A lot of what we know about pirates comes from trial records or news reports after the execution. But every so often, there were pirates who escaped justice and the hangman.
Here are some of them.
The story of Henry Every’s life is one long on sensational fabrications and short on verifiable facts. Even his name has been manipulated. He is sometimes referred to as Henry Avery, John Avery and/or Long Ben. The "Long Ben" designation potentially implies his name was not ‘Henry’ (or John) at all. The name Henry Every is most associated with him as it is found in Royal Navy records from his lifetime.
Over time, Every’s pirate image developed as a kind of a maritime ‘Robin Hood’: a man who took from the rich and gave to the poor. After his discharge from the Navy, he was believed to operate as an illegal slaver. While there is little documented evidence of his operation, one story goes that after capturing a ship of slaves, he also detained the slavers themselves. This act helped feed the ‘Robin Hood’ persona to present him as a working man who rejected elite authority.
To endorse this persona, Every also carried a solid reputation as a family man who, unlike many other seamen of his time, was believed to consistently financially support his wife and children back in England rather than drink away his wages.
The story of Every’s turn to piracy solidified the Robin Hood designation. He was signed on as first mate on one of four English ships docked in Coruna (northern Spain) to participate in a Spanish trade mission. Trouble followed the venture from the start. The two week journey from London to Coruna had taken months. Documentation had fallen through, leaving the seamen trapped on the ships with no money and no way to find alternate employment. As the months passed and the captains refused to pay up, the situation eventually led to mutiny. The mutineers chose Every as their captain.
The highpoint of Every's piracy career was taking the 24-ship treasure fleet of the Grand Mughal. The capture was bloody and violent, with several Indian seamen tortured and murder. It also destroyed the delicate trade relationship the English East India Company maintained with local Indian rulers. A proclamation for Every's capture was quickly arranged to placate the furious Mughal.
But after a series of adventures, Every escaped. What became of him is one of the great mysteries of piracy. His legend only grew from the day he disappeared. Inspired by his rebellion against wage theft and economic oppression, Henry Every proved the inspiration for many of the pirates to come.
Women’s pirate stories are often written as tales of glamour, ruthlessness, hedonism and sexual adventure. They are often depicted as sexy and feisty when in reality, women pirates operated in a man’s world of conflict and hardship. They were in it for what they could get, just like the men.
One of these women was Mary Read. She and Ann Bonny are the most famous English women sea-rovers of the early eighteenth century. This is not because they were the only ones but because this is the period of historic piracy that is best recorded. The stories of Mary and Ann are often lumped together but in fact their motivations were quite different.
Mary masqueraded as a man to get a job on the sea. She was apparently no stranger to passing herself off as a man because her mother had disguised her as her dead older brother to hide the shame of an illegitimate child and seek financial support. Work was easier to come by dressed as a boy and she joined the Royal Navy, distinguishing herself in battle.
After her husband's death, Mary resumed dressing as a man to work on privateering vessels. When her ship was taken by pirates, she – like men in the same situation – joined the pirate ship. She later joined the crew of the pirate John Rackham and his companion, Ann Bonny.
Mary was known as a vicious pirate. Perhaps she needed to be a violent person in a violent world to maintain the respect of the rest of the crew. Yet it seemed they became aware she was a woman. According to one witness at her trial, ‘when they gave chase or attacked, they wore men’s clothes; at all other times they wore women’s clothes.’
After a series of piracy attacks, Mary was arrested with Rackham and his crew and brought to trial in Spanish Town, Jamaica. She ‘pleaded the belly’ (pregnancy). Since the court excluded the taking of an innocent’s life, Mary received a stay of execution.
Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to enjoy it and died of a fever while still in prison.
Over time, Mary Read's story has seen her emerge as an emblem of women’s liberty.
In pirate lore, Ann Bonny’s story is couched in the trope of the ‘fictional female warrior’. This was a woman who does not masquerade as a man for work, like Mary Read did, but sets off to sea to follow a lover, escape a husband, or defend her country.
There are two sources on Ann’s life as a pirate: Johnson’s famous tome on piracy in the era, ‘A General History of the Pyrates’; and the transcript of her trial. The trial transcript presents Ann as the lover of the pirate, John Rackham. Onboard Rackham’s ship, Mary and Ann are treated as equals among the men. Rackham made no exception for Ann or Mary and they played a central role in his raiding.
