Today, piracy on the high seas is most commonly associated with dangerous Somalian waters, the risky business of ransom demands and hijacking navy ships, stealing dangerous military grade weaponry. In 2008, it was reported that up to $80 million had been paid out in ransom to these modern mercenary pirates. But most of us are much more familiar with the more glamorized tales of ‘old school’ pirates, the pirates of legend who’ve been sanitised by Disney through incarnations like Peter Pan and Pirates of the Caribbean.
High-seas piracy, in fact, has its roots in the 16th century. Plundering of ships came about in the early 16th century when enterprising criminals realised that valuable spoils – that couldn’t exactly be sent via wire transfer in those days, of course – were vulnerable when in transit at sea and were ripe for the taking.
The information and numbers here have been reported by Forbes and are based on various historical records and accounts. Treasures and goods pillaged were converted into U.S. dollars, using the retail price index. Pirates’ expenses haven’t been taken into account but it’s usually believe any ill-gotten fortune was split equally amongst the crew – although the captain typically received double.
Overall, it seems, pirates didn’t really make that much money, and what they did make certainly didn’t last them very long. Cash was absorbed by the expenses of necessities at sea. Crew members who lost a limb in battle were entitled to compensation, too: Just think about how many images of pirates with hooks and peg legs you’ve seen; amputation was a common remedy for gunshot wounds as infection in those days could easily cause death.
So while the pirate’s life is often romanticized in the movies, it was in truth an incredibly rough way to live. Burying piles of gold was sometimes the smartest way for a pirate to safeguard his future, without the option of a retirement plan! Many lived day to day, hour to hour.
While many of the wealthiest, most notorious pirates on this list seem to have amassed quite a bounty over their lifetime, most pirates actually died without a coin and, sadly, without honor either. It was indeed a short life; an existence filled with treachery, murder, and disease. But then again, it was a life free from military service and unbound from a life of farming, so perhaps the allure outweighed the risks. These 10 pirates were the most successful of those who chose a life of robbery and terrorism on the high seas, and made their fortune in looted gold…
10. Edward “Blackbeard” Teach $12.5 million
Like many pirates, little is known about Edward Teach’s early life. We do know, though, that he became better known as Blackbeard. Ian McShane portrayed a fictionalised version of this pirate in the popular The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He is known to have operated in the West Indies area, and off the eastern coast of the American colonies.
Of course his name comes from his signature thick black beard. He is said to have had a fearsome appearance and some of his most notorious shenanigans included blockading the port of Charleston, South Carolina, and successfully ransoming the inhabitants.
In 1718, Blackbeard was killed along with several crew members by a small group of sailors during a ferocious battle. The Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, had sent the crew to capture Blackbeard…in which they succeeded.
9. Harry Morgan $13 million
Sir Henry Morgan made a name for himself with the ruthless activities he engaged in around the Caribbean, where he primarily raided Spanish settlements. He was a Welsh privateer, an admiral of the English Royal Navy, and of course, a pirate. He became known as one of the most active pirates around the Spanish Main, and proved to be one of the most successful pirates in history.
8. John Halsey $13 million
Again, much of this pirate’s career and life is unknown. It is said, however, that John Halsey was an excellent pirate, and if his $13 million in loot isn’t enough to convince you then perhaps a snippet from A General History of the Pyrates will persuade you of his legendary ways. It states: “He was brave in his Person, courteous to all his Prisoners, lived beloved, and died regretted by his own People. His Grave was made in a garden of watermelons, and fenced in with Palisades to prevent his being rooted up by wild Hogs.”
After successfully pirating for most of his life, in 1708 Halsey’s flotilla was almost completely destroyed in a hurricane. Shortly thereafter Halsey died of a fever.
7. Thomas White $16 million
Thomas White, otherwise known as Thomas Blanco, was a pirate of the Caribbean during the early half of the 18th century. Famously, Blanco was conscripted to Jolly Roger’s undead army upon his death. He was a master at sea. He excelled at sailing and handled pistols and cutlass with incredible skill. Blanco lead many men and was well known at earning their trust, despite a reported mutinee incident which took over one of his ships. It seems this was initiated only due to confusion of his identity, where several mutineers mistook him for James White of the British fleet. Blanco is known to have targeted his twin brother’s ships to scuttle for profit, due to an unresolved family matter in which his twin brother was said to have stolen the family’s meager assets. In the end Blanco succeeded in having his larcenous brother taken away in chains.
6. Jean Fleury $31.5 million
Jean Fleury is the sixth highest earning pirate, and this can largely be credited to one big bounty he scored from a Spanish treasure fleet. Most of the Aztec gold that Fleury accumulated was never found, and many believe that it was spread thin over saloons and brothel from France to Cuba. Historians say that is was likely melted down over the last 500 years into things like wedding rings and into gold bars that line national treasuries the world over.
5. Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts $32 million
Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts gained the reputation of the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy. He roamed the seas between 1719 and 1722 and raided ships off the Americas and West Africa. He was a Welsh pirate whose nickname “Black Bart” (Barti Ddu in Welsh) was never used during his lifetime, only after. He died in 1722 and, as is the fate of many pirates, his fortune disappeared upon his death.
4. John Bowen $40 million
John Bowen was a pirate who was also active during the Golden Age of Piracy. It was Black Bart who has been hailed as the most successful pirate of this time, so it’s clear that the success of a pirate is not directly represented by the amount of money he amassed. Many a pirate’s success was wrapped up in his reputation. That’s not to say that Bowen didn’t have a fierce reputation as a pirate. In fact, he was quite stealth. He’s one of the only pirates on this list who actually retired, if only for a brief period. After taking a mighty bounty of 170,000 pounds in goods and coinage he retired to Bourbon. However, he died shortly after retiring in 1704.
3. Thomas Tew $103 million
Thomas Tew pillaged the seas a short time before the Golden Age of Piracy, and died before them as well, in 1695. He became known as the Rhode Island Pirate for his favorite place to roam was just off its shores. It may come as a surprise that Tew actually only embarked in two major piratical voyages, due to his number three spot on this list, however, that’s what the history books tell us. He lived a brief and bloody life as a pirate. Tew became famous for the route he ran which was termed the Pirate Round, and later pirates would follow this route hoping to find the success he did. Much that is written about Tew is in books full of both fact and fiction, so the truth of Tew’s life is mostly mere speculation at best.
2. Sir Francis Drake $115 million
Sir Francis Drake lived quite an adventurous life, as an English sea captain, navigator, politician, privateer, slaver, and pirate. Drake was the second to circumnavigate the world. As a British privateer he had an enormous hand in saving England from the Spanish Armada. After which he went on to live a life of plunder and profit at the command of Her Majesty’s Government. To the Spanish he was the worst of pirates, and was known as El Draque. King Philip II was rumored to have offered a hefty reward for his capture, about 20,000 ducats – or $6.5 million U.S. – for his life.
1. Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy $120 million
Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, our highest-earning pirate ever, was an Englishman who made his riches patrolling the waters around and off the coast of New England during the 18th century. While he had many a great windfall his greatest happened in February 1717. It is then that he captured Whydah, a slave ship, that was reportedly holding more than four and a half tons of silver and gold. Known for his generosity, Bellamy took Whydah as his new flagship and gave one of his old ships to the defeated crew. But, of course, he kept the bounty. It was acts like this that earned him the nickname “Prince of Pirates.” While he was likened to Robin Hood, his crew were commonly referred to as “Robin Hood’s Men.” In the end Bellamy sank with his treasure somewhere off Cape Cod at the young age (or old in pirate terms) of 28-years-old. A fitting end perhaps, for a pirate.