Hugh F. Rankin in 1960
Pirates and piracy on the high seas are almost as old as history itself. This profession, based on the greed of mankind, can be traced back to when man first discovered that rafts, and later boats, could be used to transport worldly possessions. Other men always cast covetous eyes upon these goods and desired them for their own. On land, these persons have termed robbers; on the sea, they were called pirates.
Even the Bible speaks of “Princes of the Sea,” who struck terror into the hearts of honest men. The great Roman emperor and conqueror, Julius Caesar, knew from personal experience what it was like to be captured by pirates. Sir Francis Drake, England’s great sea captain, was considered by many to be a pirate. In a like manner, John Paul Jones, our great naval hero during the American Revolution, was accused of piracy by the British. Thomas Jones, the captain of the Mayflower, the ship which brought the Pilgrims to the New World, had earlier been imprisoned on a charge of piracy.
Long before the first permanent English settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, piracy flourished off the North American coast. After getting the jump on the other nations of Europe in planting colonies in the New World, Spain was fast becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the Old World. Fabulous gold and silver wealth were taken from Mexico and Peru’s mines. This treasure was, in turn, carried back to fatten the purses of Spain. At this time, England was the mortal enemy of Spain, and every ship taken by pirates weakened the enemy just that much. Therefore, rather than trying to stamp out the practice of piracy, the English encouraged piratical activities — as long as only Spanish ships were attacked.
Great galleons, plowing majestically through the rolling seas, became easy prey for the swift darting ships used by the pirates. That part of the ocean near the Spanish mainland colonies became known as the “Spanish Main,” a favorite hunting ground for pirates. And because England and Spain held little love for each other, the Spanish Main swarmed with English pirates. These renegade Englishmen were not always too careful about the nationality of the ships they plundered. Sometimes they captured English as well as Spanish ships. Because they were located within easy sailing distance of this favorite hunting ground, the English islands in the West Indies became the favorite hangouts for these free-booters.
The word “Buccaneer,” often used to describe pirates, originated in the West Indies. Originally the name was applied to runaway Frenchmen, often political or religious refugees or escaped criminals. Somehow they had reached the West Indies, where they lived among the native Carib Indians. Many gathered on the western part of the island of Hispaniola (present‑day Haiti), which was otherwise thinly settled but well stocked with cattle and pigs. From the natives, they learned a process of curing the meat of these animals without a fire on a wooden frame called a “boucan.” As a result, they gradually became known as buccaneers, a name often applied to all pirates in general.
Men of other nationalities drifted in. Many wandered from Hispaniola to an uninhabited island called Tortuga, or Tortoise, Island. From this island, they began to go to sea and pillage the merchant vessels plying the nearby sea lane. Before long, Tortuga became something of a pirate republic, entirely under the control of these sea‑going gangsters. Other pirate strongholds sprang upon the islands. New Providence (today’s Nassau) in the Bahamas and Port Royal in Jamaica became the favorite headquarters for those who sailed under the Jolly Roger (pirate flag). It was estimated that as many as 3,000 pirates were operating out of New Providence alone. Because of the many lawless men living in Port Royal, that port became known as “the wickedest city in the world.”
By 1700, the British Government felt it necessary to stamp out this nest of pirates. The buccaneers had become too careless in the selection of their prizes. English ships were being taken as often as those of other nations. Feeling that it would take a pirate to catch a pirate, Captain Woodes Rogers, a famous privateer, was appointed Governor of the Bahama Islands in 1717 with instructions to wipe out the freebooters.
King George, I had also re‑issued an old Royal Proclamation which granted a full pardon to all pirates who would come in and take an oath to become law-abiding citizens in the future. Many took advantage of this offer and tried to settle down peacefully. After taking the oath and accepting the pardon, some discovered they could not stomach the dull life of honest men and sailed again under the Black Flag. Quite a few of these were later captured and died dancing at the end of the hangman’s rope. Others, not wishing to make the change, set their sails for the North American mainland. Among them was one Edward Teach, who was to become far better known as Blackbeard.
Piracy had become big business in the American mainland colonies as early as 1689. The period from this date until 1718 has often been referred to as “The Golden Age of Piracy.” The English Parliament, the prime legislative body of Great Britain, was responsible for the welcome pirates received in the colonies. Unpopular trade laws had been passed, which hampered colonial trading activities. So disliked were these laws that smuggling was not considered wrong, and when pirates began to bring in cheaper goods on which no customs duties had to be paid, no questions were asked except the price. So profitable did this illegal trade become that many otherwise respectable citizens became indirectly concerned with piracy.
