Forget about the Pirates of the Caribbean, what you really need to know about is the Pirates of Devon and if you’ve been in the region recently, you’ll have noticed that an entire festival dedicated to pirates has just taken place.
The Brixham Pirate Festival, a yearly festival, was held over the early May Bank Holiday and is a hugely popular celebration of all things pirate in one of the most commonly used areas of the South West Coast. Brixham, along with other areas of the English Riviera, was popular with smuggler’s and pirates and in some places, like Shaldon, you can still find former smuggler’s caves and tunnels. Though the Brixham Pirate Festival is a time for fun, during the Golden Age of Piracy, much of Devon’s coastline was terrorised by pirates, primarily the Barbery Pirates from North Africa but there were plenty of local names in there too and even a pirate king who claimed Lundy Island as his home! That isn’t the only place associated with piracy, so is Dartmouth Castle which was built by John Hawley, who was not only the Mayor of Dartmouth but was also a pirate and inspired a character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales!
Here are some of the best known of Devon’s pirates – do you recognise any of these names?
Sir Francis Drake
Ok, so this one is more of a privateer than a pirate, but he is also one of Devon’s most famous exports. He was born in Tavistock and began his career on the seas as an apprentice aboard small trading ships before becoming a privateer and raiding Spanish ships. His raids on the Spanish were actively encouraged by the crown and his success helped Queen Elizabeth I’s Britain to become a major player when it came to sea based warfare. He captained the Golden Hind, a replica of which now sits in Brixham and is a museum dedicated to the Golden Age of Piracy and Exploration.
Not only did the crown encourage his efforts, they even knighted him for it! In 1587, Elizabeth I put Drake in command of an expedition to attack a Spanish fleet that was approaching England and he was part of the fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada.
Long Ben (aka Henry Avery)
Henry Avery was born in the Plymouth area and severed on several merchant vessels as well as serving as a seaman during the English war against the French in 1688. However, not long after this, he led an onboard mutiny and claimed the ship he was on as his own, turning to a life of piracy. One of his most notable adventures was taking control of the Granj I Sawai, an Indian treasure ship, which set him up for his retirement, which he spent in Africa living like a king.
Black Sam (aka Sam Bellamy)
Born in Hittersleigh, Bellamy died before his 30th birthday but he was known for being somewhat prolific as a pirate. He and his crew captured more than 50 ships and worked alongside Blackbeard before his untimely death, but despite this, he was known to be a merciful and generous man, earning him the title of Prince of Pirates. His nickname of Black Sam came from the fact that he didn’t like wearing the fashionable wigs of the time, preferring instead to just tie his dark hair up with a bit of cloth.
Cpt Christopher Condent
Born in Plymouth, it is believed that he sailed to the New World before becoming a privateer on a ship that originated in New York. He gained a fearsome reputation as an active pirate captain after capturing a number of vessels, including a Dutch war ship, which he renamed the Flying Dragon and used to raid the Brazilian Coast. He later headed to the Island of Saint Marie where he received a pardon from the French and even married the governor’s sister in law.
Sir John Hawkins
John Hawkins was born in Plymouth and is remembered for being one of the youngest slave traders operating in Britain. He was known to steal enslaved people from ships and then sell them illegally across Spain. Elizabeth I began to back him after realising his potential in expanding Britain’s commercial interests, it probably helped that his cousin was Sir Francis Drake.
William de Marisco (aka William Marsh)
One of the oldest pirates on this list, William was born in the 1200s and at one time set up a base on Lundy Island, calling himself the island’s king – he even built the castle that is still standing on the island today and bears the name Marisco Castle. He and his crew would attack and plunder ships using the Bristol Channel and would raid the Devon coast where he would rob homes and businesses. He was also involved in plot to kill the king Henry III. He and 16 of his crew were captured on Lundy Island and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was one of the first people to be condemned to hanging, drawing and quartering and his remains were displayed throughout England.
John Nutt was born near Exmouth and began his career as a gunner on a ship that originated from Dartmouth. He later organised his own crew with whom he captured French ships in 1621 before returning to England. He mostly used unemployed sailors or those conscripted to press gangs and together, they would raid ships in the Irish Sea and the Gulf of St Lawrence which led to a price being put on his head. He was tricked into returning to England but was freed by the then Secretary of State who pardoned him and even received compensation.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Another famous name, Walter Raleigh was born in Devon and would later attend Oxford University before attending law school in London. He later sailed to America with his half brother and sponsored the first English colony on Roanoke Island. He came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and became a favourite of hers, even becoming a member of parliament and being made captain of the Queen’s Guard, though he fell out of favour after marrying a queen’s maid without permission. After being released from prison for this crime, he set sail and gained his reputation as a privateer. After James I succeeded the English throne, Raleigh was accused of treason and sentenced to death, spending 12 years in the Tower of London before being released to lead an expedition to search for the fabled land of El Dorado. He failed and was returned to England where he was executed.
Cpt John Phillips
A former fisherman from Lympstone, he turned to piracy in 1732 when he and his colleagues seized around 30 vessels. His career as a pirate didn’t last long though, he lost a leg during a fight and had his skull crushed in a mutiny just a year into being a pirate. His head was cut off and sent to Boston in a pickle barrel apparently at the request of the Massachusetts Court of Admiralty.
Rumoured to be the bastard son of Henry VIII, Thomas Stukeley was born at Affeton Castle in Devon where he was raised by the future Sheriff of Devon. He saw military service, worked as a spy, a political adviser and a mercenary before turning to piracy. He proved to be such a menace, that Queen Elizabeth I was forced to act against him by other European nations. He later persuaded the pope to sponsor a pro-catholic invasion in Ireland but changed his mind to fight for the King of Portugal instead.
Want to find out more about Devon’s maritime and pirate history? Make sure to visit the following sites: