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History's Most Famous Pirates: François L’Olonnais
François L’Olonnais was a French pirate who attacked ships and towns in the 1660s. His hatred for Spaniards was legendary and he was known for his cruelty toward Spanish prisoners of war. His savage life came to an equally savage end as he was captured, hacked to pieces, roasted over a fire, and reportedly eaten by a tribe of cannibals in the Gulf of Darien.Wikimedia Commons
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Bartholomew Roberts was a young, handsome, and well-dressed pirate that did immensely well. Roberts actually captured more than 400 vessels during his career. Despite his incredible success, Roberts despised hedonism and did not allow gambling, female passengers, or excessive drinking. He died during a battle with the HMS Swallow, a British warship.Wikimedia Commons
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Henry Morgan ruthlessly attacked a myriad of Spanish cities and ships in service of Jamaican Governor Sir Thomas Modyford. The resulting booty made Morgan an incredibly wealthy man. He was even eventually knighted and appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. However, Morgan died from complications of alcoholism. Wikimedia Commons
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Born Edward Seegar in Ireland around 1685, he called himself Edward England and was rumored to be an educated man. He originally served as a privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession. England then became a pirate after being captured by a private vessel where he was forced to join the crew. He later died of a tropical disease in 1721. Wikimedia Commons
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Anne Bonny was Irish and married to a small-time pirate named James Bonney. The marriage was not happy, and Bonny left him for another pirate by the name of Calico Jack. Eventually, the lovebirds and Bonny's close friend and fellow female pirate Mary Read were apprehended by English forces. Bonny avoided execution by claiming to be pregnant. Wikimedia Commons
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Benjamin Hornigold was a pirate that ran raids on cargo ships. His second-in-command was none other than Edward Teach, a notorious pirate who later became known as “Blackbeard.” In his later years, Hornigold became a pirate hunter and died in an unforeseen shipwreck. Wikimedia Commons
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Born Edward Teach, he served England as a privateer and later turned to piracy at the end of Queen Anne’s War. His savagery and violence attracted the attention of Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood. After locating the famed pirate, Spotswood organized an ambush for Blackbeard and hung his decapitated head to the bowsprit of the ship. Wikimedia Commons
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Born John Rackham, he was known as “Calico Jack” due to the calico clothing he wore. Calico Jack was an English pirate that was famous for two reasons: his design of the famous Jolly Roger flag (a skull with two crossed swords) and for having two female pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, on his crew. Calico Jack was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang in 1720.Wikimedia Commons
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Charles Gibbs was the pseudonym of an American pirate named James D. Jeffers. He was one of the last active pirates in the Caribbean during the nineteenth century. Jeffers was among the last people to be executed for piracy in the United States.Wikimedia Commons
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Cheung Po Tsai
Cheng Po Tsai was just the son of a local fisherman when he was kidnapped by the notorious pirate couple Cheng I and Ching Shih, and adopted into a life of crime. According to legend, when Cheng I died, Cheng Po took up with his adoptive mother and married her, carrying on the family business of pillage and plunder. Later in life, Cheung Po joined the Qing government and became a government official. Wikimedia Commons
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Ching Shih was a Chinese prostitute that worked on a floating brothel in Canton, China, in 1775. Shih met and then married Zheng Yi who was a powerful and wealthy pirate. After his death, she assumed power and became the world’s first female pirate lord with over 80,000 ships under her command. Wikimedia Commons
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Edward Low in his youth was a thief, a gambler, and a thug. Soon Low turned to a life of piracy, and he and his men captured and robbed dozens of vessels on a number of coasts. Low developed a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness. He is believed to have been executed by hanging. Wikimedia Commons
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Hayreddin Barbarossa began his naval career as a pirate alongside his brothers, raiding Christian coastal villages and seizing ships across the Mediterranean. Barbarossa was so successful that he managed to become the ruler of Algiers, and even the chief admiral of the Ottoman Turkish navy under Suleiman the Magnificent.Wikimedia Commons
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Mary Read was the best mate of Anne Bonny. She had a long history of cross-dressing as a man for the majority of her life and even successfully joined the British military as a man called Mark Read. She was eventually captured in the same battle as Bonny and Calico Jack. She managed to avoid execution due to pregnancy, but she died later in her prison cell due to disease. Wikimedia Commons
