Peg Legs, Parrots and Pieces of Eight

And it always seems incongruous somehow. Pirates are like highwaymen, witches and sedan chair-carriers - figures we think of as being firmly rooted in the past. But the fact that pirate ships (well high speed launches anyway) still sail the seas, with desperate men continuing to plunder merchant vessels at gunpoint, just goes to show - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. If you're serious about wealth redistribution, piracy has its plus points.

More Pirates than you can Shake a Cutlass at

Of course, present-day piracy is a pale shadow of its former glory (or infamy). Back three centuries ago pirates weren't just another group of semi-organised criminals. From around the 1650s to the 1720s there were literally hundreds of ships flying any flag they fancied and attacking any vessel they chose. It was a time of international concern that later became known as the 'Golden Age of Piracy'. Now that's a rather romantic term for what was a vicious and prolonged crime wave - and that's mainly down to Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island'.

Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest

Stevenson's novel introduced Long John Silver - complete with crutch and parrot. It also brought us the cursed 'black spot', as well as expressions including 'Avast!', 'Yo-ho-ho' and 'matey' - although Cpt. Frederick Marryat has to take the blame for 'Shiver me timbers!'. Then, more recently, there were the film makers who decreed that all old seadog pirates should speak in a jokey Devon yokel (ooh argh, ooh argh) accent.

Maritime Man of Mystery

So what's the truth about those swashbuckling buccaneers? For most of the facts, we have to rely on a bestseller first published in 1724. Catchily titled 'A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious of the Pirates' its author purported to be a Cpt. Charles Johnson. The strange thing is - nothing is known about him. Admiralty records don't mention him and there's no information anywhere as to when he was commissioned or which ships he served in. To this day there is speculation that he was either a pirate himself who had escaped the noose and gone straight, or that Charles Johnson was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame.

You Read it Here First

Whoever Johnson was, his book has proved invaluable. Later research has shown that he got his facts right about a bunch of desperadoes the 18th-century authorities simply wanted to string up and forget about. From 'A General History etc.' we learn about the lives (generally brief and brutal) of Captain Kidd, 'Black Bart' Roberts, Edward Teach - better known as Blackbeard - and Major Bonnet to name just a few. And they were genuinely fascinating and very colourful characters. William Kidd, for example, was the only pirate known to have ever buried treasure. Pirates generally wanted to fence their booty for hard cash as fast as possible, never mind 'X marks the spot'. Blackbeard wove hemp through his beard and set it alight. Then, armed with a cutlass in each hand and wearing a belt bulging with pistols, he'd lead his men in a boarding party.

Time for a change of Career

Or how about Major Stede Bonnet. A wealthy plantation owner with a sizeable estate in Barbados, Bonnet decided he was in a rut. So quite suddenly - at the age of 30 - he became a pirate, and life became a lot more interesting. He also had the distinction of being probably the only pirate to buy his own ship - a 10-gun square rigger. Which prompts the question: what was a typical pirate ship? The short answer seems to be - there wasn't one. The buccaneer commanders were often quite eccentric, and their choice of ship reflected their individualism.

Speed and Stealth or all Guns Blazing

Some favoured a quick, surprise attack and rapid boarding, which meant opting for a fast, manoeuvrable galley or sloop armed with maybe six or eight cannon. Other captains - Blackbeard for instance - believed in maximum muscle, and he wreaked havoc in a huge 40-cannon warship he had 'liberated' from the French. It was simply a case of seahorses for courses.

A Short Life and an Exciting One

In his history, Johnson details the careers of twenty or so of the most notorious pirate captains. Almost all ended their lives on the scaffold - a fate they accepted with a stoic equanimity. After all, at the time, you could be hanged for what we would regard as a minor offence - warranting little more than a 'caution' - so it was a case of making hay while the sun shines.

All for One and One for All

And the rewards of piracy were very tempting. In addition, a pirate's way of life was a definite improvement on the sort endured by naval ratings. You see, because they had no recourse to law, pirate commanders had to keep their crews happy. Upset the lower decks, and a mutiny was the likely result. Consequently, pirate ships operated on a roughly democratic basis, with votes being taken and general agreement being reached. As for the spoils, they were shared out according to a prearranged formula, with eye-watering sums involved. A substantial 'prize' could see crew members pocketing the equivalent of hundreds of thousands - even millions - of pounds. Trebles all round lads! And lasses too, because piracy wasn't an exclusively male preserve.

Sisters are doin' it for themselves

Mary Read, Anne Bonny and Grace O'Malley all struck a blow for sexual equality along with several blows against legitimate shipping. To call them formidable would be a laughable understatement. They were ruthless and highly competent pirates who struck terror into the hearts of some of the toughest seafarers afloat. In fact, arguably the most successful pirate of all was a woman. Her name was Cheng I Sao, a former Cantonese prostitute who married a powerful corsair called Cheng I in 1801. Together they raised one of China's most powerful pirate fleets with hundreds of ships and some 50,000 men.

Quit While You're Ahead

On her husband's death, Mrs Cheng elbowed her way into power, and over the next few years plundered the shipping around South East Asia. At its peak, her pirate fleet rivalled many countries' navies, and it wasn't until the British and Portuguese joined forces that she was finally brought to justice. Even then, the amazing Mrs C. wasn't completely beaten. She shrewdly agreed to surrender her ships and lay down her cutlass in exchange for the right to keep her ill-gotten gains. Cheng I Sao retired and went on to run a gambling casino until her death in 1844 at the age of 69.

With an example like her, perhaps it isn't too surprising that piracy still exists in the Far East. Meanwhile, job prospects still look poor for sedan chair-carriers...