Yet according to Johnson’s version of events, Ann perfectly fit the criteria for the ferocious Amazon stories popular at the time. Born working-class and illegitimate, he wrote she had a fierce and courageous temper and a strong desire for independence and autonomy. In Johnson’s story, Ann was dressed as a boy and first assumed a male disguise as an adult to escape a rocky marriage and elope to the sea with Rackham.
Instead of being mere equals, the women filled the ‘female warrior’ trope as the bravest onboard Rackham’s ship, ruthlessly fighting while the rest of the crew cowered below deck, or languished in their drunkenness. Johnson’s story of Ann’s sexual advances on Mary (who she believed to be a boy) also fits the trope. Of course, after the two revealed themselves to each other and exchanged their secrets, any hint of romance dissipated. It was still 1720 after all, not a porn film.
Despite Ann’s ferociousness as a pirate, Johnson needed to ensure her bloodlust was balanced by her devotion to Rackham. While the ‘female warrior’ embodied the most masculine of values, the trope meant she must always remain feminine.
The true story of Ann Bonny’s character can not be truly ascertained from either source. She certainly escaped death by claiming to be pregnant with Ratham’s baby. She stayed in a Jamaican prison until she gave birth, was reprieved and disappeared without a trace.
Henry Morgan was a natural born leader, known for his courage, judgement and extraordinary good luck. He was not born into poverty and could have lived a safe, secure and prosperous life in England. Instead, he chose to escape and follow his sense of adventure to Jamaica.
There, he joined the buccaneers and quickly rose to prominence among them. When other buccaneers squandered their prizes on debauchery and gambling, Morgan held on to his. When war broke out between England and Spain, the ambitious Morgan was not content with prizes from a single raid. Instead, he joined the expeditions of Edward Mansfield. The two began raiding Spanish forts across the Caribbean, terrorising villagers and burning down entire towns. Then he held the survivors for ransom, intent on squeezing every last drop from them.
Before long, Morgan’s fame was so great he needed to merely mention the site of his next expedition and a fleet of ships would gather to accommodate him.
Morgan and his men were viciously violent even by the standards of the day. His most famous exploit, the raid of Panama, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Spaniards and the burning of 5,000 homes, 200 warehouses, 7 monasteries, a convent, a hospital and a cathedral. While Morgan and his men celebrated their conquest, they let the most lucrative prize escape: a Spanish galleon, loaded with silver and all the valuables of Panama.
When peace was announced, Henry Morgan received a hero’s welcome in Jamaica. This was despite abandoning most of his men and keeping their loot for himself. The Spanish complained of his brutality to Charles II who demanded he return to England to stand trial for piracy. He escaped conviction, gained a knighthood and returned to Jamaica as the assistant governor.
Sir Henry Morgan lived the last 16 years of his life a wealthy and successful plantation owner in Jamaica.
Unlike many other buccaneer stories and many pirate histories in general, Bartholomew Sharp’s career is one of the more documented on record. Several participants kept journals of his most famous expedition around the Pacific and Caribbean, including John Cox, Basil Ringrose and Sharp himself.
Sharp became a buccaneer at 16. He served under Henry Morgan and was most likely present for Morgan’s ill-fated raid of Panama in 1671. After the end of the third Anglo-Dutch War and the expiry of his commission, Sharp turned to piracy. His career in piracy lasted seven years (1675-82). His most prominent raid was on Spanish assets around Panama. But in comparison to others, he was not a particularly successful buccaneer. His expedition was disorganised and he gained a relatively small amount of plunder from it.
However, Sharp did manage to pilfer a derrotero – an invaluable set of Spanish nautical charts. These proved crucial to his escape from piracy prosecution. Much to the anger of the Spanish Crown, who was not at war with England at the time Sharp undertook his illegal raids, their demand for Sharp’s prosecution for piracy was eliminated when Sharp presented the maps in the Admiralty Court. They were considered so invaluable to English seafarers that they secured Sharp a pardon from King Charles II.
Sharp moved to St Thomas in the West Indies. He did eventually die in prison but for failing to pay his debts, not piracy.
Sharp is significant to piracy history because he is one of the first people to record the term ‘going on the account’, meaning to ‘become a pirate’. His voyage around the Pacific was also important because of the presence of William Dampier onboard (the subject of the next post!)
Pictured here: ‘The Buccaneers’ by Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956). Available from the Internet Archive and the Ontario College of Art.
