Pirates — those who plunder ships at sea or use their ships to attack and pillage ports and coastal settlements — have been around since at least as early as 1400 B.C. and they’re still around today. Even in 2021, reports of piracy span the globe from Peru to Guinea to the Philippines.
There was a time, however, when pirates ruled the seas and the navies of the great powers, massively affecting world trade and colonial settlements.
During the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, from the 1650s to the 1730s, Spanish ships and colonies in the western Atlantic and Caribbean were heavily targeted, as were trade routes in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and along the West African coast. (Movie audiences can get an imaginary idea of piracy in the West Indies in the films in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise — among the biggest box office hits since 2000.)
Many of the most famous pirates in the world operated during these years. Using a number of historical sources, 24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of the most infamous pirates in history.
Often, these career criminals started out as privateers — ship captains who were commissioned by a nation’s government to capture merchant ships owned by enemy governments. Privateers frequently turned to attacking not only enemy ships and ports, but any vessel carrying goods that they deemed worthy of pillaging.
Although a few of these pirates lived long lives and enjoyed their riches, most met with gruesome endings. Some were killed by cannonballs in battle, others were captured and executed for their crimes, and some drowned when their ships sank, laden with treasures. (Here are the 31 most famous shipwrecks in history.)