’s not encourage that.
The Qing, understandably frustrated with all this pirate business going on, redoubled their efforts to deal with the problem. But the Qing navy, as stated before, was neglected, and couldn’t deal with the battle-experienced pirates on their own. Nevertheless, they sent extra ships southwards to Canton and, hoping to tip the scales in their favor, they sought help from British and Portuguese ships. With foreign aid, the Qing navy besieged Zheng Yi in the bay of an island. By some miracle, she escaped with few losses, but then the second largest faction in her pirate federation defected, offering his services to the government instead. Talk about no honor among thieves.
But Zheng Yi Sao had a plan. She knew the tides weren’t in her favor, so she was going to do what Blackbeard had failed to do – retire. With an offer of getting off the government’s back, and some arm-twisting in the form of extra raids on local settlements, the Qing finally accepted her offer, and Zheng Yi Sao surrendered her fleet in 1810. In her retirement, she went back to her red-light district roots and opened a gambling house in Canton, before dying in 1844 at the age of 69. Nice.
Zheng Yi Sao and her husband, Zheng Yi, stand tall as skilled naval commanders in a country not well known for its exploits on the water. And they turned piracy into a proper business, registering captured loot and people, along with rules and regulations on how to treat prisoners. Because the other thing that China does well is admin, apparently.
But You Have Heard of Me
These were by no means the only famous pirates we could’ve talked about, but hopefully you’ve learned something you didn’t know before. We didn’t mention any privateers in this post, only pirates; perhaps in future, we can do an overview of some of them, such as the Frenchman Robert Surcouf, who, when told by a British prisoner on his ship that the French fight for money and the British for honor, replied that, “a man fights for what he has the least of.” And even by pirate standards, that must’ve hurt.