With the long history of boating and seafaring, many different captains arose, leading the ship from point A to point B. But the most famous of captains in the history of boating are mostly pirates – and it’s not the thing you’ll learn from your history homework. Because pirates are key figures in stories of mayhem. No captain becomes famous all around the world by keeping it in the safe – the most famous ones are either pioneering expeditioners who bravely traveled in the unknown, or were involved in epic stories of danger and adventure in buccaneering.
Because of boat-based movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Treasure Island, it became hard to separate real, historical figures from iconic fantasy characters. To help you through it, here are the real-life, famous boat captains of history:
1. Edward Teach “Blackbeard” (English, c. 1680 – 1718)
Living during the Golden Age of Piracy, Edward Teach or “Blackbeard” was one of the most feared and perhaps the cruelest pirate of all time. Little is known about his early life and he was presumed to be born sometime before 1690. He became a captain on one of the ships he stole and started preying on ships that travel the American coast. He relied on projecting a fearsome image with his thick, black beard, as well as by coiling lit fuses under his hat and by slinging multiple pistols and daggers across his chest. Tales of his cruel acts were legendary.
In 1717, Blackbeard captured the colossal, 200-ton, French slaving ship La Concorde. He mounted 40 canyons on board it, made it his flagship, and renamed it as Queen Anne’s Revenge. With this ship, he ruled the waves of the eastern coast of North America and the Caribbean. At the height of his career, he defeated the famous warship HMS “Scarborough” and its pirate army of 300 in a sea-battle. He was famous for battling with two swords, several knives and pistols ready. He captured more than 40 merchant ships in the Caribbean and killed so many prisoners without flinching.
Blackbeard met his end in a battle with the British Navy. Legend has it that he received 20 stab wounds and five gunshot wounds before finally succumbing. The captain of the Royal Navy decapitated him and hung his head on the ships rigging as a show of victory.
2. Francis Drake (English, c. 1540 – 1596)
Known as a hero in the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588, Sir Francis Drake was a sea captain, explorer and a self-made Elizabethan privateer licensed by the English government to attach Spanish shipping. His most famous voyage lasted from 1577 to 1580, when he became the first English captain to circumnavigate the globe.
On this three-year expedition around the world, he lost four of his five boats, raided various Spanish ports, captured a Spanish vessel filled with treasures and executed a subordinate for allegedly plotting a revolt. He even rescued the unsuccessful English colonists of Roanoke Island off the coast of the Carolinas. Along the way, he claimed a portion of California, which was unexplored at the time, for Queen Elizabeth I. After his return, the delighted queen awarded him a knighthood in 1581.
After a magnificent and illustrious career, Drake died off the coast of Panama due to a disease as common as dysentery. His body was placed in a lead casket that was slipped overboard, to rest among the waves of the great seas that he loved.
3. William Kidd (Scottish, 1645 – 1701)
One of the most well-known pirates of all time, Captain William Kidd, or simply Captain Kid was born in Scotland and started out as a sailor and a privateer. He was once respected, having been a leading citizen of New York City and was actively involved in building the Trinity Church. He was originally commissioned to get rid of the pirates in the Indian Ocean. He was asked by the King William III of England to become a captain of a powerful ship and capture the French ships and the pirates of Madagascar. But oddly enough, he soon turned into a pirate himself as he recruited a gang of cutthroats and sailed for Madagascar.
In 1968, he bagged his biggest loot by taking the Quedagh Merchant, a 500-ton Indian ship loaded with gold, silver, satins, muslins and a wide variety of East Indian merchandise. After an attempted mutiny by the crew, Kidd began plundering ships of all kinds along the Malabar Coast in India. Over the years, he staggered a huge amount of wealth.
However, he had a bad luck when he attacked an East India Company vessel, and he returned to New York to turn himself in and clear his name. He even buried some of his treasures on Gardiners Island, anticipating its usefulness as a bargaining tool later on. But he was eventually sent to England for trial and was sentenced to death. After his execution, his body was dipped in tar and hung by chains along in the Thames River to serve as a warning to would-be pirates for years to come.
4. Henry Morgan (Welsh, 1635 – 1688)
The inspiration behind the Captain Morgan rum bottles, Sir Henry Morgan was a famous Welsh buccaneer who was known for plundering Spain’s Caribbean colonies during the late 17th century. He was hired by the government to protect British colonial interests in the Caribbean area at all costs. He spent 20 years raiding Spanish ships and causing chaos in the cities, and has been accused of widespread torture and horrific acts.
Captain Morgan may have pillaged more than 400 ships throughout his piracy career. His greatest achievement in the seas was capturing Panama City with more than 30 ships and around 2,000 men. He also allegedly ordered his men to lock the residents of Puerto Principe, Cuba, inside a church so they can plunder the town unhindered. He also captured Porto Bello, Panama, creating a human shield out of priests, women and the mayor along the way. Over the next years, he led brutal raids against two towns in Venezuela and Panama City.
Despite being arrested in 1672 due to his raid in Panama City, he was still knighted by King Charles II and released him as a deputy governor of Jamaica, where he lived until his death. In Jamaica, he owned three plantations and 129 slaves. His crew wrote an exaggerated account of his exploits, which created his reputation as a bloodthirsty pirate.