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Queen Teuta Of Illyria
Queen Teuta of Illyria was one of the earliest recorded instances of a pirate queen. She utilized piracy as a means of controlling her kingdom. However, it eventually fell to Roman rule and any mention of Queen Teuta of Illyria was lost to history. Wikimedia Commons
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Born to a poor English family in 1689, Bellamy joined the British navy at age 13. Bellamy later turned to a life of piracy, gathering a crew, acquiring a couple of sailing canoes, and heading out into the open seas. He had a real knack for the work as Bellamy captured more than 50 ships from 1716 to 1717. That same year, he died during a storm in a tragic shipwreck. Wikimedia Commons
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Sir Francis Drake
Francis Drake participated in a number of English slaving voyages to Africa and earned a reputation for his piracy against Spanish ships and possessions. Sent by Queen Elizabeth II to South America in 1577, he returned home via the Pacific and became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. The queen later rewarded him with a knighthood.Wikimedia Commons
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Stede Bonnet was a retired British army major with a large sugar plantation in Barbados. Tired of his nagging wife, he abandoned her, his children, land, and fortune, bought a ship and turned to piracy on the high seas. His crew and fellow pirates judged him to be an inept captain. Bonnet’s adventures earned him the nickname “the Gentleman Pirate,” and he later died by execution.Wikimedia Commons
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Captain William Kidd was a British sea captain during the 17th century. In 1695, he was given a royal charter by the British government to apprehend any pirates that molested the ships of the East India Company. However, as the tide turned against any form of piracy, Kidd was later executed for being a pirate himself. Wikimedia Commons
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Yermak Timofeyevich was the leader of an expeditionary force during Russia’s initial attempt to annex a part of Siberia. He was successful and ruled over the unruly region. He later died in battle as resistance forces began to overthrow the Russian yoke. Wikimedia Commons
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Largely considered to be a legend, Awilda was the daughter of a fifth-century Scandinavian King. Refusing to marry her father’s choice of husband, Awilda ran off and became a pirate. The King of Denmark sent a ship manned by the crown prince to bring back Awilda. The prince fought with such valor that Awilda agreed to wed. The pair soon married and became King and Queen of Denmark. Wikimedia Commons
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During just two years prowling the seas, Henry Every and his band captured roughly a dozen vessels and made off with tens of millions of dollars in booty. However, what's most impressive is that he did it all without ever getting captured or killed.Wikimedia Commons
Piracy developed out of a phenomenon called privateering in the 16th and 17th century. Privateering was essentially raiding that was sanctioned by the government.
These privateers were hired as sea raiders to capture commercial vessels flying the flag of declared enemies. This practice required a letter of marque and reprisal, usually signed by a monarch, though it could be issued by a local governor or other lesser officials. In exchange for the letter of marque, these officials received a portion of the booty. A number of iconic individuals emerged from privateering including Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, and William Kidd.
It was during the early 18th century that Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, Bartholomew Roberts, and other famous pirates began to emerge. Our stereotypical image of a pirate as a man with a peg leg, an eyepatch, and a loyal parrot came directly from this golden age of piracy, which occurred during the second half of the 17th century.
However, a pirate in this early modern period was far from the iconic image of a cheery, adventurous, and charmingly-accented sailor. A real pirate from the golden age was normally a violent, desperate thief who thought nothing of murder, torture, and mayhem.
Wikimedia CommonsCaptain William Kidd, gibbeted, following his execution in 1701.
After the mid-18th century, piracy itself would become a criminal act and the punishment for it was death. Piracy made comebacks again in the late 18th century and again in the early 19th century, only to be regularly stamped out by the British navy.
Once caught, convicted pirates were often hanged from cage-like devices called gibbets. These gibbets were in the shape of the human body and were made to hold the body together.
The purpose of gibbeting was to punish the criminal even in death and to warn the general public to obey the law or else. The bodies of these criminals would hang in the gibbets for years. The odor of the corpse would be horrific and the chains and cage would clank together to create frightening sounds.
After time, the pirate's corpse would rot and decompose into a skeleton. The practice of gibbeting made it clear that piracy was an act of high treason and that pirates no longer belonged in society.
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.