Not unlike workers in any other career, some pirates spent only a few years on the sea before retiring or moving on to another way of life. Piracy was a challenging endeavor at best, and for some men it proved to be too difficult and entirely too dangerous. Many others, however, learned to love the lifestyle, either because they enjoyed their share of the wealth or because they knew no other way to make a living. For some pirates, the thrill of battle and the opportunity for cruelty were also a strong pull to piracy. But regardless of the reason, thousands of men spent their entire adult life as pirates, often dying as a pirate either in battle or by hanging.
Staying the Course
While some pirates had careers that lasted for only a few years, others made piracy their vocation. John Coxon, a buccaneer who began plundering in 1669, spent almost thirty years sailing the seas, attacking ships and going ashore to prey upon Spanish settlements. In the 1670s, he spent time journeying with Bartholomew Sharp and John Hawkins. In time, the men joined up with William Dampier, and together they led an army of buccaneers in an attack on Santa Maria, Panama. Afterward, the captains went their separate ways and Coxon continued his life as a pirate, often carrying a letter of marque. Despite being arrested and either escaping or being pardoned several times, he sailed until the late 1690s.
Another pirate who enjoyed a long and steady career was Captain Laurens Cornelis de Graaf, who was born in the Netherlands and served in the Spanish navy before deserting and becoming a buccaneer. De Graaf began his time as a pirate in 1667, and over the years steadily captured larger and larger ships. By 1669, he was captaining a twenty-eight-gun vessel, the
By 1683, he joined forces with Nicholas Van Hoorn and Sieur de Grammont, and they made plans to capture the city of Veracruz, Mexico, and its 6,000 inhabitants. The pirates discovered that the Spanish in Veracruz were expecting the arrival of two Spanish ships, so they loaded two of their own ships with pirates, hoisted the Spanish flag on them, and sailed boldly into the harbor. Their ploy worked. They easily took the town, and ransomed it for a handsome bounty. De Graaf retired from the sea shortly afterward, but continued to lead attacks on land against Spanish settlements for another ten years.
Shap 'Ng Tsai was a Chinese pirate who commanded one of the largest pirate fleets ever known. During a battle on the Tonkin River in 1848, 1,700 of his fellow pirates were killed while another 1,000 rogues managed to elude capture. Shap 'Ng Tsai had luck on his side and was among those who survived.
Captain Simon Danziger (also spelled Danseker or Dansker) was another Dutch pirate who enjoyed a lengthy career. He began as a French privateer in the early seventeenth century, but later sailed against France as a commander with the Barbary Corsairs. Although he captured many Christian ships for the Muslims, he refused to convert to Islam. Despite that refusal, he became known among the corsairs as
There were many other rogues who lived the life of a pirate from the time they went on account until they retired, became ill, were hanged, or died in battle. These men include:
John Bowen: During the early 1700s, Bowen was captaining a merchant ship in the West Indies that was attacked by French pirates. Marooned for eighteen months with other survivors of his crew, he became a successful pirate in his own right after his rescue, and enjoyed prosperity until he died of an intestinal illness a few years later.
John Callice: (Also spelled Callis or Calles) A Welsh pirate in the late 1570s, Callice was a navy man who became a notorious pirate. He was sentenced to hang on more than one occasion, but always managed to escape or be pardoned. He continued to plunder until his death in the Mediterranean Sea in the late 1580s.
John Eaton: An English pirate during the 1680s, Eaton took several Spanish vessels on his own, then joined with John Cook, Charles Swan, and Peter Harris to attack several large Spanish towns and vessels. In time they were joined by more pirates, and bought blank commissions from the Governor of San Dominque to become privateers. Eaton's fate is unknown.
John Halsey: A Boston privateer in the early 1700s, Halsey turned to piracy and was originally branded a coward. Later he proved his bravery by attacking and taking a pair of larger British ships.
Olivier Le Vasseur: Also known as “The Buzzard,” Le Vasseur was a French pirate in the early eighteenth century who at the time of his capture was thought to possess the Fiery Cross of Goa, a gold cross covered with rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. He refused to disclose the whereabouts of the treasure, and was hanged in 1730 while challenging the crowd to find it.
Thomas Moone: Originally a carpenter, Moone began his piratical career in 1572 while sailing with Sir Francis Drake. He joined Drake on his around-the-world voyage, commanding various ships in Drake's fleet and participating in the attack on Valparaiso. He sailed with Drake again on his second voyage, but was killed during an attack on Cartagena.