By the end of the 17th century, a regular “Pirate round” was operating out of New England. It usually worked like this: A company of seamen, backed by some wealthier merchants, would fit out a ship in one of the New England ports. Although ships were plentiful in New England, this was sometimes the occasion when vessels were specially constructed for use in piracy. Once outfitted and armed, these crews would set their course for the far East, hunting around the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Madagascar, or in the vicinity of India. Overpowering and plundering the watercraft of the native traders, the holds of their vessels were soon bulging with gold, silks, ivory, or other exotic products of the mysterious Orient. Then, streaking back to the colonies, they found a ready market for these valuables. Not only were these pirates one of the prime sources of luxury goods which could be purchased cheaply, but they were also such heavy spenders that they always received a warm welcome from the local merchants and tavern keepers. One colonial official complained in 1696, “There is every year one or two vessels fitted to the Red Sea, under the pretense of going to the West India plantations.”
This official was Edmund Randolph, the Surveyor-General of Customs in the American Colonies. He was a most conscientious man, so much so that he waged almost a one‑man campaign to eliminate pirates and smugglers in America. The governors of the individual colonies, who should have aided him most, were reluctant to support his activities. In his report back to England in 1696, addressed to the Council of Trade and Plantations, Randolph charged that “Pyrates” were welcomed in all American ports, and he listed those of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Carolina as being the worst offenders.
He declared that the governors were well aware of these law violations in all of the colonies. All the laws passed in England against pirates were useless in the colonies without proper enforcement. Randolph claimed Sir William Phips, the late governor of Massachusetts, had even gone so far as to invite Pennsylvania pirates to make their headquarters in Boston, promising them they would suffer no harm. Rhode Island, he charged, had become the “Chief Refuge for Pyrates.” Pennsylvania’s Governor William Markham offered to protect pirates in return for a specified fee, and his daughter married one of the buccaneers. Markham’s son was denied a seat in the legislature because of his past dealings with the freebooters. Governor Benjamin Fletcher’s dealings with the pirates were so open that his successor urged him to be arrested, return to England, and try for piracy himself. And Randolph charged that Governor John Archdale of Carolina “favors illegal trade.”
Long before Archdale’s administration, piracy flourished in Carolina. As early as 1685, it had been suggested that perhaps the governor of Carolina had best not reside in Charleston, “which is so near the sea as to be in danger from a sudden invasion of pirates.” Later, one of Governor James Colleton’s Council members was expelled “for holding correspondence with pirates.” During this same period, Seth Sothel, one of the colony’s proprietors and governor of the Albemarle section, used accusations of piracy to enforce his arbitrary will.
At one time, buccaneers freely roamed the streets of Charleston and, if arrested and brought to trial, side-stepped justice by bribing public officials and even the juries. Decent citizens could do little more than raise their voices in angry protests. The growing importance of Charleston called for appointing governors who would take a firmer stand against these pirates. The South Carolina Assembly passed laws curbing the activities of pirates. And for a change, these acts were enforced. The buccaneers began to steer clear of the port and sought greener pastures further to the North.
The term “Carolina” in the 17th century applied to present‑day North and South Carolina territories. The area known as “Carolina south and west of Cape Fear,” or modern South Carolina, grew much faster than the area of today’s North Carolina. South Carolina had an excellent port in Charleston which attracted trade and people. North Carolina’s coastline of shallow coastal sounds and inlets offered little opportunity for harbor developments. Yet, as often happens, one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain. These same shallow waters offered an ideal haven to pirates. By 1700 Edmund Randolph was sending reports to England that North Carolina had achieved a reputation as “a place which receives pirates, runaways, and illegal traders.”
Because the colony showed little promise as a potential trade center, the English authorities neglected to emphasize or encourage its development. The thinly-scattered population was ideal for pirates. There were those among the more unscrupulous elements of the population of North Carolina who welcomed the pirates as an additional source of revenue. Yet many North Carolinians wished to rid the colony of this menace. It was not to be an easy task.
When people think of pirates, Captain Kidd comes to mind. However, there is much doubt today that William Kidd was ever a pirate. Measured by his deeds, or misdeeds, on the high seas, he certainly would not rank with the top 100 pirates in history. Yet more words have been printed about this much-maligned man than any other captain in the trade.
It would appear that Kidd was a privateer rather than a pirate. At 50, he was a successful, respected sea captain, living with his family in a fine brick house in New York. The prosperous owner of several merchant ships, he entertained no ambitions toward the life of a buccaneer. England was suffering from pirate raids on English merchant vessels in the Red Sea. The nation was also in a war with France and could not spare the ships to suppress this threat to her prosperity. Several prominent Englishmen provided the financial backing for an expedition to crush the Red Sea pirates, expecting to profit from selling goods taken from the renegades.
