The Worst Pirate in History — The Forgotten Legend of Bartholomew Sharp

Perhaps one of the worst pirates to sail the high seas, Bartholomew Sharp certainly is not a legendary figure like Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, or Captain Kidd.  The fictional pirate Jack Sparrow, when accused of being the worst pirate ever heard of remarked, “But you have heard of me.”  Unfortunately Bartholomew Sharp was so bad that his name is almost forgotten to history.  In 1639 Sharp set off with a crew of pirates to Panama in search of Spanish treasure.  Unlike most pirates who stalked the Caribbean, Sharp had the idea to raid the Pacific side of the Spanish Main.  It is a wonder why he had this idea, most treasure fleets bound for Europe crossed through the Caribbean, only a few ships, mostly supply ships bound for the Philippines with some treasure ships bound for the Straits of Magellan could be found on the Pacific side.  Regardless, Sharp and his men sailed to Panama, abandoned ship at the coast, then seized Spanish ships on the Pacific side of Panama.  

Bartholomew Sharp and his crew raided several Spanish ships, but none had anything of value.  After two years of slim pickings, his crew mutinied and replaced him as captain.  Fortunately for him, his replacement only lasted three weeks before unexpectedly dying.  Amazingly, the crew voted to restore Sharp as captain once again.  However Sharps luck failed to pick up, that was until him and his crew came across a Spanish treasure galleon, which they captured after a short fight.  However, rather than finding a rich haul of treasure, the ship was loaded with 700 bars of a dull grey metal which they thought was tin.  Dejected and depressed, Sharp and his pirates decided to cut their losses and head home.  They threw the bars overboard, saving a small portion to be cast into musket balls.

Sharp and his men rounded South America and returned to the Caribbean.  When they arrived they learned of two pieces of very bad news.  First, Sharp had assumed that because England was enemies with Spain, he would be recognized as a privateer by English authorities.  However the English were not at war with Spain at the time, and arrest warrants had been issued in Sharp’s name for piracy.  Secondly, the men had run out of lead to cast musket balls, and had dug into the stock of “tin bars” captured from the Spanish galleon earlier.  It was then discovered that the tin bars were not tin at all, but in fact were silver.  The unfortunate pirates had dumped a fortune worth 150,000 English Pounds (millions today) into the deep blue sea.  Bummer.

When Sharp tried to make harbor at Barbados, he found a Royal Navy frigate waiting for him.  He then made for Antigua, but authorities there barred him from entry.  Eventually Sharp and his men were captured and arrested, then hauled into court in chains.  In a rare stroke of luck for Sharp, him and his men were acquitted due to lack of evidence, either that or the jury felt bad for him.  After avoid the hangman’s noose and gibbet, Sharp settled down on the Danish Island of St. Thomas.  A man who could not lead a successful life as a pirate, Sharp was also a man who could not lead a successful life as a regular citizen.  He died in a debtors prison in 1702.

Lynne Cox is an accomplished American open water swimmer. Twice, she held the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel. Cox was the first woman to swim the Cook Strait and the first to swim the Straits of Magellan and around the Cape of Good Hope. Cox swam the Bering Strait from American soil to Soviet soil in 1987, at the height of the Cold War. 

Willem Schouten - Double Hemisphere Map with Portraits of Magellan, Schoten, Drake, Von Noort, Cavendish and Speilbergen, 1618.

Double hemisphere map of the World, accompanied by portraits of a number of the most important 16th and early 17th Century explorers, which was included in Willem J. Schouten’s Journal “Ofte Beschrijvinghe van der wonderlicke Reyse”, first published by Blaeu in 1618.  

The map shows the tracks of Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten’s circumnavigation, which included the discovery of a passage to the south of the Straits of Magellan and the discovery of Staten Island. This example is apparently an early variant edition, not illustrated by Shirley, and would appear to be from De Bry’s account of the voyage. The map is based upon the first edition of the original Le Maire/Schoten edition (tropics and Japan not named), but with the illustrations of the two ships removed and better engraved portraits.

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Straits of Magellan

Magellan’s Crew Reaches the Pacific

28 November 1520

Ferdinand Magellan, with his three remaining ships, reached the Pacific Ocean on this day in history, 28 November 1520. The expedition had finished exploring the strait at South America’s southern tip and when the ships exited the Strait of Magellan into the South Pacific, they became the first European ships to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Magellan named the waters the Mar Pacifico (Pacific Ocean) because of its apparent stillness. It was also at this time that Magellan and his crew became the first Europeans to reach Tierra del Fuego just east of the Pacific side of the strait.

The map above is a 1635 Dutch map by Hondius depicting both the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego.


Magdallenes penguins:

From the charming town of Punta Arenas, Chile, an 18 mile boat ride heading east in the straight of Magellan delivers you to isle Magdallenes. The ride outbound goes by quickly as we pass cormorants, diving terns, prodigious Albatrosses, and the occasional spotting of black and white dolphins swimming the strong currents that pass under the ship. The barren, treeless piece of earth that is Isle Magdallenes becomes less barren as we approach. From a distance it is crawling with creatures, and upon reaching the island we see that those creatures are actually penguins. Waddling as far as the eye can see.

The tour of the island passes directly through penguin rush hour waddling, allowing us to get within a few feet of animals whose cuteness is only surpassed by the strength of wafting fish breath. They sun bathe, squawk, dig, mate, preen and poop. Observing these oddities of planet earth I cannot help but wonder how they exist at all, such easy prey and helpless, drunken waddlers. This thought is swiftly attacked and vanquished once I watch a group of them return from their hunting in the rough waters of the straight. They swim like torpedos, frequently breaching the surface water with mouths agape, as if they are yelling “ Woo hoo”! I now understand how they survive, thrive in such a challenging environ. That initial stench of fish breath, all that pink stained pooping, thousands of young & fat penguin chicks; all were telltale signs of a dominant sea hunter, one who should never be questioned as to how they exist on planet earth.

p.s. The straight of Magellan is a mad house of raging waves and relentless ocean currents. I, and I’m certain the 40 sea sick people on the boat, are still wondering how big Magellan’s balls actually were.

This map shows the Strait of Magellan, the passage immediately south of mainland South America, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This position made it vital to trade. However, it wasn’t navigated fully until 1520 when Ferdinand Magellan (where the name of the strait originates) navigated it as part of his global circumnavigation voyage.