During their careers, some pirates steered a bit off course. Either some form of insanity led to their demise or they met their maker in an unconventional manner. William Lewis was unusual for a pirate in that he could speak several languages, which, given his international crew, proved to be both helpful and dangerous. Active in the early 1700s, Lewis captured everything from small vessels to man-of-war ships. He was captured by the Spanish, escaped, and continued his career until 1727.
Legend has it that Lewis attempted to capture a prize ship off the Carolina coastline. In the ensuing battle, Lewis' ship,
Another version of Lewis' death claims that international tensions among his crew reached a murderous peak, and the French faction of the crew revolted and killed him. Either way, it appears that Lewis died at the hands of his own band of pirates.
Thomas Green and his crew met their end in 1704 when they were convicted of piracy and sentenced to hang. This was not an unusual occurrence, except that Green and his crew weren't pirates, and their hanging almost caused a war between England and Scotland. Green was the captain of a trading ship that had been blown off course during a storm and came into port at Leith, Scotland. The crew was questioned about whether they knew the whereabouts of a local ship that had not returned to port, and although they said they didn't, they were arrested and charged with piracy of the local vessel. After they were found guilty and sentenced to die, two of Green's crew offered to give evidence against the others if they would be pardoned. The details they offered were ridiculous, but the death sentences were not overturned. The arrival of two members of the crew of the missing boat should have delayed the execution, but under pressure from the Scottish public the hangings went on as scheduled. Years later it was proved that the missing boat was actually taken by Captain John Bowen — far too late to be of any help to Green and his men.
Sometimes a ship's name turned out to be very appropriate. Captain William Death, a British privateer, met his end when his ship, the
John Massey began his career as a captain in the British army. Sent to the African country of Gambia in 1721, he found that the governor was sick and being taken advantage of by the natives. Worried about the governor's safety, Massey joined up with George Lowther, and together they planned to rescue the governor and return him to England. As it turned out, the governor refused to leave with them, so Massey and Lowther set sail and left him behind. No longer following military orders, Massey and Lowther had become pirates. After parting ways with Lowther soon after, Massey sailed to Jamaica, where he requested and received a pardon for his piracy as well as passage to London. Had he been using his head, he would have picked up where his earlier lifestyle ended and let sleeping dogs lie. Instead, he wrote a full confession of his piracy and sent it to the Governor and to the Directors of the Royal African Company. He also checked with the Lord Chief Justice to inquire if he was a wanted man. Learning that he was free apparently didn't suit him, so Massey dutifully left his address should a future arrest warrant be issued for him. The Lord Chief Justice obliged Massey a short time later, and he was arrested, tried, and hanged at Execution Dock, an apparent victim of his own guilty conscious.
Other pirates who went off the beaten path include:
Chui-Apoo: Chui-Apoo was a Chinese rogue who led a huge band of pirates off the Chinese coast in the 1850s. A British warship, the
David Williams: A British pirate in the late 1600s, Williams had very bad luck. He lost his ship while in Madagascar and was made a servant by a local prince, then was traded to another prince, and to yet another before he finally escaped and joined a pirate crew. Unpopular among pirates, he moved from crew to crew until, back on shore in Madagascar, he was captured, tortured, and killed by Arabs.
Gustav Rau: A German pirate active in the early 1900s, Rau made the unusual move of successfully leading a mutiny aboard a ship he promptly sank.
Henry Johnson: An Irish pirate active in the 1730s, Johnson was nicknamed Henriques the Englishman. As a pirate, he was a walking contradiction. A black-hearted sea devil feared by all who knew of his torturous acts, he was also vehemently opposed to violence against women and prevented his crew from raping captured females.
Kuo-Hsing Yeh: A Chinese pirate in the mid 1600s, Yeh was extremely successful at raiding and plundering along the coast of China. In an attempt to stop Yeh and his fellow pirates, the Emperor ordered eighty sea towns to move inland, but Yeh continued his raiding, eventually taking Formosa and helping to make it a part of China. In an odd twist for a pirate, Yeh was officially canonized after he died.
Peter Heaman: In 1821, French sailor Heaman murdered his ship's captain and conspired with the ship's cook to attempt to kill the rest of the crew. Heaman was eventually captured when a former cabin boy reported him and the cook, who were summarily hanged and their bodies donated to science.
Thomas Howard: A British pirate active during the early 1700s, Howard stole and lost plenty of treasure, was marooned, rescued, and eventually settled in India with his fortune. It is said that his moroseness and “ill nature” resulted in his Indian wife's relatives murdering him.
Vincent Benavides: A former South American soldier who feigned death during an execution in Chile, Benavides went on to become a resourceful pirate. When he was eventually hanged, his hands were cut off and put on display so as to point in the direction of the crimes he'd committed.