Like Bartholomew Sharp before him, William Dampier was not a particularly successful buccaneer. A lifetime of buccaneering brought him little financial reward. He was not, like the other English buccaneers of his time, a veteran commander or even a good leader. He did not have the bombastic personality of Henry Morgan, or the persuasive charisma of Henry Every. Instead, Dampier was a quiet, keen-eyed man in possession of exceptional navigational skills. In Dampier’s words, he sailed with buccaneers more to ‘indulge his curiosity than for wealth’.
This he turned to his true love: understanding the natural curiosities of the world.
Dampier was a careful and accurate seaman/scientist. None of this very much interested his buccaneering compatriots until he published his seminal volume in 1697: A New Voyage round the World. It was no adventure travel book. Instead, it was a factual and richly detailed account of a strange and fascinating world of people, places, things, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. No-one had seen anything like it before.
It was a phenomenal success. A second volume came in 1699. To capitalise on his success, buccaneering narratives emerged featuring cameos by William Dampier.
Dampier’s publishing success opened connections for him to the Royal Society, the leading scientific institution of the day. Yet despite joining the distinguished ranks, he rarely apologised for his buccaneering past.
Nevertheless, he was given Royal Navy command of an exploratory voyage to map the east coast of New Holland (Australia). Dampier’s poor captaincy skills were on full display. But the Roebuck sank at Ascension Island on 24 February 1701. Dampier was court-martialled for cruelty. He produced another influential volume in 1703: A Voyage to New Holland.
His exploratory career over, Dampier reverted to his buccaneering past. Towards the end of his life, he served as pilot to Captain Woodes Rogers on a successful privateering cruise, not. As Dampier’s ill-luck would have it, he died before the £200,000 was distributed.
The significance of Dampier’s work can not be over-stated. His research influenced notable explorers, like James Cook and Horatio Nelson; the scientific theories of Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt; the English language, through words like ‘barbecue’, ‘avocado’, and ‘chopsticks’.
Numerous places are named for him, especially in Australia.
Grace O’Malley (Granuaile)
Grace O’Malley (‘Granuaile’ as she is known in Ireland) was an extraordinary woman, leader and pirate. It is because of this, that there is so much surviving record of her.
Sixteenth century Ireland was a tribal society. It was composed of a myriad of separate states ruled by independent chieftains who were continually at war with one another. Chieftains measured power by the number of lords they held sway over and how much they received in tribute from them. The rest of their time was spent resisting the encroaching English administration pushing outwards from Dublin.
Politically, the odds were stacked against Granuaile becoming an accepted leader in the male-dominated society of her birth. Women’s place was in the home and they were barred from succession by local custom. Even the first born son needed to prove his fitness for leading the clan among his family.
Granuaile was the only daughter of Dudara O’Malley, chieftain of Umhall near Clew Bay, on the west coast of Ireland. The O’Malleys drew their living from the sea; and they ruled the waves. Granuaile grew up raiding, plundering, and smuggling.
She came to power by superseding her first chieftain husband and assuming command of her father’s ships. This was probably only possible because of her father’s faith in her abilities. But despite her clear competence and leadership ability, she was quickly usurped in favour of her husband’s male cousin. But Granuaile had already inspired the enduring loyalty of her father’s men.
From Clare Island, she led rebellions against individual English administrators when they sought to overpower her, traded and pirated successfully from Scotland to Spain, and attacked her own son (who she had trained herself) when he sided with her enemy (England).
Granuaile battled the English for 50 years. To secure the release of her third son (who she had given birth to on a ship on the high seas) from an English prison, Granuaile petitioned Queen Elizabeth I. Intrigued, Elizabeth sought to meet her (pictured here). She was sufficiently impressed by Granuaile that she disregarded the weight of piracy evidence against her and ordered her son’s release.
Granuaile is thought to have died around 1603, a free woman.
Members of Black Bart’s crew
Pirate captain Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts died during a last stand with English naval Captain Ogle off the coast of Guinea on 10 February 1722. Around 152 men were captured and taken to Cabo Corso Castle (now in Ghana) to be prosecuted for piracy. Fifty-two were black, presumably former slaves.
In those days, it was very rare for a piracy trial to last a full day, even when defendants were prosecuted in groups of 10 to 30. However, defendants were allowed to call witnesses in their defence.
All of Roberts’ men pled ‘Not Guilty’, claiming Roberts had forced them into it. They had been taken out of their ship, the Royal Fortune, had resisted as much as they could, and had never fired a gun against Captain Ogle and his men.
