Accomplishments and Records

The True Story of the Pre-Teen Pirate of the Caribbean

John King youngest boy pirate in history

Many young boys dream of the life of a pirate. Whether inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, James Barrie’s Peter Pan or simply motivated by a life of adventure, countless young men have fantasized about running away from home and living life on the high seas. The highly-romanticized exploits of the dashing buccaneers certainly caught the attention of a young boy by the name of John King. When the opportunity arose to live out his dream, he seized it and became the youngest pirate in history before he was old enough to shave.

John and his mother were on board on the passenger ship Bonetta. They were bound from Jamaica on their way to Antigua when, on November 9, 1716, pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy captured the ship.

For the next 15 days, Bellamy and his crew plundered the Bonetta, removing anything of value. As John watched, his initial fear gave way to excitement and a chance for a life of adventure. He volunteered to be a member of Bellamy’s crew. It is understandable why the pirate initially ignored the request. After all, John was only 8-11 years old.

According to Bonetta captain Abijah Savage, John did more than volunteer; he pleaded, begged, and threatened his way into Bellamy’s service. He went so far as to say he would kill himself or hurt his mother if Bellamy would not let him join his band of pirates.

A deposition given by Savage after the incident noted:

He further saith, that one John King who was coming as a passenger with him from the said Island of Jamaica to the Island of Antigua deserted his sloop, and went with the Pirates and was so far from being forced or compelled thereto by them as the deponent could perceive or learn that he declared he would Kill himself if he was Restrained, and even threatned his Mother who was then on Board as a Passenger with the Deponent.

Seeing some promise and grit behind the features of the callow youth, Bellamy took the boy aboard his ship. For nearly six months, John was living his dream as he sailed the waters of the Atlantic in pursuit of riches, adventure, and fame. Nearly 300 years before Pirates of the Caribbean popularized the song “Yo Ho — A Pirate’s Life for Me,” John was living the life of a pirate of the Caribbean.

Why, you may ask, would a pirate’s life truly appeal to anyone? It should be noted that despite the lawlessness of the high seas, there was a certain level of civility that tended to be found on pirate ships. Whereas the crews of civilian ships were often treated cruelly and given meager pay, pirate ships often operated as an oasis of democracy in the midst of the seas. Crews often elected the ship’s captain and shared in the booty they plundered.

The record is also distressingly sparse regarding the life from which John was escaping. We do not know whether he was unhappy with where he was going, if he had to face abusive parenting practices, or if his choice was simply an impulsive spur-of-the-moment decision of a young boy.

The leg bone, shoe, and sock of John King, recovered from the wreckage of the Whydah.

Whatever the reason, when John joined Bellamy’s crew, he became the youngest documented pirate in history. During his tenure as a buccaneer, he and his crewmates raided several ships in the Caribbean. In February 1717, they took over the 100-foot, armed slave galley, the Whydah. Bellamy converted it into his new flagship.

Unfortunately, John’s dream — and his life — came to an abrupt end. On April 26, 1717, the Whydah was destroyed in a storm off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. John and most of the crew perished in the accident.

The boy pirate’s story did not end there, however. In 2006, human remains from the wreckage of the Whydah were analyzed by researchers at the Smithsonian Institution and Center for Historical Archaeology. An 11-inch fibula encased in a shoe and silk stocking were determined to belong to a young boy of John’s approximate age. The finding confirmed the incredible 300-year-old account of a little boy who, for a few short months, became a genuine pirate of the Caribbean.

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