Other People’s Pirates – 13 of History’s Forgotten Sea Dogs

You've probably read plenty about English, French and Dutch buccaneers, but less about German, Polish or Aboriginal pirates... that is until now.

You’ve probably read plenty about English, French and Dutch buccaneers, but less about German, Polish or Aboriginal pirates… that is until now.

BUCKETS OF INK has been spilled immortalizing Britain’s buccaneers, privateers and sea dogs. Sir Henry Morgan, William Kidd, Blackbeard and Sir Francis Drake are legends. Similarly, the French have their pirates François “Peg Leg” Le Clerc and François l’Olonnais, while the Dutch celebrate the exploits of their most famous corsair Piet Hein. And although history remembers these nations` swashbucklers, a number of other countries have their own pirate heroes (and villains) as well — most of which you’ve probably never even heard of. Consider these:

Spain’s Pirates

History records a number of Spanish renegades.

History records a number of Spanish renegades.

Most think of the Spanish as being the victims of piracy, at least in the New World of the 17th Century. After all, the empire’s huge treasure galleons, which for decades transported gold and silver from mines in the Americas to Spain, were famously targeted by English, French and Dutch swashbucklers, freebooters and privateers alike. However, a number of Spaniards sought a cut of the action as well. These included Juan Guartem and Eduardo Blomar, a pair of turncoats who collaborated with the English buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp. Together, the trio marched an army of adventurers across the Isthmus of Panama from the Caribbean to attack Spain’s treasure houses on the Pacific coast at Chepo. Unable to capture either of the two traitors, colonial authorities in Panama resorted to the impotent gesture of trying the pair in absentia and then hanging them in effigy. Spain also claims the “last of the buccaneers”, Jose Gaspar. In the late 18th Century, this deserter from the Spanish navy commanded his own ship and initiated a reign of terror over the sea-lanes in and around Florida. He supposedly amassed a fortune in loot, which he stored in his hideout on Gasparilla Island, along with a harem of young women his crew kidnapped from the vessels they captured. Every year, the city of Tampa hosts a pirate festival in Gaspar’s honour. The 16th Century Spanish pirate Alonzo Bosco also terrorized shipping from his own private island — in this case Inishbofin, off the coast of Ireland’s County Galway. According to legend, Bosco erected his own castle on the island and forged an alliance with Ireland’s famous female pirate, Grace O’Malley.

The Pirates of Ireland

Edward England wasn't English at all. He came from Ireland.

Edward England wasn’t English at all. He came from Ireland.

O’Malley wasn’t the only noted swashbuckler to hail from the Emerald Isle. Edward England, Walter Kennedy and the legendary Anne Bonny all were Irish. Unlike many of his Celtic criminal compatriots, one of Ireland’s noted pirates, Edward Jordan, eschewed the rich hunting grounds of the Caribbean for the comparatively slim pickings of the Grand Banks off Canada’s east coast. After fleeing his homeland following the Irish rebellions of 1797, Jordan headed for Nova Scotia for what he hoped would be a quiet life of fishing. But after becoming burdened by crushing debts, he turned to piracy in 1809. For five weeks, Jordan cruised the waters off the eastern seaboard plundering fishing vessels and traders until being captured by the Royal Navy. Jordan was tired, convicted and hanged in Halifax. His skull is still on display in a maritime museum in the city.

Out of Africa

While Africans and freed slaves often served as crew aboard Caribbean pirate vessels, history records few of these individuals rising to command, with some notable exceptions. Black Caesar was originally a tribal chieftain from West Africa who was trapped by slave traders and transported to the Americas. During a storm off the coast of Florida, Caesar managed to break free from his chains. As the ship broke up in the tempest, Caesar and a crew member fled in a lifeboat and made shore in the Florida Keys. From there, the two spent years attacking and robbing passing ships while posing as stranded as castaways. Eventually, the pair suffered a falling out and the former slave killed his partner. Soon, the lone pirate attracted a small crew and began taking prizes from a sanctuary on Elliot Key. Black Caesar’s company eventually merged with Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. When the famous pirate was captured, so was the former slave. He was hanged by authorities in Virginia in 1718.

The Aboriginal Pirate

Another black pirate, John Julian, was also part Miskito Indian. Born in Nicaragua in 1701, Julian joined England’s Sam Bellamy and the crew of the slaver-turned-pirate-ship Whydah while still a teenager. After a year-long stint on the vessel, he and the rest of the crew were captured by the Royal Navy and sent to Boston to stand trial. Julian was reportedly spared a trip to the gallows and was sold into slavery instead . In 1733, the former pirate escaped and was hanged.

Germany’s Humanitarian Raiders

The execution of a "Victual Brother".

The execution of a “Victual Brother”.

Most pirates (and even licensed privateers) plunder ships to line their pockets – Germany’s pirate collective known as the Victual Brothers, sailed the Baltic in the 14th century to feed the starving. Originally hired in 1392 by King Albert of Sweden who also controlled the Germanic region of Mecklenberg, this mercenary navy was ordered to strike a blow against Queen Margaret I of Denmark who had laid siege to Stockholm. The German privateers fought their way through the enemy blockade and delivered food to the city’s starving inhabitants. The mission earned them their curious name. Eventually, the Victual Brothers set themselves up on Gotland Island in the Baltic and began preying on any and all shipping, as referenced by their motto: “God’s friends and the whole world’s enemies.” Soon few vessels ventured into the Baltic and commerce ground to a halt. Eventually Margaret and Albert set aside their differences and jointly sought to destroy the brotherhood. In 1398, an army of Teutonic knights struck Gotland and wiped out the Victual Brothers once and for all.