This may seem ridiculous as a defence against piracy but in reality, it had considerable validity. Pirate attacks occurred far out on the high seas. When two ships meet out there and the captain of one tells the other, ‘we’re taking your ship, join us or die’, then what choice does a seaman have? In fact, the vast majority of pirates throughout history became pirates this way. Roberts himself was the victim of piracy.
The question at the trial was about what happened next. Could the defendant prove that he had never embraced piracy, not participated in attacks unless under threat of his life, tried to escape from the pirate ship when given the chance? Each defendant needed to show that all the time they were onboard the ship, they consistently rejected piracy.
Several of Roberts’ crew were able to do just that. Captain Joseph Trahern knew many of the defendants before they joined Roberts. He testified in their defence, stating they had begged him to take them away from Roberts, had been forced into signing Roberts’ infamous articles, and had never participated in any of the piracy. Another witness told how he had seen William Smith being dragged out of his ship, beaten and forced into Roberts’ ship. The men were acquitted.
Witness testimony also worked against the men. One defendant, Peter Divine, was convicted because another witness remembered him sailing with Stede Bonnet out of Barbados. Several of the men turned King’s Evidence against the other defendants.
Overall, around 60 % of the pirates who sailed with Bartholomew Roberts were acquitted. This was in keeping with other piracy prosecutions from this era. Unfortunately for the former slaves released, they were sold back into slavery.
In 1688, during the reign of King James II, the prospect of a line of Catholics on the English throne became too much for the English parliament to bear. So they approached William of Orange, who was married to James’ Protestant daughter Mary, about challenging James to the throne.
The resulting upheaval was called the Glorious Revolution. ‘Revolution’ in this context meant ‘turning back to the status quo’, not a social uprising such as the French Revolution.
William succeeded. The Parliament forced James to abdicate in favour of William and Mary. But James did not take this lying down. With the help of the French King, Louis XIV, James set about harnessing the privateering capabilities of his Catholic subjects in Ireland (then under English rule) to take back his throne. The result was English subjects attacking English ships. Under English law, this was treason and, by extension, piracy.
Until then, privateers were immune from piracy prosecution because of the commissions they carried to attack ships on the King’s behalf. James’ privateers carried his commissions. To them, he WAS the rightful king so they were not committing treason. But William believed that since James was no longer king, his privateers were traitors to him. He ordered them captured and prosecuted for piracy.
At the trial, the privateers’ advocate argued that it was the privateers’ choice to respect the authority of the ruler issuing the commission, not an obligation. It was hardly their fault that a current king and a former king were arguing over who was the rightful ruler.
His argument failed. All eight of the privateers were convicted. But the advocate’s position hit a nerve. The sentences were commuted and the privateers’ escaped with their lives. After that, the laws around piracy began to change. The treason connection was removed and piracy became the crime against property it is today.
In early 1692, Robert Culliford and his band of pirates landed at the port of Mangriol, in north-eastern India. They spent their time drunkenly harassing the local women, stealing, and violently attacking the men. One night, the fed up locals orchestrated a plan to get rid of them. A local boy swam out to the pirate ship and cut the anchor cables. This caused the vessel to wash ashore where the local people attacked.
They captured 18 men, including Culliford. Then they shackled them and carried them inland, locking them up in a prison to rot. During months of confinement, Culliford solidified a friendship with another prisoner, Jon Swann. (The exact nature of this friendship feeds contemporary discussion on the nature of pirates’ sexuality)
After six months in squalor, one of the prisoners managed to smuggle a note to the English East India Company (EIC) headquarters in Bombay, telling them about their predicament. The note mustered no sympathy: pirates harassing Moghul ships were always causing diplomatic problems for the English in India.
The years trickled by. Over time, the prisoners were eventually trusted enough to work at intervals aboard Moghul ships. Then one day in early 1696, Culliford and his men rose up, overpowered their guards and managed to escape.
Culliford, Swann and the others limped into Bombay. Culliford managed to sign on as gunner’s mate aboard a local vessel called Josiah carrying supplies for the EIC. The job would not allow him to readily return to his piracy career so instead, he and his men concocted a plan. They should try to steal a ship and meet up in Achin in the Spice Islands, and make for China.
After a few days, the Josiah’s captain took ill and was laid up onshore. This was Culliford’s chance: he stole the ship and headed out, back to his life as a pirate. He would later secure his place in history as the antagonist of Captain William Kidd.