All pirates are the stuff of legends. Blackbeard was no different. He was reported to be an enormous man, who let his black beard grow long and put lit cannon fuses under his hat to make himself look more fierce. The stories about his exploits are just as captivating.
Blackbeard started life as Edward Teach (Tache, or Thatch) and was believed to have come from Bristol in England. He is supposed to have started his sealife aboard a privateer during the war of the Spanish Succession from 1703 to 1712. A privateer was a vessel that used to attack and pillage enemy vessels: a bit like a pirate ship except it wasn’t viewed as criminal. It would be an easy graduation to become a pirate.
Teach was mentored by Captain Benjamin Hornigold, one of the most successful plunderers of the era, who, impressed with Teach’s prowess, placed him in charge of a stolen sloop in 1716. Teach soon joined forces with Major Stede Bonnet, who had taken up pirating in spite of being a wealthy planter in Barbados and, with Teach in charge, the two captured 11 ships from Havana to Delaware bay.
Near the Island of St Vincent in the Caribbean, teach chased down La Concorde, a French slave ship with a very weak crew, thanks to scurvy and dysentery. The captain surrendered after a very brief skirmish, and he and his crew were dropped off on the tiny island of Bequia with a small sloop and a few tons of beans. Teach refitted the slaver with 40 cannons and the Queen Anne’s Revenge was born. Armed with one of the largest and most powerful Pirate vessels ever to sail the Spanish Main, Teach began a long season of plundering that the world would never forget.
In the spring of 1718, Blackbeard, as he was now nicknamed, sailed north in command of a pirate flotilla of 4 vessels, with more than 60 cannons and 400 brethren between them. At the time Charleston, South Carolina, was one of the wealthiest towns in the Colonies. Blackbeard came up with a bold plan to blockade the entire town. Within a week he had seized and plundered nine vessels attempting to leave or enter the port, taking large amounts of money and numerous hostages, including a member of the governor’s ruling council. Blackbeard had only one demand… a chest of medicines which was in great demand among the pirates. It didn’t take long for the governor to give in. Everyone took notice.
Blackbeard liked being noticed. Added to his already formidable appearance he wore a big scarlet cloak and six pistols slung across his chest. Some say that he put gunpowder in his rum and downed it whilst it was on fire. A famous story is one of him drinking in his cabin one night with a few of his crew, when he suddenly blew out the candles, drew two pistols and fired them at the table, wounding one of the crew at the table in the leg. He told them that if he didn’t kill one or two of them every now and then, they would forget who he was.
Blackbeard was not making friends. Days after the Charleston Blockade, he ran The Queen Anne’s Revenge aground, possibly intentionally, whilst entering what is now the Beaufort Inlet. He ordered another pirate vessel, the Adventure, to pull him off. As a result, both vessels grounded and were lost.
At this time, the king’s pardon had just been extended, giving pirates a chance to turn themselves in to the Authorities without the threat of being hanged. Blackbeard convinced Major Stede Bonnet to take some of his men to Bath, where the Governor of North Carolina had a plantation, and accept the King’s pardon. Whilst Bonnet was away, Blackbeard gathered 40 men loyal to him, and 60 captured slaves and stripped the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the Adventure, of anything of value, cheating their fellow pirates of their share of the loot. When the Adventure’s captain, David Herriot, demanded his share, Blackbeard marooned him and 16 others on a barrier island and then sailed to Bath to take the Pardon for himself.
Blackbeard’s retirement was shortlived. North Carolina was a perfect hideout. Indian wars, yellow fever and political upheaval meant that they could barely muster up a weak militia there and there were no jails. The shallow sounds and barrier islands meant that light pirate craft could easily prey on merchant ships from its wealthier neighbours. Blackbeard was soon taking advantage of this and back to his old ways, plundering local vessels in the rivers and sounds, and seizing a French sugar vessel off Bermuda. He also met up with pirate Charles Vane at the barrier island (and favourite honey hole for Blackbeard) of Ocracoke. A massive party ensued, with 200 pirates gathering for the weeklong shindig, before Vane sailed off.
Virginia’s governor, Alexander Spotswood was furious. Repeated attempts to get the North Carolina Governor, Charles Evan to act, were ignored. When rumours reached him that the pirates were building a fort at Ocracoke, Spotswood sent a self sponsored expedition by both land and sea to hunt Blackbeard down.
Lt. Robert Maynard, commanding two lightweight sloops, ideal for the shallow waters, and 60 men found Blackbeard anchored at Ocracoke on November21st. Blackbeard did not appear concerned. He had his King’s Pardon in hand and only about 20 men on board. He drank heavily with a local trader late into the night. His crew were worried though and tried to press him for the location of the loot. Blackbeard told them that only he and the devil knew where it was “and the longest liver shall take all”. 300 years later, no-one has ever found it.
At sunrise, Maynard sailed right for Blackbeard, Union Jacks flying. Blackbeard was furious and unleashed a crippling broadside from his cannon that killed or wounded nearly half of Maynard’s men. Maynard knew that they had no hope of capturing Blackbeard’s ship after that, so he ordered his remaining men below, in the hopes of luring Blackbeard and his men aboard. Blackbeard fell for it. He and his crew rushed aboard.
Maynard’s men swarmed out of the hatches and a fight ensued between Maynard and Blackbeard. In spite of Maynard shooting Blackbeard square in the chest, Blackbeard was still able to come at him with a cutlass blow so severe that it broke Maynard’s sword. At that point one of Maynard’s men struck Blackbeard in the neck from behind. Blackbeard collapsed on deck with his last pistol in his hand, too weak to fire. When he died, he had five gunshot wounds and more than 20 stab wounds.
Maynard Cut off Blackbeard’s head and hung it from his bowsprit. He tossed the body into the sea, where it is said that it swam around the boat 3 times before sinking. Locals say that it can still be seen on certain moonlit nights, looking for its head. Maynard took the head back to Hampton, Virginia and stuck it on a pike for all to see. Today a festival is held in honour of this.
This is all what you would expect from a gripping children’s pirate story, but a considerable bit of this story is documented in ship’s logs and government documents.
On the 21st of November 1996 a wreck, believed to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was found lying in 20 to 25 feet of water 1.2 nautical miles off Fort Macon, and 1500 yards west of the present Beaufort Inlet shipping channel. There was a lot of debate as to whether the found wreck was actually the Revenge mostly because the ship itself had many French characteristics but the weaponry and many fittings were distinctly British. The North Carolina State Office of Archeology have been carefully recovering and studying the objects that are on the wreck and using that to identify the vessel. Earlier this year a large anchor was recovered and on August 29th 2011, it was confirmed that the wreck is indeed the Queen Anne’s Revenge. So far more than 20 cannons, some loaded with typical pirate ammunition, have been recovered. Some articles unique to Blackbeard, including his primitive version of a Molotov cocktail, have also been recovered.
Also interesting is the fact that of the multitudes of pirates that sailed with him into Beaufort’s Inlet in 1718, some 200 were never captured or heard from again. Ocracoke and nearby Harper’s island marina’s are alive with their voices, because locals have a distinctly Elizabethan accent.