‘How just is the hatred which all peoples bear to the English, for they are the disturbers of the whole world.’
Giovanni Scaramelli, Venetian ambassador to London, 1603
Scaramelli, in his dour dispatch to his boss the Doge of Venice, was grumbling about English pirates, the scourge of the high seas during the Golden Age of Piracy in the 17th and early 18th centuries. These men - and sometimes women - had such fearsome reputations that often the mere sight of a ship flying the dreaded Jolly Roger was enough to force a crew to surrender without a fight.
Here we look at five of the most violent and callous pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy.
1. Ned Low
One of the most infamous of the sea rovers was the ruthless English pirate Edward ‘Ned’ Low.
Born in London, Low moved to British America as a young man and became a petty thief. Graduating to piracy at sea, he soon acquired a reputation for extreme brutality towards his enemies - and even his own men.
Low was the lowest of the low, as the crew of the Spanish galleon Montcova discovered one fateful day. He nabbed the ship, its booty and detained the ship’s company of 53 men. But the pirate was not one to take prisoners. He took out his cutlass and personally slew all 53 seamen, forcing one unfortunate captive to eat the heart of a fellow sailor.
He is famous for an incident in which he roasted a captured French chef alive. Low reportedly told the cook before having him barbequed that he was ‘a greasy fellow who would fry well’.
Low once lopped off the ears of the captain of a seized ship and forced him to eat them, after he’d seasoned them with salt. Salty sea dog indeed! A similar yet even more grisly story involved Low’s cutlass, a frying pan, and the lips of the captain of the Portuguese ship Victoria.
Captain Ned met a sticky end himself in 1724 when he found himself in the hands of the French, who hanged the merciless marauder in Martinique.
2. Black Bart
Welshman Bartholomew Roberts, known as Black Bart, was a bit of an odd pirate – he wasn’t a fan of drinking, smoking, or gambling, but he was keen on killing and robbing.
Roberts got his sea legs working onboard a slave ship. This boat was captured by pirates who then made Roberts a slave. He eventually won his freedom and embarked on a career as a buccaneer. He once apparently captured a slave ship and set it on fire – with the 80 slaves onboard perishing in the flames.
This was the savage behaviour of the same captain who insisted on his crew turning their lights out by 8pm each night.
Black Bart was ruthless and bloodthirsty, but he was also hugely successful. In his career, he captured 400 ships and about £50m in booty - nearly £6bn in today’s money!
Black Bart met his maker on 10th February 1722 when his throat was ripped out by grapeshot during a battle with the Royal Navy off the coast of West Africa.
3. Maria Cobham
Devon-born pirate Maria Cobham was the wife of pirate captain Eric Cobham.
Though she found favour with Eric’s men by saving them occasionally from her husband’s wrath, and therefore getting past the usual strict pirate’s rule against women onboard ship, she was notoriously callous and savage when it came to prisoners.
The Cobhams started their maritime murder and robbery in home waters, but once these became too dangerous, they crossed the Atlantic to ply their trade in the seas around eastern Canada.
Maria once murdered (by poisoning) the entire crew of a ship who were shackled in irons. The unfortunate seafarers of one ship that fell into the clutches of the Cobhams met watery deaths – they were all put into sacks and thrown into the sea. On another occasion, she stabbed through the heart of the captain of the Liverpool-based ship the Lion.
Maria enjoyed using incarcerated sailors as human targets. In one incident she tied three unlucky mariners to the windlass (a type of winch) of her ship, drew her pistol, and blasted them for shooting practice.
Later in life, Eric and Maria settled down in a nice little spot by the coast in northern France. One day, when out sailing in their yacht, they went aboard a merchant vessel anchored up in the bay. What started as a social call turned into murderous piracy. Maria and the crew of the yacht slaughtered the sailors of the merchant ship and took the stolen boat to Bordeaux to sell.
At some point before 1760, Maria died from laudanum poisoning. It is believed that she took her own life, out of remorse for all those she had tortured and killed on the high seas. But some believe that her husband was responsible.
West Countryman Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, was said to have had the upbringing of a gentleman. But he certainly didn’t behave like one as an adult.
He took his pirate's name from his long scraggly black beard, which was said to grow ‘up to his eyes’. During confrontations with other ships, in order to look scary, he placed lit matches in his beard and used wax to shape his facial hair so that it looked like a nest of crawling snakes. Married 14 times, Blackbeard treated his last wife, Mary Ormond, ‘in a manner so brutal, that was shocking to all decency’.
Even though he was a cunning pirate, who once held an entire town to ransom, he was said to be lenient towards his prisoners, succeeding in frightening them into submission instead.
But his reputation for brutality may have come from the way he treated his crew.
In one famous incident, he wounded his second in command, Israel Hands, supposedly for fun. Drinking with Hands one night in his cabin, Blackbeard fired at him under the table, intending to kill him. He missed and blasted Hands’s knee instead, crippling him for life. Blackbeard once marooned 17 of his men on a desert island. They would almost have certainly died but were rescued by Captain Bonnet.
Blackbeard lived by the sword, and he died by it too. In 1718, Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy killed Blackbeard in a bloody and long-winded one-on-one scrap on the deck of Maynard’s ship.
5. François l'Olonnais
Jean-David Nau, better known as François l'Olonnais, was a famously ferocious French pirate who operated off the coast of Central and South America. It is thought that l'Olonnais originally went to the Caribbean as an indentured servant, but by 1660 was a free man at the beginning of his pirate career.
One day in 1667, l'Olonnais set about interrogating two Spanish prisoners. Beginning with the first captive, l'Olonnais drew his cutlass and personally cut out the man’s heart. He then began ‘gnawing’ on the organ like a ‘ravenous wolf’ according to one account. The terrified second prisoner then told the pirate captain all he wanted to know.
Favoured torture methods employed by l'Olonnais included cutting small bits of flesh off of victims, roasting them alive, and using strong ropes to squeeze their heads till their eyes popped out. When the callous corsair and his cutthroats plundered the town of San Antonio de Gibraltar in Venezuela, they unsparingly slaughtered the garrison of 500 Spanish soldiers.
The Frenchman eventually met a very unpleasant end. He was brutally butchered by the Kuna indigenous people in the Gulf of Darién, in the southern Caribbean. They cut him to pieces while alive, cooked him and then ate him.