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History's 10 most notorious pirates

Calico Jack Rackham flag
This flag design was used by infamous pirate Calico Jack Rackham. (Image credit: Public domain image)

From huge movie franchises such as "Pirates of the Caribbean," to classic novels and best-selling video games, there is a big fascination with the cut-throat buccaneers who menaced the seas. 

Although they found fame and fortune through plundering merchant vessels, many pirates began as privateers — state-sanctioned sailors for hire who would turn their guns on enemy shipping and harass commercial ships in designated zones. 

For many the lure of gold was too great, and they struck out under their own flag to illegally raid rich merchant vessels. Some pirates were so successful that they became feared by sailors around the world, and earned fierce reputations that remain to this day.  

Here are 10 of the most infamous pirates of all time.

Blackbeard

Blackbeard the pirate

Blackbeard is one of the most notorious pirates ever. (Image credit: Future)

By far the most infamous pirate in history, Blackbeard's life is in fact shrouded in mystery. Much of what we know about him is from "A General History of the Pyrates," by Daniel Defoe (London, 1724), according to which Blackbeard was born in Bristol, England, under the name Edward Thatch, and served as a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession.

In 1716 he turned to pirating in the Caribbean Sea and off the coasts of South Carolina and Virginia in his ship named "Queen Anne’s Revenge". In just two years he earned a fearful reputation in these regions, which according to historian and journalist Colin Woodward he used to his advantage. "He did his best to cultivate a terrifying image and reputation, which encouraged his foes to surrender without a fight," Woodard told All About History magazine. 

Thatch's huge beard "came up to his eyes," and while in action he carried "three brace of pistols, hanging in holsters like Bandoliers; and stuck lighted matches under his hat," in order to cloud himself in an ominous haze of smoke, according to Defoe. Blackbeard was killed in November 1718, after his ship was attacked by members of the Royal Navy, on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake, pirate

Sir Francis Drake (Image credit: public domain)

A noble to some but an outlaw to others, Drake spent time — between circumnavigating the globe and defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588 — engaging in piracy and slave-trading in the Caribbean. The raids he led, especially on Spanish colonies in Central America, took some of the richest bounties in pirating history.

Captain Samuel Bellamy

Captain Samuel Bellamy

(Image credit: public domain)

Despite dying at the ripe young age of 28, "Black Sam" Bellamy made a name for himself in New World pirating with several daring ship captures, including that of the Whydah Gally, a slave ship filled with a fortune in gold, silver and other goods. Bellamy made the Whydah Gally his flagship in 1717, but went down with it in a storm that same year.

Ching Shih

Ching Shih pirate

Ching Shih, also known as Zheng Yi Sao, rose to become one of the most powerful pirates in the South China Sea. (Image credit: Future)

Though she came from humble beginnings, Ching Shih eventually became the most powerful pirate in the South China Sea. In 1801 she married a pirate captain, Cheng I, and the couple began consolidating control of the region's rival pirate gangs into a confederation, according to Dian Murray, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame ("Historical Reflections 8", Vol. 3, 1981).

At the height of her power Ching Shih controlled a fleet of 1,200 ships crewed by 70,000 pirates, Murray wrote. These were organized into six squadrons whose leaders all owed allegiance to Ching Shih and her husband. 

In 1807 Ching I died, leaving Ching Shih in sole control of the pirate confederation. According to Murray, she secured control of the pirates through careful alliances and a strict code of laws. "The code was severe. Anyone caught giving commands on his own or disobeying  those of a superior was immediately decapitated," Murray wrote.   

In 1810 Ching Shih broke up the confederation and agreed a generous deal with the Chinese government. Not only were the pirates pardoned, some were allowed to keep their vessels, others joined the Chinese army and some even took positions in the government. 

Bartholomew Roberts

pirate, Bartholomew Roberts

Bartholomew Roberts is seen in this illustration from around 1724 with his ship and some captured merchant ships. (Image credit: Public domain)

"Black" Bart Robers was one of the most successful pirates of the Golden Age, patrolling the waters off Africa and the Caribbean islands, taking upwards of 400 ships in just four years. The notedly cold-blooded sailor rarely left anyone aboard alive, prompting an intense manhunt by the British government that led to his death at sea.

Captain Kidd

Captain Kidd, pirate,

Captain William Kidd welcoming a young woman on board his ship; other men and women crowd the deck as another woman steps aboard. Postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc., 1932. Reproduction of oil painting from series: The Pageant of a Nation. (Image credit: Public domain)

Privateer or pirate? Scottish sailor William Kidd is famous for walking the blurry line between both, at first employed by the British government as the former but ultimately hanged in 1701 as the latter. Rumors about the location of an immense treasure he hid before his trial persist to this day.

Henry Morgan

Henry Morgan

An 18th century lithography of the pirate Henry Morgan. (Image credit: Public domain image)

So popular he had a rum named for him, Captain Morgan ruled the Caribbean seas as a privateer, then pirate, in the mid 1600s, famously wreaking havoc on the gold-laden Spanish colony of Panama City. He is also known as one of the few pirates to ever "retire" from activity with few repercussions.

Calico Jack

calico jack, pirate,

Rackham, Jack, aka Calico Jack, Pirate of the Caribbean, 18th century woodcut. (Image credit: public domain)

The pioneer of the Jolly Roger flag, Calico Jack Rackham was a Caribbean buccaneer who had few epic plunders to his name, but is known for his association with Anne Bonny as well as his classic pirate death. Captured in Jamaica in 1720, Rackham was hanged, tarred and displayed as a warning to others in a location now called Rackham's Cay.

Ann Bonny

Anne Bonny, pirate,

The pirate Anne Bonny in an 18th century engraving. (Image credit: Public domain image)

History's most famous female pirate was as menacing as her male counterparts, gorgeous and intelligent to boot. The daughter of plantation owners, Anne left her structured life in the early 1700s and hit the seas. She joined Calico Jack Rackham's ship disguised as a man, but was spared the death sentence when the crew was captured because she was pregnant with his child, according to legend.

Barbarossa Brothers

Barbarossa Brothers

Barbarossa Brothers

The names Aruj and Hizir may not seem familiar, but the moniker given to the Turkish corsairs by Europeans — Barbarossa (red beard) — likely conjure up images of fierce, sword-wielding sailors on the Mediterranean. In the 16th century, using North Africa as a base, the Barbarossa brothers attacked multiple coastal towns with their band of Barbary pirates and became some of the region's most influential men.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.