The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

WORLD HISTORY | February 15, 2019

Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean. Source:(hellomagazine.com)

There’s no Jack Sparrow or Black Pearl in the history of piracy; however, not everything about the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise is fictional. The pirates existed, though they were not the romantic heroes that movies make them out to be, nor did the open seas offer freedom from accountability. Most pirates were privateers, hired by the monarchy to sabotage enemy ships and ports.

Sir Francis Drake

One of the more well-known pirates of the Caribbean was Sir Francis Drake. He was born in the early 1540s, the son of a tenant farmer, and raised by relatives who were merchants and privateers. In 1567, he and his cousin John Hawkins sailed to Africa to join the slave trade. After most of their crew was killed in an attack by the Spanish, Drake returned to England with an intense hatred for Spain. Queen Elizabeth I used this hatred to her advantage, giving Drake a privateer’s commission and permission to plunder the Spanish at will. She also hired him to lead expeditions, claiming land for England and, in 1580, he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. After he returned to England, he was knighted by the queen.  

The Spanish Armada and English ships in August 1588, (16th-century, English School). Source: (wikipedia.org)

In 1585, he commanded a fleet of 25 ships, plundering Spanish ports along the coast of Florida before picking up the failed colonists from Roanoke Island and heading home. In 1588, he served under Admiral Charles Howard during the famous defeat of the Spanish Armada. After several years on land, he embarked on one last expedition against the Spanish in 1596. The journey proved to be a failure in all aspects as Spain was able to fend off their attacks and Drake came down with dysentery and died in January of 1596.

Newspaper announcing Kidd’s execution. Source: (pinterest.com)

William Kidd

William Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1645, reportedly the son of a seaman. He was already an established privateer in the 1680s when he sailed for America and married a wealthy widow. During a time of war between England and France, he was granted a privateer’s commission to protect English ships in the Caribbean. He continued to privateer after his return to England in 1695; however, the enterprise, while lucrative, was becoming more dangerous as tolerance for piracy was coming to an end. His fate was sealed in January 1698, when he made the decision to attack the Quedagh Merchant. A portion of the loot from the attack belonged to a well-connected minister at the court of the Indian Grand Moghul. As a result, Kidd became a wanted criminal. He was arrested in Boston and sent back to England to stand trial.

Wreckage of Quedagh Merchant. Source: (historyextra.com)

Kidd, himself, was well-connected with contacts within the English elite; however, none of them were willing to risk their own reputations to defend him. As a result, he was hanged on May 23, 1701, and his body was left in a cage to rot as a warning to other pirates. According to legend, Captain Kidd left some of his treasure buried in the Caribbean. Despite their best efforts, treasure hunters have been unable to find it; however, the wreckage of the Quedagh Merchant, which Kidd abandoned before being caught, was discovered in 2007.

Clara Paget as Anne Bonny in Black Sails. Source: (black-sails.fandom.com)

Anne Bonny

While it was considered bad luck to have women aboard ship, Anne Bonny defied the odds during her brief stint as one of the few female pirates of the Caribbean. The exact details of her life are uncertain; however, she is believed to have been born in Ireland in 1698 as the illegitimate daughter of William Cormac and one of his maids. After separating from his wife, Cormac, along with Anne and her mother, moved to Charles Towne, which would later become Charleston, South Carolina. After her mother died of typhoid fever, Cormac attempted to arrange a marriage for Anne. However, she refused and instead married John Bonny in 1718. The couple moved to the Bahamas, where Anne became involved with a pirate named John “Calico Jack” Rackham. Rackham attempted to pay Anne’s husband to divorce her, but he refused.

Clara Paget as Anne Bonnie and Toby Schmitz as Calico Jack in Black Sails. Source: (nerdreactor.com)

In August 1720, Anne left her husband to go off with Rackham and the two of them began pirating merchant ships near Jamaica on board the commandeered William. They were joined by another female pirate name Mary Read. Eventually, the crew of the William was captured and everyone except Anne and Read were immediately hanged. Both women were sentenced to die but received stays of execution because both were pregnant. Read would later die in prison, but Anne was released and returned to Charles Towne where she got married and had children. Unlike the other pirates on this list, she lived a long life, dying in 1782.

Ian McShane as Blackbeard in Pirate’s of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Source: (pirates.wikia.com)


The most famous real-life pirate of the Caribbean is the one about whom the least is known. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was born circa 1680, possibly in Bristol, England. Very little is known about his early life and even his real name varies among the stories, with some giving him the last name of Thatch or Thack. While it is thought that he privateered for the British during the War of the Spanish Succession, Blackbeard made his big splash on the pirate scene in 1717, when he captured a French merchantman and converted it into his infamous warship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and began committing acts of piracy in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic coast.

Replica of Queen Anne’s Revenge. Source: (pinterest.com)

In 1718, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was shipwrecked, and Blackbeard sailed to North Carolina, where the governor, Charles Eden, offered him a pardon in exchange for a share of his loot. The governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, sent a British naval force under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, to deal with Blackbeard. According to legend, it took five musket-ball wounds and twenty sword lacerations to finish off the pirate. As with William Kidd, rumors of buried treasure sprang up, but none was recovered, though the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in the 1990s. Blackbeard lived the shortest life of all the pirates on this list, but his legend has outlived them all.

Tags: Blackbeard, Caribbean pirates, Caribbean, pirates, sir francis drake, england, william kidd

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