BLACKBEARD The history of a fearsome pirate

Introduction

Pirates. Hearing the word instantly engenders images of sailing through dangerous waters, daring swordfights, naval battles with cannon fire and smoke, and of course buried treasure. In today’s world, the term “pirate” brings to mind the popular Disney character Captain Jack Sparrow. The character’s adventurous antics coupled with his comedic, chaotic neutral personality portray piracy as something of an endearing occupation full of action and fun. In terms of nonfictional, infamous pirates, there is one who is arguably the most renown pirate in all of history who had quite the impact on the state of Virginia. This man’s name was Edward Teach, and he called himself Blackbeard.

The Man Before Piracy

Looking back at the time before he became a pirate, there is precious little information to be found about Blackbeard. Most researchers say that he was born in or near Bristol, England around the year 1680 with the name Edward Teach.[1] However, even this name may have been a false identity. Teach may have adopted a fake name to prevent bringing dishonor upon his family and relatives.[2] His name has had various spellings, such as Tash, Tatch, Tack, Tache, and Thatch, but Teach is the name that is used the most in identifying him.[3]

Despite the miniscule amount of information, a rough history of Teach’s life can still be pieced together. The earliest records for Teach reveal that he served as a privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War, in and around Jamaica.[4] This gave him governmental rights to attack and plunder enemy vessels.[5] He was quickly recognized as a highly proficient sailor with great courage and boldness, and the time spent sailing on some of the most powerful ships gave him the opportunity to learn key nautical skills such as handling the sails and cannon as well as learning naval combat tactics and navigation.[6] Following the end of Queen Anne’s War in 1714, many privateers and sailors like Teach had no purpose or goal in life and saw no opportunity to utilize the skills they had learned, making piracy a simple and obvious vocation for him to adopt.[7] Teach signed on with pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold in the Bahamas around 1716, and thus began his life of piracy.[8]

The Life of a Pirate

Sailing as a crew member under Hornigold, Teach quickly proved himself a cunning member and easily moved up through the ranks of the collective. In late 1717, Hornigold captured a sloop that could carry six cannon while staying fast and maneuverable.[9] Conferring with his council, Hornigold recommended giving his trustworthy lieutenant Edward Teach his very first command of a maritime vessel, which he eagerly accepted, and Blackbeard continued his pirate career sailing alongside Hornigold.[10] Shortly afterward, Blackbeard surfaced as his chosen moniker for a pirate commander, and the name spread like wildfire.[11]

Illustration of a one-masted sloop

Blackbeard and Hornigold spent several months sailing up and down the Virginia coast and the mouth of Chesapeake Bay plundering ships and stoking their fearful reputation while securing over £100,000 in a 1717 spring campaign.[12] Eventually, they captured the Concord, a French slave transport, which Blackbeard kept, rebranding it the Queen Anne’s Revenge and outfitting it with forty cannon and almost three hundred crewmen.[13]

Click the video below to learn more about the Queen Anne's Revenge.

Hornigold took advantage of the king’s pardon and retired shortly thereafter, giving Blackbeard prominent reign over Bermuda and the East coast of America.[14] Despite his reputation, Blackbeard’s command over the many ships and hundreds of men in his fleet was delicate at times, and he devised multiple methods of ensuring the strength of his command. He would often use liquor like rum to keep his men drunk, making them easier to control.[15] At other times, he would use more savage acts to maintain discipline. In one instance, he secured himself in the hold with some men and lit sulfur pots in the enclosed space, creating a spontaneous game to see who could withstand the fumes the longest, resulting in Blackbeard’s crew watching him outlast the others, calmly walking out with a sharp smile.[16] Another display included snuffing out the lantern during a meeting and firing his pistol under the table, wounding one of the crewman.[17]

More frightening than his actions by far was Blackbeard’s physical appearance. Indeed, numerous accounts give a large focus to his looks, which only served to broaden his reputation. A detailed document about pirates published in 1724 noted that many great Romans chose a name based on a physical feature, which may have inspired Blackbeard’s choice due to the large, bushy black beard he proudly wore, which grew so thickly it covered his face and “frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there a long time.”[18] His beard he often wore twisted into multiple braids with black ribbons while arming himself with multiple pistols along with assorted daggers and a cutlass.[19] However, one of the most terrifying aspects of Blackbeard’s countenance included a particular proclivity for pyrotechnics, wherein he would take lit, slow-burning fuses and stick them under his hat, framing the sides of his face with fire and smoke.[20] Together with his fierce eyes and intense gaze, the sight of Blackbeard alone struck opponents with such fear that they would often yield without a fight.

