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The History of Pirates
by Angus Konstam

The History of Pirates is a well organized primer on pirates from ancient times to the present day.

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“S.R. Staley transports you back to a time when the flapping of canvas, the roar of ships' cannons, and the flash of cutlasses are seen through the smell of gunpowder and smoke. The Pirate of Panther Bay, the young Isabella, prowls the seas. She is dogged by a Spanish man-o-war commanded by a dashing young Spaniard who also commands her heart. A great adventure romance!”
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Sir Francis Drake

The Down and Dirty on Sir Francis Drake

Primary Haunt West Indies, Central and South America during his privateering days
Pirate Period 1570s
Ship(s)/Type(s) Golden Hind
Date of Birth/Location 1540
Death/Location 1596/England
Claim to Fame One of England’s greatest seamen and explorers
Useful References

Sir Francis Drake is best known as the persevering admiral who defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. Drake “cut is his teeth”, however, raiding towns and villages and pillaging treasure trains in South and Central America in the 1570s.

Moreover, Drake’s escapades may be the best jumping off point for active pirating in the Caribbean.

Drake’s expeditions didn’t start out with much promise. In fact, it was a disaster. In 1572, he set out with two small ships and 73 men to attack Nombre de Dios (in present day Panama) to seize one of the semi-annual shipments of gold and silver to Spain. By the time he arrived, the treasure ships had already sailed.

So, he waited, raiding villages along the Panamanian coast in the meantime. Drake then tried to attack a 600-mule train carrying gold, but failed again. Fortunately (for Drake), he stumbled upon an expedition of Frenchman and, with the combined force, attacked again. This time, Drake and his combined English/French force was successful—each mule carried 300 pounds of silver!

Drake began his career sailing with his friend and cousin, John Hawkins in the 1560s. He was known for his patriotism and fierce hatred of Spain. He also saw his work as furthering the national interests of England. In fact, his most famous and successful pirating raid was even sponsored by Queen Elizabeth! So, Drake was technically privateer, not a pirate. As David Cordingly writes: “Drake was not a pirate in the sense that Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts were pirates, but he committed numerous acts of piracy.” (Under the Black Flag, p. 28.)

Drake is also known as the first person to sail around the world—and survive. (Magellen sailed around the world, but died before he could get home.) During this trip (1577-78) Drake sailed with his cousin, raiding and pillaging the Spainish Main along the way in his famous ship the Golden Hind.

In one of his more successful and innovative pirating maneuvers, Drake successfully defeated the Spanish treasure galleon Cacafuego. Drake slowed the Golden Hind to make it seem like a lumbering, harmless merchantman. By the time the captain of the Cacafuego knew Drake had set a trap, it was too late. Drake seized 762,000 pesos (worth about US$27 million in 2004). It took the crew six days to transfer the treasure.

When Drake returned to England, he was knighted (hence the “Sir”) by a very happy (and wealthier) Queen Elizabeth.

According to David Cordingly in Under the Black Flag, Drake’s haul during his career was probably worth 500,000 English Pounds Sterling, or US$144.8 million in 2004.

Drake died at the tender age of 56 and very wealthy.


RESEARCH TIDBIT: Do you know how to figure out how much gold seized in 1578 is worth today? All you need to know is:

  • its value in 1578, and
  • how much prices have changed since then.

We actually took it another step because we had to take prices in English currency (Pound Sterling) and convert it to U.S. dollars (US$).

Here’s how we did it.

  1. Cordingly reports that Drake earned about 500,000 English Pounds during his career.

  2. With inflation (how much prices have risen over time), Cordingly estimated that the value around 1995 (when the book was published) was 68 million pounds (L).

  3. We converted English Pounds to US Dollars by finding the exchange rate (at in 1995 (about 1.7 US dollars for every 1 English Pound Sterling) and then adjusting for U.S. inflation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has a handy on-line inflation calculator at

  4. So, 500,000 pesos in 1578=68 million Pounds Sterling in 1995.

  5. L68 million=US$115.6 million in 1995.

  6. US$115.6 million=US$144.80 million in 2004.

  7. Can you do the same math for the amount Drake seized from Cacafuego? (Hint: 762,000 pesos equaled about 12 million Pounds Sterling in 1995)