5. Bartholomew Roberts “Black Bart” (Welsh, 1682 – 1722)
Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart, was the most successful pirate in the Golden Age of Piracy as measured by the ships captured. Throughout his career, he captured and looted around 400 ships. He wasn’t as brutal and bloodthirsty as other pirates, as he was known to give out gifts to cooperative captains and crews of captured ships.
After the age of 37, he quickly rose to captaincy of a succession of ships including the Fortune, Good Fortune, Royal Rover and Royal Fortune. He burned and plundered ships from the coasts of West Africa to the coasts of Brazil and Caribbean. His largest flagship was a 40-cannon monstrosity manned by 157 men and it could fight out with any British Royal Navy ship of the time. He even designed a flag for himself.
Black Bart died in a battle against British Captain Chaloner Ogle and his death left many of his faithful followers reeling. He is one of the captains mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and is likely the inspiration behind the character Lord Bartholomew in the Pirates of Caribbean series.
6. James Cook (English, 1728 – 1779)
Captain James Cook was a leader of the Royal Navy known for mapping the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand that changed the Western perceptions on world geography. Cook learnt his trade in small sailing ships and eventually signed up with the merchant navy where he learned skills in navigation, geometry and astronomy. When he joined the Royal Navy and take action in the Seven Years’ War, he mapped much of the Saint Lawrence River, which impressed the Admiralty and Royal Society. In 1766, He was appointed as commander of HM Bark Endeavor for the first of the three voyages to the Pacific.
The mission of the HMS Endeavor was to observe Venus moving in front of the sun, but his ulterior motive was to find the rumored “southern continent.” In those three voyages, James Cook sailed thousands of miles and mapped lands of New Zealand to Hawaii in greater detail. James and his crew became the first Europeans to set foot on Eastern Australia.
After searching for the Northwest Passage, Cook explored the Hawaiian Islands. He was attacked and eventually killed by the natives because he attempted to kidnap the Hawaiian chief to reclaim the cutter stolen from one of his ships. He left a legacy of geographical and scientific knowledge who influenced a lot of scientists in the 20th century.
7. Christopher Columbus (Italian, 1451 – 1506)
Regarded as the man who discovered America, Christopher Columbus is one of the most famous explorers around the world. He captained the ship on one of this voyages to America, though it was an accidental discovery. He originally planned a quest for Asia with a goal of bringing back cargoes of silks and spices. He failed to get royal support in England and France, but he finally found backing from the king and queen of France amid hopes for Portuguese expansion. The Crown of Castile sponsored his voyages.
More than two months after setting sail in 1492, their ship landed on the Island in the Bahamas. Assuming he’s in Asia, he called the natives “Indians.” He was given the title of Viceroy and Governor of the Indies by a triumphant Spanish Crown. His voyages marked the start of European exploration and colonization of American continents that shaped Western history. Columbus always insisted that the lands he visited were part of the Asian continent, even in the face of contrary evidences. His refusal to accept it is part of why the American continent was named after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci, and not after him.
Columbus died due to heart failure in his home in Spain, and lived his last months unhappy and unrecognized. He never really reached Asia, and he never knew that what he had discovered was actually a whole “New World.” However, his voyages were considered as one of the most important events in world history and opened up the Columbian Exchange.
8. Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese, 1480 – 1521)
Ferdinand Magellan was a legendary explorer who captained the first expedition across the Atlantic Ocean to the Strait of Magellan and across the Pacific Ocean. His parents both died when he was young, after which he became a page to Queen Leonor at the Portuguese royal court. There, he studied astronomy and cartography.
Magellan was given the authority to lead five ships from Spain on 1519 to test the assumption that the Spice Islands belonged to the Spanish side. They sailed to Brazil and then down the South American coastline to Patagonia. Afterwards, three of five shops passed cautiously through the Strait of Magellan, landed in Guam and then sailed to Cebu in the Philippines.
While fighting in a local dispute in the Philippines, Magellan was slain, but the rest of the crew continued his journey. Juan Sebastian El Cano, a former mutineer, led the voyage that completed the first circumnavigation of the earth, which shattered the belief that the world was flat.
9. John Rackham “Calico Jack” (English, 1682 – 1720)
John Rackham, known as Calico Jack because of the calico clothing that he wore, was a notorious pirate who was active during the Golden Age of Piracy. He was most famous for two things: he designed the famous pirate flag (the Jolly Roger flag, which is a skull with two crossed swords), and he had two female pirates (Mary Read and Anne Bonny) as his crew. He terrorized the waters of Bahamas and Cuba as a pirate.
Rackham became captain of the sloop Ranger, then cruised the Jamaica Channel, Leeward Islands and Windward Passage. He had two of the only women pirates to ever cross Caribbean waters. While on the port, he had an affair with Anne Bonny who was married at the time. She later joined her crew, then Rackham returned to piracy. Mary Read, on the other hand, has been sailing for quite some time now with him, but she was disguised in men’s clothing.
In 1720, a pirate hunting boat overtook Rackham’s drunken crew, and only Bonny Read and one man offered any resistance. Rackham was executed the following month after being convicted of piracy. Both Read and Bonny were also convicted of the crime, but they avoided execution by saying they were pregnant. Read died in prison soon after, and Bonny’s fate was unknown.