Pirate Ships

Famous Pirate Ships of the Past and Present

Written By: Frank Bongiorno

Pirates have long been synonymous with adventure and mystery, and real and fictional pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Hook have captured imaginations around the world. But while we may romanticize these figures, the truth is that piracy is maritime theft: Pirates use their boat to attack other boats and steal their cargo. Sometimes, pirates have used their boats to raid and loot coastal towns, like the Vikings did in the 10th century. Pirates were criminals who inspired fear and awe in their victims and rivals. Many pirates were career criminals who choose the life of piracy because they had limited skills and job opportunities. Pirate ships sometimes became as infamous as their captains. Pirates flew flags with their insignia, which was usually a form of the Jolly Roger, a flag with a skull and crossbones. Today, pirates are unlikely to be flying a flag announcing themselves, but they still roam the world's seas, especially in southern Asia and along the African coast.

Parts of a Pirate Ship

On pirate ships, much like on some yachts we see today, the masts and sails were supported by a series of ropes and pulleys called the rigging. The three masts were the foremast in the front, the mainmast in the middle, and the mizzenmast in the back. The sails were made out of cloth, not canvas like they are today. The pirates would adjust the sails to change their speed and direction. When they spotted a ship to hijack, the pirates would raise the sails and go faster. Pirates would steer the ship using the rudder. Scuppers were openings on the deck that would drain water if the ship started to list or took on water during a storm at sea. A common expression in pirate lore is "walking the plank," which was a public way of executing the captain of another ship or mutinous sailors. The victim was tied up with rope so that they couldn't swim, then forced to walk off of the wooden plank into the sea, where they would drown. Loot was stored in the hull, which is the lowest part of the ship. Pirates were assigned to guard the loot until it could be sold.

Past Pirate Ships and Their Captains

Edward "Blackbeard" Teach's Queen Anne's Revenge

Blackbeard was a British pirate who plundered ships off of the coast of the southeastern United States and in the waters of the West Indies. His real name was Edward Teach, but like most pirates, he used a nickname to avoid identification. He used the name "Blackbeard" because he sported a thick black beard. Blackbeard was a notorious pirate who led a reign of terror from 1716 to 1718. He was based in North Carolina and had an agreement with the state's governor that allowed him to intimidate passing ships into paying a toll. North Carolina's governor pardoned Blackbeard even after the pirate blockaded Charleston Harbor in 1718.

Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, was a former slave ship he captured from French sailors. It was large enough to hold 200 tons of cargo. The wreck of the ship was discovered by a group of divers in 1996. Legend has it that Blackbeard had a huge treasure buried in some unknown location. He was never able to tell anyone where it was before he was killed in 1718 by a group of British navy men sent from Virginia to kill him at the request of North Carolina plantation owners. They cut off his head and displayed it on a pike.

Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts's Royal Fortune

Black Bart's ship the Royal Fortune was easily recognizable because of its terrifying Jolly Roger. Black Bart's flag depicted him standing on two severed skulls and brandishing a fiery sword. From 1719 to 1722, Black Bart pillaged ships in the Atlantic Ocean between the Americas and the West African coast. He was born in Wales as John Roberts and later changed his name to Bartholomew, eventually becoming "Black Bart." He captured more than 400 ships, making him one of the most successful pirates of all time. Black Bart named every ship he sailed the Royal Fortune. The first Royal Fortune was a French frigate he captured in 1720. He armed it with 26 cannons, making it a formidable weapon. Black Bart captured the second Royal Fortune when it was a French warship belonging to the fleet of the governor of Martinique. Black Bart was sailing the Royal Fortune when he died in battle when Captain Chaloner Ogle of the HMS Swallow cornered him at Cape Lopez on the western coast of Africa. Black Bart's crew buried him at sea with his weapons and jewelry, wrapped in the Royal Fortune's sail. His body has never been recovered.

Sam Bellamy's Whydah

Sam Bellamy was also known as Black Sam. He was the wealthiest pirate ever. He was famous for letting his sailors, many of them indentured servants, slaves, and Native Americans, vote and make decisions. Sam Bellamy's Whydah was named after the West African coastal town of Ouidah, Benin. Bellamy captured the Whydah when it was a slave ship making its second voyage to Cuba. Unlike other pirates who died in battle, Sam Bellamy drowned when the Whydah sank in a Nor'easter in the Atlantic Ocean near Massachusetts. The ship capsized when it hit a sandbar, and few of the crewmembers survived. Folklore suggests that the Whydah held the booty of 53 previously captured ships when it sank. Modern divers have recovered numerous priceless artifacts from the wreckage.

Captain William Kidd's Adventure

Captain William Kidd was hired by Col. Robert Livingston on behalf of the British to attack other pirates and French ships who posed a threat to British merchants. Livingston and other wealthy British businessmen of the time paid for the Adventure to be equipped with 34 guns. Captain Kidd went rogue and started attacking British ships as well as foreign ships. In return, Livingston helped to engineer his capture and extradition to London, where Kidd was hanged for piracy.

Henry Avery's Fancy

Henry Avery started his career as a pirate when he committed mutiny aboard the Charles II and changed the ship's name to the Fancy. The Fancy was manned by 150 sailors and was equipped with 50 guns. Avery operated as a pirate for only one year, from 1694 to 1695. He gave his treasure to the governor of the Bahamas, Nicholas Trott, who gave him and his crew refuge. Unlike many pirates, who met grisly and unfortunate deaths, Avery was never captured and died with his riches.

Pirates and Pirate Ships Today

Modern-day piracy often happens in the vicinity of states with weak governments that don't have the military strength to patrol their coastal waters and keep them safe from pirates. Many pirate attacks happen off the coast of Somalia, in the Red Sea, and in the Gulf of Aden near Yemen.

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