Monday, April 7, 2014


The very name has come to mean “pirate.”

Blackbeard is the most notorious figure from the Golden Age of Piracy. The image of a tall, lean man, dark beard heavy on his chest, huge coat flapping around him, carrying six pistols and wreathed in smoke from the smoldering cords he has stuck under his hat, is as much a mythical figure as Neptune himself. But the man we call Blackbeard was not the villain we imagine.

He was probably born in Bristol, England sometime around 1680, and his name was Edward Thatch, not “Teach” as has been previously believed. We are almost certain that he served under the privateer Benjamin Hornigold in the War of Spanish Succession, also called Queen Anne’s War. When the war ended and Hornigold became a pirate, Thatch remained a member of his crew.

Pirates at the time were not like any before or since. They saw themselves as crusaders for the rights of the working man in an era when managers routinely beat their employees, and thousands of the poor literally starved to death. Hornigold stated out with a couple of canoes and soon graduated to full-sized ships.  Thatch may have been his second in command.

As Hornigold captured more ships, Blackbeard had opportunity to take command of one and become a captain in his own right, but he does not seem to have been anxious to do so. When he finally did acquire command of a ship, it was in the most unusual way possible. 

While camped out in Nassau, spending some of the gold they had collected, the pirates saw a strange, battered ship sail into the harbor. It was none other than Stede Bonnet, a gentleman plantation owner who had decided to run away from home to become a pirate. In a fight with the Spanish, Bonnet’s ship, the Revenge, had been badly damaged, and Bonnet himself was wounded.

Blackbeard talked his way onto the boat, and persuaded Bonnet to let him take command, while Bonnet himself recovered from his wounds in his luxurious, book-lined captain’s cabin.
Like most of Hornigold’s protégés, Blackbeard did not use violence in his robberies. Instead, he created a fearsome persona, took on a large number of African crew members, and relied on terror to frighten his victims into handing over their property without a fight.

We do not think of pirates as having friends, but Blackbeard seems to have become very good friends with another of Hornigold’s protégés.  Sam Bellamy, the incredibly charismatic pirate captain of the Whydah Galley left Hornigold long before Blackbeard did, but in May of 1717, when Thatch learned that Bellamy’s ship had gone down in a storm and his few surviving crewmen were in prison awaiting hanging, he sprang to action.  He left the Caribbean and sailed up the coast, apparently intending to blockade Boston and free Bellamy’s pirates.

He was too late, but this seems to have marked a turning point in Blackbeard’s career. From this time forward his moves were bolder, his actions more daring.

He terrorized Chesapeake Bay, Philadelphia and New York, at one point capturing 15 ships within 48 hours. Then, in November, he returned to the Caribbean and made the single capture that crowned his career.

She was called La Concorde and she was a French slave ship with port for 40 guns. At 250 tons, she was the same size as the Navy frigates sent to hunt him. Blackbeard re-named her the Queen Anne’s Revenge.Like many pirate captains, he had been collecting a flotilla of smaller ships that sailed in his company. He was now a pirate admiral with a flagship to match his stature.

Blackbeard is famous for saying, “I must shoot one of you now and again, or you will forget who I am.” It sounds bloodthirsty enough, and may actually be the origin of the myth that pirate captains shot members of their crew at will. The reality was somewhat less exciting. The famous pirate was playing cards with friends and drinking heavily.  Apparently he was losing, too, and being teased for it. Somehow, one of his pistols discharged (under the table) hitting his second in command in the foot. The statement was a simple refusal to apologize. The other pirate continued to serve with Blackbeard for months, but their friendship was somewhat soured.

By spring of 1718 he was the most famous man in the New World. Governors demanded his arrest, newspapers wrote about his exploits, dozens of victims gave depositions. He was also rich. It was time to disappear. He headed north again, with four sloops, including Bonnet’s Revenge. He tried to head into Topsail Inlet in North Carolina. The smaller vessels got through, but the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran hard aground.

It has been debated for years whether he did it on purpose. Even at the time, some of his stranded men said that Blackbeard wanted to “get rid of the riff-raff.” Some scholars claim that the Queen Anne’s Revenge was too great an asset to ever sacrifice willingly.  What we do know is that Thatch escaped with all the treasure, leaving the majority of his crew behind to face arrest and hanging.

He found sanctuary in the small North Carolina town of Bath, where he married into a prominent family, bought a home and kept his pirate friends at arm’s length. But the lure of adventure – and profit – were too much to resist. Soon he was slipping away to a camp on Ocracoke Island, which they used as a base to raid shipping.

Too much of the shipping came from Virginia. Blackbeard’s real identity was an open secret. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood bribed members of the Royal Navy to devote themselves exclusively to Blackbeard’s capture.

Lieutenant Maynard found the pirates at their base on Ocracoke and attempted to ambush them, but gave himself away when one of his ships ran aground. Blackbeard and his men were able to get to their own boat and fight. They killed 21 of Maynard’s men in minutes with cannon fire, muskets and hand grenades, then swarmed onto the deck of the navy ship.

Maynard had additional men in hiding, and what followed next was a pitched battle worthy of Hollywood. The Navy lieutenant and the pirate king met in mortal combat, hacking at each other unti Blackbeard fell, wounded by 20 sword thrusts and 5 pistol shots.   When their leader fell, the pirates gave up. Maynard returned to Virginia with 14 prisoners, and Blackbeard’s head hanging from his bowsprit.  

The battle in which he died is the only time that the dreaded pirate Blackbeard ever killed anyone. They say his ghost still walks the shores of the Carolinas looking for his severed head.

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