Cossacks Rule the Waves

Cossacks weren't just at home in the saddle -- many were handy with boats as well.

Cossacks weren’t just at home in the saddle — many were handy with boats as well.

Cossacks are often remembered as mounted warriors, but surprisingly the famous Russian riders have something of a maritime tradition as well. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a number of Cossacks traded in their horses for oar-powered longboats known as Chaikas and set out on the Black Sea in search of Turkish ships to plunder and destroy. Christian kingdoms across Europe as well as the Catholic Church feared the rise of the Ottomans and many sovereigns paid rewards for the destruction of Turkish vessels. The Cossacks mounted small cannons on their 50-foot craft and loaded them with swordsmen and musketeers. Flotillas of several dozen of the lightweight Chaikas could outpace and out maneuver the larger lumbering Turkish galleys. In one battle, a 1625 clash off Kari-Khaman, several hundred (perhaps even as many as 4,000) Cossack boats did battle with the Turkish navy.

Poland’s Pirate of the Caribbean

Polish troops of the French army put down mutinous slaves on Santo Domingo.

Polish troops of the French army put down mutinous slaves on Santo Domingo.

Kazimierz Lux, Poland’s most famous (and perhaps only) pirate, began his career as an officer in Napoleon’s Polish Legion. After campaigning throughout Europe, the 23-year-old Warsaw native accompanied his unit to Santo Domingo (present day Haiti) in 1803 to put down a slave rebellion within the colony. Once in the West Indies, Lux resigned his commission and took up piracy as a new career. One of his more notable achievements was the capture of an American two-mast trading vessel, which he sailed to Cuba to sell along with its cargo. Lux gave up piracy and later returned to Poland. He rejoined the legion in time for its participation in Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia. He survived the deadly retreat from Moscow and continued to serve in Poland’s army until his death in 1846.

Down and Dirty Down Under

Australia’s only known pirate, Jack Anderson (AKA: Black Jack) prowled the waters off Western Australia in the 1830s. In addition to harrying merchant shipping, Black Jack also bullied the local aboriginal populations from his hideout on Middle Island. Reportedly a charismatic leader with a loyal following, Jack’s charms eventually wore thin on his shipmates. He was supposedly murdered by his own crew. A cave on Middle Island is thought to still contain a trove of Anderson’s treasures.

America’s Pirates

Call them "adventure capitalists" -- America has a long history of privateering and outright piracy.

Call them “adventure capitalists” — America has a long history of privateering and outright piracy.

Colonial America and later the United States produced a number of pirates (over and above the scores of privateers it commissioned during its wars with Great Britain). John Halsey of Boston spent four years raiding shipping in the Indian Ocean after serving the British crown as a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession. At first, Halsey tried to avoid attacking European vessels seeking instead to plunder the Great Mogul’s treasure ships. Unable to locate any juicy targets, he steered his vessel The Charles towards Mocha on the Red Sea. En route, Halsey’s ship ran afoul of a squadron of five Royal Navy warships. He engaged the lot and managed to take two as prizes, which he later sold. Halsey died on Madagascar of a fever. Another American pirate, James Ford of Kentucky, didn’t sail exotic foreign seas in search of plunder; he used a fleet of longboats to loot barges that travelled the peaceful waters of the Ohio River in the early 19th Century. A prominent local militia officer and prosperous landowner, Ford secretly headed up a gang of pirates that hid out in Illinois’ limestone bluffs known as Cave-in-Rock. Eventually, Fords Ferry Gang was broken up and the ringleader was killed by vigilantes. Then there was Thomas Baker skipper of the armed ship Savannah. After receiving a letter of marque from the Confederate States of America in 1861, Baker became one of the first southern skippers to capture a Yankee vessel in the Civil War. His luck wouldn’t last however. Mere hours after taking the prize, the Savannah closed on its next target, which turned out to be the warship USS Perry. Baker and his crew were captured and tried for piracy in New York. Washington dropped the charges after Richmond threatened to execute Union POWs by way of retaliation. To read more about the pirates of the Confederacy, check out MilitaryHistoryNow.com’s coverage from 2012.

6 comments for “Other People’s Pirates – 13 of History’s Forgotten Sea Dogs

  1. Grimsi
    12 August, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    interesting,never realized the cossacks were sea worthy,something i have to learn more about now.thanks for sharing!

    • Posca
      16 June, 2015 at 9:15 pm

      It’s mostly about the Zaporozhian Cossacks (majority Ukrainians). They were the most prolific pirates of the era, and the constant invasions and raids brought kings and powerful states to their knees. Their boats and ships were based on Scandinavian and ancient local designs. After all, Zaporozhian Cossacks were free men, most run away from domineering governments, slavery, and peasantry (the “Cossack who serves Russia on horseback” is from a later era). Many of them already fishermen or shipping merchants. Not to say other Cossack hosts didn’t practice piracy as well. Although the Zaporozhians had a huge army and powerful navy, in the end it all fell to ruin and Russia occupied the cossacks’ former land.


  2. Stevo the Divo
    8 October, 2013 at 1:44 am

    As an Italian, let’s not forget there’s Vincenzo Gambi and Maio di Monopoli hailing from my boot-shaped coast.
    The first made his name in the Gulf of Mexico and later the battle of New Orleans with mandate from the British, the second terrorized the Mediterranean for close on 30 years.
    My two newbie cents, anyway – great article!

    All’arrembaggio, mascalzoni!

    • 8 October, 2013 at 5:56 am

      Thanks for that. Great addition to the piece.

Leave a Reply