One of the chief promoters of this expedition was Lord Bellomont, soon to be governor of New York. The list of those who invested money included the names of the Lord High Chancellor of England, the First Lord of the Admiralty, two of the King’s Secretaries of State, and some less important dignitaries. Even the King, William III, was to receive 10% of any proceeds from the voyage. Captain Kidd was selected to command and received a commission as a privateer.
In 1696 Kidd set sail in the 34-gun Adventure Galley. Two vessels were captured, which were sailing under French passes or permits. These were considered legal war prizes because of the war between France and England. When Kidd returned, it was not to share in any profit but to discover that he had been charged with piracy. Taken back to England in chains, his case became a political football. Certain elements attempted to turn a number of his financial backers out of public office, and Kidd’s trial provided a method by which they could be discredited. Even then, he was acquitted of piracy but for killing a mutinous seaman by striking him on the head with a water bucket. As ship captain, Kidd had every right to discipline a crew member, but this was not considered in the verdict. After he was hanged on May 23, 1701, his body was hung up in chains as a grisly warning to other erring mariners. Although Captain Kidd does not fall within any list of Carolina pirates, it has seemed appropriate to clear up the many misconceptions associated with his career. As he stated at his trial, Kidd was “the most innocent of them all…” Yet few Carolina pirates, who were much more active in the bloody business, ever achieved his fame.
There were, however, many famous pirates who terrorized the shipping off the coast of Carolina. This was especially true after some fled the West Indies in 1717. Not only were the isolated shallow sounds an attraction, but rumors of a friendly governor led many of the buccaneers to look with favor upon the colony. It has been estimated that at least 2,000 pirates were operating off the North American coast. Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia sent a plaintive plea for aid back to England for, as he said, “Our coast is now infected with pirates.”
Not all of them were swashbuckling bearded males. According to the scanty records, one of the more famous pirates was a woman who grew up in “Carolina.” Her name was Anne Bonny (sometimes spelled Bonney). She was born in Ireland, the daughter of an Irish lawyer whose name is unknown. Her father emigrated to Carolina, where he prospered as the owner of a plantation. After her mother’s death, the young girl kept the house for her father. Even then, or so the story goes, she had a “fierce and courageous” temper and killed one of the house servants in one of her uncontrollable rages.
Anne met a handsome but penniless young sailor named James Bonny. She fell in love. This so enraged her father that he turned her out of the house. She wandered with her husband to the West Indies. He seems to have been a pirate, for, after his arrival there, he surrendered and took the oath from Woodes Rogers. Anne could not take the rather dull life of a housewife ashore. A short time later, she joined the pirate crew of Captain John Rackham, more commonly known as “Calico Jack,” because of the striped breeches he always wore.
According to the stories of the day, Anne once more fell in love, this time with a crew member. This affair ended suddenly when Anne discovered the other pirate was also a woman! This other female pirate was Mary Read, and her past had been filled with even more adventure than Anne Bonny. She had once served in the English army, concealing her identity by donning the uniform of a regular soldier.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read became close companions and were almost constantly together. They usually wore women’s clothes on shipboard until a prize was sighted. Then they quickly changed into men’s jackets, long trousers, and knotted handkerchiefs about their heads. In battle, they fought alongside the other crew members, and it was later testified at their trials that they were just as cruel and bloodthirsty as any other pirates. When Rackham’s crew was eventually captured and tried, the two women were sentenced to hang along with the other men, but neither was ever executed. Mary Read died in jail of a violent fever. Anne Bonny was reprieved several times, and although no one seems to be sure just what did happen to her, there is no record of her having met death on the gallows.
Most of Rackham’s activities had been in the general vicinity of the West Indies, but numerous others of his kind plagued the Carolina coast. Captain Edward Low’s Fancy captured several prizes in the waters off North Carolina. His black flag, with a red skeleton outlined, struck terror into the hearts of many an honest seaman. He was feared more than the general run of pirates because it was reported, and believed, the man was insane. He was described by writers of the period as being a “ferocious brute” and noted for his cruelty to prisoners. For some reason, he hated all seafarers from New England. His quick temper resulted in many mutilations among his captives. Perhaps this can best be explained because of his ugly face, which a cutlass severely slashed. Because of an argument with his surgeon, Low had tried to sew the wound himself, making a horrible botch of the job. From then on, his misshapen face only added to the terror of his reputation. One of his favorite tricks was to cut off a victim’s ears and nick him with small sword cuts in various parts of the body. He would rip the masts out of a captured vessel and then set its crew adrift in the trackless waste of the sea. And upon some occasions, he was even reported to have chained a crew aboard their vessel before setting it afire. Low was never captured, and no one knows how he met his end. He simply disappeared.
