Famous Captains

See our rundown of the top 10 greatest admirals, pirates and captains who steered their beloved vessels into the halls of fame

Sir Francis Drake

Drake (1542 - 1596)

Revered as a hero in the fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588, Sir Francis Drake - pictured above - epitomises the self-made Elizabethan privateer, rapacious in the hunt for treasure but daring and visionary in exploration. Drake and his crew are also remembered as the first Englishmen to circumnavigate the globe over a three-year period, claiming a portion of California for Elizabeth along the way. His attack on Cadiz and his devastating raids on the Spanish Main earned him fear and respect of the Spaniards, who called him El Draque, "The Dragon". Drake died at sea on his final voyage, off the coast of Panama, in Nombre de Dios Bay. His body was placed inside a lead casket that was slipped overboard, to rest forever amongst the waves he loved so dearly.

Ralegh was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, as well as an explorer

Ralegh was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, as well as an explorer

Ralegh (1554 - 1618)

During his own lifetime, Sir Walter Ralegh was one of the best-known men in England. He was a courtier, politician seaman, explorer, philosopher and poet. Now his name is often spelt 'Raleigh', but he seems never to have used this version himself. Ralegh used his considerable wealth to have built a warship that he named the Ark Ralegh, which he later gave to the Queen who changed the name to the Ark Royal. This ship became the flagship of the English fleet which fought against the Spanish Armada. During his life he financed and later led expeditions to the Americas and is given credit for being the first to introduce both tobacco and potatoes to Britain, although this is probably incorrect. In later years he fell out of favour with the Queen and was imprisoned in the Tower on more than one occasion. After her death he was arrested for treason and executed.

The hanging of William Kidd illustrated in The Pirates Own book by Charles Ellms

The hanging of William Kidd illustrated in The Pirates Own book by Charles Ellms

Kidd (c. 1645 - 1701)

One of the most well known pirates of all times, ironically Captain William Kidd was originally employed to rid the seas of pirates! Kidd started out as a successful privateer who was asked by the King to captain a powerful ship and capture all French ships and the pirates of Madagascar. Bizarrely, Kidd recruited a gang of cutthroats and sailed for Madagascar. Following an attempted mutiny by the crew Kidd began plundering ships of all kinds along India's Malabar coast. Over the next few years Kidd amassed a staggering wealth of booty but a great deal of this swag belonged to the powerful British East India Company and he was ultimately arrested in New York and shipped to England. Executed on May 23rd 1701, his body was dipped in tar and hung by chains along the Thames River, serving as a warning to all would-be pirates for years to come.

Morgan (1635 - 1688)

Captain Henry Morgan was a Welsh buccaneer who famously plundered Spain's Caribbean colonies during the late 17th century. Operating with the unofficial support of the English government, he undermined Spanish authority in the West Indies. Selected commander of the buccaneers in 1668, Morgan quickly captured Puerto Príncipe in Cuba and in 1670 armed with 36 ships and nearly 2,000 buccaneers,he captured Panamá, one of the chief cities of Spain's American empire. Morgan defeated a large Spanish force and burnt the city to the ground. On his return he deserted his followers and legged it with most of the booty. Despite being arrested in 1672, in 1674 King Charles II knighted Morgan and he became deputy governor of Jamaica, where he lived until his death. An exaggerated account of Morgan's exploits, written by one of his crew, created his popular reputation as a bloodthirsty pirate.

Captain Blackbeard painted for a Bahamas stamp

Captain Blackbeard painted for a Bahamas stamp

Blackbeard (c. 1690 - 1718)

Edward "Blackbeard" Teach was undoubtedly was one the most feared and most despised pirates of all time. Although his exact origins are unknown, Teach did begin his pirating career sometime after 1713, as a crewmember aboard a Jamaican sloop commanded by the pirate Benjamin Hornigold. By 1717 Hornigold and Teach were sailing in alliance, and in November they captured a 26 gun French vessel called the Concorde; her armament was increased to 40 guns, and she was re-named the Queen Anne's Revenge. By the spring of 1718 Blackbeard was in command of four pirate ships, and well over 300 men. Teach met his end when a fleet of Royal Navy ships surprised Blackbeard at Ocracoke Inlet in 1718. As a show of victory, the Royal Navy captain decapitated Teach and hung his head on the ships rigging. Although Blackbeard's 'career' lasted only a few years, his fearsome reputation has long outlived him.

