In history

Every year on 19th September, people around the world celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day and as Britain, particularly the south west coast, has a long history with piracy, we thought we’d introduce you to some of Britain’s most well known pirates and some of the UK’s history with the movement.

The pirates we still remember today mostly roamed the oceans during a period of time known as the Golden Age of Piracy, which took place between 1650 and 1720. As you may know from Hollywood, pirates liked to set up a base on an island where they could then easily approach ships passing by carrying cargo, one of the most famous of these islands, which features in Pirates of the Caribbean, is Tortuga but another that you might not know of is Lundy Island, just off the coast of Devon. By being based here, pirates could easily intercept ships travelling internationally through the Bristol Channel, which was a high traffic trading route.

Much of what we associate with pirates come from films and books, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Hollywood films. It was the later stories that brought in the West Country accent, but as many pirates started out living on the south west coast, it is likely that several of them did speak with a west country dialect.

Here are some of the most well known pirates from the UK – how many of these names do you know?

John Hawley
Arguably one of the most famous pirates of the Middle Ages, he was incredibly successful both on land and sea, not only was he a pirate and privateer, but he also sat at mayor of the Devon town of Dartmouth 14 times and served as an MP twice! Throughout his lifetime, England was constantly at war with France and so he and his crew took advantage of this, wreaking havoc on the ships as they passed between the two nations and making himself very wealthy in the process.

Hawley wasn’t too fussed which ships he attacked, sometimes he took neutral vessels, which landed him in trouble, though he was only imprisoned once and not for long – the crown found him too useful and after his release from the Tower of London he resumed his life of piracy with little resistance.

These days, you can visit Dartmouth Castle, which was built by Hawley.

Henry Strangways

Being from Dorset, Strangways likely did have a west country accent. It is first thought that he joined a pirate crew in Ireland during the 1500s before taking captaincy of his own show and capturing several Spanish and English vessels and hiding many of the plundered goods in Portland Castle.
Over the years, he was captured and imprisoned several times but always seemed to get out of trouble and was engaged by merchants to capture a Portuguese fortress, something forbidden by the Privy Council, but as the Lord Admiral at the time was an investor, he was allowed to depart on his mission. As soon as he was done, he immediately returned to piracy and was eventually captured and sentenced to death, escaping yet again after getting a pardon from Queen Elizabeth I.

The Killigrews of Arwennack
Some pirates were actual nobles! The Cornish family of Killigrew who lived in a manor at Arwennack in the lea of Pendennis Castle were well known privateers. The family included brothers John, Peter and Thomas, one of their sons, Sir John and a grandson, also a John. The family were elevated to the nobility during the reign of Henry VIII, who had the castle built on their land and for which, the family were given charge of the shipping on the Fal river.

When Mary Tudor succeeded both her father and brother, Peter and Thomas fled for fear of being persecuted for their religion and for attacking Spanish ships. The pair landed in Normandy, where they worked with Henry Strangways under approval of the King of France to continue attacking and plundering Spanish ships that used the English Channel

Edward Teach
More commonly known as Blackbeard, Edward Tech is probably the most well known of all the British pirates. As he was born in Bristol, we can assume that he too had a West Country accent! While we know him has the fearsome captain, he actually started his career in piracy as a lowly crew member before finally becoming captain of his own ship. He is best known because he understood the power of making an entrance, it is said that at battles, he would dress in all black, have several pistols strapped to his chest and don a black captain’s hat. If that wasn’t enough, he would put slow burning fuses in his hair and beard which would spark and give off smoke as a way to further intimidate.

Calico Jack Rackham
Though you might not know his name, you definitely know his flag – Calico Jack is the one who sailed under the black flag with a skull over crossed cutlasses, which remains one of the most recognisable pirate flags to this day. He was also born in Bristol.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read
While many pirates are from the west country, very few of them were female. These two were two of the most ferocious pirates operating out of Britain! Read was born in England and started out by pretending to be a boy so she could receive an inheritance and join the British military. Following the death of her husband, she moved to the West Indies where she joined Jack Rackham’s crew alongside Anne Bonny, who also spent most of her time disguised as a man. Bonny on the otherhand was born in Ireland before moving to London and then to Carolina at the age of 10. She ended up in Nassau in the Bahamas, which was a bit of a sanctuary for pirates at the time which is where she met Calico Jack. It is thought that she and Jack were lovers.

Anne and Mary’s careers as pirates were shortlived, the pair were captured alongside Calico Jack in 1720, though both got a stay of execution because they were pregnant.

Sir Henry Morgan
Yes, a pirate and a knight! Well, technically, a privateer, it is said that he preferred that term! Born in Wales, Henry Morgan is known for being the face of Morgan’s rum and was knighted for his services to the crown despite being known as a pirate. He worked mainly in collusion with the Governor of Jamaica and generally only attacked Spanish ships – something that was applauded at the time as Britain and Spain had an uneasy relationship.

Black Bart
Aka Bartholomew Roberts, Black Bart was also Welsh – though his name might not be as familiar as Henry Morgan or Edward Teach, Black Bart was one of the most successful pirates of his time. He had four ships and controlled hundreds of pirates as his crew – he put both his sailors and his ships to work, capturing and looting more ships than many other pirates put together.

Edward Low
This one definitely didn’t have a west country accent having been born in Westminster! Captain Edward Low was one of the most vicious pirates of his age. According to the stories, he would violently torture the inhabitants of any ships he conquered. He particularly liked cutting off noses, ears and lips. Unlike many of the pirates on this list, we’re not sure what happened to him as he was never caught.

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