Red Legs Greaves

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"Red Legs" Greaves was a Scottish buccaneer active in the Caribbean and the West Indies during the 1670s. His nickname came from the term Redlegs used to refer to the class of poor whites that lived on colonial Barbados.

Although considered a successful pirate during his career, most notably his raid of Margarita island in the mid-1670s, he is best known for his escape from Port Royal prison during an earthquake June 7, 1692.

Early life[edit]

Born in Barbados, Greaves' parents had been tried for treason for their participation during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and sold into slavery, as were many Royalists and Covenanters in Scotland. He is thought to have been born in 1649.

Born a short time after his parents' arrival in Barbados, Greaves became the servant of a kindly master. However, his parents and master died a short time after another, and the orphaned boy was sold to another man who was claimed to have been violent and to have often beaten Greaves as a teenager.

Piratical career[edit]

During this time, concerned for his survival, he attempted to escape his servitude and successfully managed to swim across Carlisle Bay, stowing away on a ship preparing to leave Barbados. Although he assumed the vessel was a merchantship on its way to a far off port, the ship was actually a pirate ship commanded by a Captain Hawkins. Hawkins was known throughout the Caribbean as an unusually cruel pirate, often torturing captives, especially women, and rarely showing mercy to the crews of ships he attacked. Although feared by his crew, he was respected and very successful in capturing rich prizes.

After being discovered on board, Greaves was given the option of signing with the crew "offering the articles on a platter along with a pistol". Although reluctant to join the crew under force, Greaves showed promise and quickly gained a reputation as a capable and efficient sailor.

However, he soon grew to resent and hate Captain Hawkins, both for being forced into his crew as for his distaste for brutality towards captured prisoners. The two eventually fought a duel, often claimed to be over the torture of a prisoner, although it is more likely Hawkins attacked Greaves for failing to obey his orders. During the fight, Greaves killed Hawkins and was elected by the crew to succeed Hawkins as captain.

Captain Greaves[edit]

Accepting their request, Greaves rewrote the Ship's Articles, specifically prohibiting the mistreatment of prisoners and allowing the surrender of merchant captains during battle. Throughout the decade, Greaves found great success as well as gaining a reputation as an honorable captain widely known for his humane treatment of prisoners and never participating in the raiding of poor coastal villages.

Around 1675, he captured the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela. After capturing the local Spanish fleet, he used their guns against the coastal defences and successfully stormed the town. After taking a large amount of pearls and gold, he soon left without looting the town, or harming the inhabitants.

Capture and escape[edit]

After the raid, Greaves was able to retire from piracy and settled down to the life of a gentleman farmer in Nevis. However, after being recognized by one of his former victims, he was turned in to authorities to collect the reward offered for his capture.

Greaves was found guilty of piracy and, despite his reputation, no leniency was shown towards him and he was sentenced to be hanged in chains. While imprisoned in the prison dungeon of Port Royal to await his execution, the town was submerged by an earthquake in 1692 with Greaves one of the few survivors eventually picked up by a whaling ship.

In gratitude, he joined the crew of the whaling ship and later became a pirate hunter, eventually earning a royal pardon for his efforts in the capture of a pirate ship which had been raiding local whaling fleets.

After his pardon, he again retired to a plantation and became known as a philanthropist in his later years, donating much of his wealth to various island charities and public works before his death of natural causes.

In popular culture[edit]

  • He is a character in the 2005 sci-fi bestseller Farlight by Michael Swanson.
  • He is a character in the 2002 book Mortimer the Magic Monkey by Allan D. McCune.
  • Jorun "Red Legs" Greaves is faction officer of Angel Cartel in EVE Online.
  • "Red Legs" Zef is a character from the manga and anime One Piece, written by Eiichiro Oda. He is a pirate and a cook.


  • Gosse, Philip. The Pirates' Who's Who. New York: Burt Franklin, 1924.

Red Legs Greaves is my ancestor. From family discussions, Red Legs Greaves was a Gentleman Pirate. This may explain why he lived a long time. Also, his name was pronounced like "graves". My grandmother thought the name sounded too morbid so she put the accent on the "e" so the name sounds like "grieve". Deborah Ruth Smith, descendent of Red Legs Greaves.

Further reading[edit]

  • Davidson, Margaret and Herman B. Vestal. The Pirate Book. New York: Random House Children's Books, 1965. ISBN 0-394-90135-5
  • Mora, Joseph Jacinto and Grace Line. A Log of the Spanish Main. San Francisco: J. Mora, 1934.
  • Verrill, Alpheus Hyatt. West Indies of Today. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931.

External links[edit]