Drawing of Blackbeard

Click the video below for more information about Blackbeard's appearance.

Blackbeard performed many exploits. He constantly sailed up and down the mid-Atlantic coast capturing and plundering every vessel he could.[21] As a result, the briefest whisper of pirates in nearby waters could discourage or halt all transportation. At one point, Virginia harbors experienced a six-week trade drought where no ships dared enter or leave due to the threat.[22] One of Blackbeard’s most costly economic escapades occurred when he effectively blocked trade ships in the harbors of Charleston, South Carolina for nearly a week, captured the negotiating party, and under violent threats ransomed them for a chest of costly medical supplies.[23] Blackbeard eventually followed in Hornigold’s footsteps and made port in North Carolina where he and his crew accepted the king’s pardon for their crimes from the governor, presumably awaiting a future pirating opportunity, and settled in town before resuming his pirating lifestyle.[24] However, according to a letter written by Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood, Blackbeard was still commencing acts of piracy while under the pretense of a trader.[25] During his time as a pardoned man, Blackbeard lived a life of luxury and used his notoriety along with gifts and entertainment in his home to win the hearts of most of the surrounding planters who were entranced to have a former pirate in the area.[26] After resuming piracy, Blackbeard would turn Bath, North Carolina into a sort of home port, sharing spoils with the governor and selling black market goods to the locals as he continued raiding ships all along the mid-Atlantic coast.[27]

The End of a Terror

Maritime trade was in a terrified uproar due to the chaos Blackbeard brewed among the coasts. Frustrated by the economic impact, Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood hired two small ships, well stocked but with no mounted guns, and charged Lieutenant Robert Maynard to lead a small group of about fifty-four men to capture or kill Blackbeard, and shortly thereafter issued a reward for any pirates captured or killed.[28] On November 22, 1718 at the Ocracoke inlet of North Carolina, where Blackbeard liked to surprise ships coming and going from the harbors, Maynard came face-to-face with the dread pirate himself.[29] The accounts of Blackbeard’s death make note of his determination to resist at all costs by drinking and proclaiming a curse to either side who gave or begged for either pity or mercy.[30] What followed was a ferocious battle wherein Blackbeard fought “with great fury” until he finally fell dead from twenty-five different wounds - twenty from a sword and five from pistol shots.[31] Maynard had Blackbeard’s head removed and hung from the bow of his ship, which he carried back to Virginia as proof of the pirate’s death.[32]

Blackbeard’s name continued to live on long after his death. As the orchestrator of the expedition, Governor Spotswood expressed concerns about safe passage to London six years later in 1724 because of his active role in quelling the pirate threat, most notably the terrifying Blackbeard.[33] Hundreds of years later, some sites in North Carolina still bear Blackbeard’s name with pride, such as “Blackbeard’s Point” and “Teach’s Castle,” marking places where the legendary pirate supposedly lived.[34] Folk tales even attribute the name of the island itself, Ocracoke, to Blackbeard himself expressing impatience for the morning to break and crying, “O crow cock!”[35] Blackbeard was truly a nautical terror all along the mid-Atlantic coast, hindering economic trade from the Carolinas to New York. His navigational skills and strategic cunning enabled him to command his own fleet during the golden age of piracy. Yet, it was the image of Blackbeard's devil-like countenance that was at the foremost of people’s minds, and this image brought the greatest amount of fear and allowed Blackbeard to perform the numerous feats he did; it served to propel Blackbeard’s reputation and transformed him into one of the most memorable pirates ever seen.

Bibliography

Credits:

Created with images by dimitrisvetsikas1969 - "cyprus cavo greko cruise ship" • Dohkoedi - "Jack Sparrow" • CircaSassy - "A present from New-York : containing many pictures worth seeing, and some things worth remembering ([ca. 1834])" • Bruce Clay, Inc - "Blackbeard" • Bruce Clay, Inc - "Blackbeard"

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