Edward Low had learned his trade under an equally notorious pirate, Captain George Lowther of the Happy Delivery. Lowther, like most pirates, was a coward and seldom attacked a ship unless his opponent was much weaker. One bright fall day, he opened fire upon the merchant ship Amy, commanded by Captain Gwatkins. Instead of securing safety in a terror-stricken flight or meekly surrendering, Gwatkins boldly returned the fire of the pirates. This upset Lowther and his crew, so they hurried away, not stopping until they had run their ship aground near the shore. Noticing they were still being pursued, they abandoned their vessel, rowed ashore, and fled into concealment among the thick forests on the shore. This was so disconcerting to Lowther and his men that they did not dare venture out again until the following spring. They spent the winter hiding in one of North Carolina’s shallow inlets. And when they did venture out again, they left the Carolina coast behind them and sailed to the fishing grounds off Newfoundland, where the smaller and lightly-armed fishing vessels would offer less resistance. Lowther was another of those pirates who escaped the hangman’s rope. He eventually killed himself with his own pistol to avoid capture.
Among those pirates who fled the tightening of regulations in the West Indies was Captain Charles Vane, sometimes called Vaughn. When Woodes Rogers arrived in the Bahamas, Vane and his rascals laughed at the pardon offered the pirates. While other buccaneers accepted the king’s pardon, Vane sailed brazenly out of the harbor of Nassau, flaunting his black flag and firing a derisive gun in farewell. Like so many others of his kind, he discovered the happy hunting grounds off Carolina. He ranged up and down the coast, sometimes as far south as Florida and sometimes as far north as New York. He would heave outside some busy harbor and capture merchant vessels as they cleared the port. At one time, his operations carried him almost into the very harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Vane so alarmed the Carolinians that an expedition was sent out to capture him, which resulted in the apprehension of the equally notorious Stede Bonnet. Vane proved himself a coward. He refused to attack a heavily armed French ship, although his crew had urged him to make an effort. So disgusted were they that they voted him out of office and put him overboard in a small boat. After a shipwreck, Vane was rescued and taken to Jamaica, where he was tried and hanged.
Then there was Christopher Moody, no older than 23, in 1717, when he became captain of a pirate crew plundering ships off the Carolina shore. His life was short. In 1722, not yet 30 years old, he was hanged in London. There was little mourning by his former comrades. Although Moody bore a reputation as a gentleman pirate, he was known to have cheated his men out of some of the loot they had accumulated off Carolina.
One of the bolder of the devil‑may-care freebooters was Captain William Lewis of the Morning Star. He awed his men by claiming to receive his strength from the devil himself. Once, off Carolina, he attacked and subdued a slave ship amid the heavy seas during a raging storm. He operated with a crew made up mainly of Frenchmen and Black men. He had not trusted the English members of his band, so he got rid of them by setting them adrift in a small boat. This later proved to be his downfall, for the disgruntled French members of his crew eventually killed Lewis.
The brutal ex‑prizefighter William Fly had one of the shortest careers. He lasted just a little over a month. He had led a mutiny aboard the ship Elizabeth and was elected captain by the crew after killing the captain and most other officers. Renaming the ship Fame’s Revenge, he captured several vessels off the North Carolina coast. He was captured when he tried to repeat these feats in New England waters. Tried, but he was hanged in Boston in 1726. His behavior at his execution would lead one to believe that the blows he had received as a prizefighter had addled his brains. Drawn in a cart to the gallows, Fly stood with a bouquet of flowers in his hands, laughing, bowing, and smirking at the spectators who lined the way.
These are a few pirates who plied their trade off the Carolina coast. There were many others, but their names and deeds were never recorded. In all their numbers, the two most famous were those rogues who answered to the names of Stede Bonnet and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach.
Where there is a sea there are pirates
By Hugh F. Rankin, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1960. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.
Legends, Ghosts, Myths & Mysteries
Privateers in the American Revolution
This article was excerpted from The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina, a publication of the Historical Publications Section, Division of Historical Resources, Office of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. The author, Hugh F. Rankin (1913‑1989), was a noted historian of colonial America and the American Revolution and a history professor at Tulane University from 1957 to 1983. He was the author or co-author of well over a dozen books on historical subjects and many journal articles. This booklet is in the public domain today as its copyright was not renewed. Though the context of the article has not changed, minor editing has occurred.