Roberts (c. 1680 - 1722)

Nicknamed 'Black Barty', Captain Bartholomew Roberts was the pirate captain of a succession of ships - including the Royal Rover, Fortune, Royal Fortune, and Good Fortune - who burned and plundered ships from the coasts of West Africa to the coasts of Brazil and the Caribbean and as far north as Newfoundland. Despite taking to piracy late - after the age of 37 - he quickly rose to captaincy, and his conquests are said to have included more than 400 vessels. He even designed a flag for himself, portraying a giant figure of himself standing, sword in hand, astride two skulls labelled A.B.H. ('a Barbadian's head') and A.M.H. ('a Martinican's head'). Black Barty was finally killed by grapeshot in battle with a pursuing British warship off the Guinea coast of Africa.

Captain Cook was killed in a fight with Hawaiians during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific in 1779

Captain Cook was killed in a fight with Hawaiians during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific in 1779

Cook (1728 - 1779)

James Cook was born in a small village in Yorkshire and learnt his trade in small sailing ships. He later served with the Royal Navy and in 1768 won the appointment of commander of the Endeavour. In the following year Cook was sent on a mission in the Pacific to allow astronomers to record the transit of the planet Venus as it passed in front of the Sun, a rare event that was used to measure the distance of the Sun from the Earth. After calling in on Tahiti to witness this, Cook and his crew charted New Zealand and sailed the east coast of Australia. Cook was a practical seaman, but on his third journey to the Pacific, in command of the Resolution, he did not deal so well with the Hawaiians he encountered and was murdered after the kidnapping of a Hawaiian King and the death of one of their chiefs.

Lord Nelson lost an arm in the unsuccessful attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife and lost sight in one eye in Corsica

Lord Nelson lost an arm in the unsuccessful attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife and lost sight in one eye in Corsica

Nelson (1758 - 1805)

Born in Norfolk, Horatio Nelson was the sixth of 11 children. He joined the Navy at age 12, and became a captain at age 20. During this time he saw service in the West Indies, Baltic and Canada. When Britain entered the French Revolutionary Wars it was at the battle of Calvi when he lost the sight in his right eye, and he would later lose his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797. Nelson notoriously fell for Lady Emma Hamilton and although they remained married to others, they had a child, imaginatively called Horatia, in 1801. A legendary strategist, it is perhaps ironic that he never lived to see his greatest victory at Trafalgar; struck by a French sniper's bullet, he died on the first day of battle.

Silver (unknown)

One of the most famous pirates is a work of fiction: In Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Treasure Island, the character 'Long' John Silver was born. Stevenson describes him thus: "his left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch...hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham". In the novel Silver was hired by the Squire to be the cook on the Hispaniola. He turns out not to be a cook but a dastardly pirate who is also hunting for Captain Flint's treasure. At the end of the novel Silver manages to hobble off with some of the booty and is never seen again. A sympathetic character, Silver explains his motivation quite eloquently: "being a pirate is all well and good...but once I lost me leg it was never the same. I needed the treasure for me and the wife to get our retirement home in Eastbourne".

Kirk (2233 - 2293/2371)

As much as any other figure in history, the tall tales about James Tiberius Kirk's exploits over a 40-year career are second to none. Kirk's renown began by becoming the youngest captain in Starfleet to date at 34 and the first captain to bring his starship back relatively intact after a five-year mission to boldly go where no man in a girdle has gone before. Having gained a reputation as a maverick who bucked the system, he famously hung out with a very angry doctor, an unconvincing Scotsman and a bloke with no sense of humour whatsoever. Having been promoted to Admiral, he famously returned to his beloved vessel the Enterprise to complete a few more missions in time for a cup of milky tea and an afternoon nap. Sadly, he perished helping new Captain Jean-Luc Picard save Veridian III from a lunatic known as Dr. Tolian Soran and he is buried in a plain grave on the rocky planet. Admiral Kirk, we salute you!