We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Pirate primer

Queen Teuta of Illyria (231-227 BCE)

This Balkan queen of the Ardiaei supported the raids of her people who disrupted Adriatic trade from Greece and Rome. Said to have two pupils per eye by batty Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, Teuta defended her Illyrian pirates to Rome’s ambassadors as lawful traders, saying ‘it was never royalty’s habit to get in the way of the advantages that its subjects could get from the sea’.

Gan Ning (190 BCE)

A Chinese bandit active around the time of the Three Kingdoms, Gan Ning led a glamorous and murderous gang who, armed with bows and jingling with warning bells, terrorized the waterways of Eastern Wu, resplendent in outfits made of silk, which they also used to tie their boats at harbour. The energetic Gan Ning later gave up marauding for the more respectable job of military officer to the warlord emperor Sun Quan. He died in battle, or of dysentery - depending on which account you believe.

Oruç Barbarossa (1490-1518)

A red-bearded corsair who operated around the North African coast, Greece-born Oruç captured Christian slaves, attacked coastal communities and raided European ships. Barbarossa is also said to have rescued 70,000 Muslim refugees from newly reconquered Spain between 1504 and 1510. He sported a silver prosthetic arm after losing the limb to a cannonball, and was finally killed by his Spanish foes in 1518. Armed with red dye, his brother Hizir assumed the moniker Barbarossa and became the Ottoman Empire’s first sea captain, controlling the eastern Mediterranean for 30 years.

Francis Drake (1570-1580)

Devon-born Vice-Admiral Drake was a state-sponsored pirate or ‘privateer’ who relentlessly plundered Spanish ships as they returned from the Americas laden with gold. Queen Elizabeth I’s 50-per-cent cut of the Golden Hind’s cargo in 1580 was worth more than a year’s income from other sources, and she knighted him soon after. While best known for defeating the Spanish Armada, ‘Sea Dog’ Drake also dabbled in slavery in his early years at sea. He definitely died of dysentery, aged 55.


Roche Braziliano (1654-1671)

A Dutch buccaneer born with the less sexy name of Gerrit Gerritszoon, Roche was a notoriously cruel drunkard. He also had it in for Spaniards, whom he reportedly roasted alive and dismembered. No-one knows whether he was lost at sea or quietly retired but reports ceased in 1671.

Mary Read (1708-1713)

One of just two women to be convicted of piracy in the Golden Age, Read dressed as a boy from an early age and started out working for the English navy. After a brief episode of married life in the Netherlands running a pub, Read donned breeches once more and sailed to the West Indies where she eventually joined the crew of pirate Calico Jack. Known as a fierce fighter, her biology caught up with her in the end: having narrowly avoided hanging by ‘pleading the belly’ after capture during a rum party, she died in childbirth while imprisoned in Spanish Town, Jamaica.

Blackbeard (1716-1718)

No list would be complete without this pirate, who, thanks to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, must have spawned enough figurines to send a fleet of ships to Davy Jones’ Locker. A shrewd operator, Bristol-born Edward Teach tied fuses under his hat to terrify his enemies. He is reported to have gratuitously shot and crippled crew members lest they forget who was in charge. Not a particularly successful bandit, he met a premature death like one in four Golden Age pirates, killed in a raid at the age of 38.


El Pirata Cofresí (1818-1825)

Roberto Cofresí was a Puerto Rican who targeted US ships with his schooner El Mosquito before turning on the Spaniards in sympathy with the island’s pro-independence faction. He assaulted ships exporting gold, saying he wouldn’t ‘allow foreign hands to take a piece of the country that saw his birth’. A Robin Hood folk hero to locals for sharing spoils with the needy, he was also known for extreme cruelty to hostages, some of whom he ordered nailed to Mosquito’s deck. He was executed by firing squad along with his crew, aged 33.

Captain Changco (1980s-1990s)

A Filipino gang leader who specialized in bespoke piracy, Emilio Changco made the most of Manila Bay’s 7,000 islands to carry out brazen thefts of ships and their cargo. From the vantage point of a hotel with a sea view over the port, he is said to have invited clients to choose a ship from his ‘display cabinet’, which he would then steal (for $300,000). A well known operator, companies would hire him to steal back their cargoes, as well as for carrying out insurance fraud. He died in prison in mysterious circumstances.

Big Mouth (2003-2006)

Former civil servant Mohamed Abdi Hassan was one of Somalia’s most prolific pirates. Credited with nailing the hijack-for-ransom business model, his hand-picked ‘Somali marines’ pioneered sophisticated attacks that captured the supertanker Sirius Star - loaded with $100-million worth of crude oil - a Ukrainian vessel weighed down with tanks and, more ignominiously, food-aid rice. His legit business empire now stretches from India to Kenya. Once afforded the dubious honour of a reception by Muammar Qadafi, he has officially ‘retired’ and is ‘rehabilitating’ 900 pirate detainees.

New Internationalist issue 465 magazine cover This article is from the September 2013 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop