Blackbeard: dastardly sea-devil or kind pirate?

Pat Kinsella explores the life of the pirate who earned a centuries-spanning reputation as the most dastardly sea-devil of them all, but who may have been one of the kindest – or rather, less villainous.

Blackbeard: dastardly sea-devil or kind pirate? © Superstock

There is one name that invokes the spirit of the Golden Age of Piracy above all others: Blackbeard. Rightly or wrongly, this man is remembered as the most notorious villain of his era – and a usual suspect in a line-up of the most famous criminals of all time – a reputation fuelled by the fact that he used to set his own facial hair on fire to appear demonic. He has been variously painted as a ferocious thug, a pirate king and a gentleman in wolf’s clothing – but what do we really know about Edward Teach, the man behind the smoking beard?

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Considering the size of Blackbeard’s legacy, surprisingly little is known about the vast majority of Edward Teach’s existence. His reputation as the ultimate pirate – an image that has stood strong for three centuries – is built squarely on a frenetic period of activity that took place in the last two years of his life.

It is believed that Teach (whose real name may have been Thatch) was born in Bristol sometime around 1680. Bristol is a city with deep maritime roots, and at some point the young man apparently took to the waves and sailed to the Americas – possibly on a merchant slave-trading ship.

It’s probable that he saw action as a privateer or combatant in Queen Anne’s War – the North American front of the Spanish War of Succession, a complicated conflict that divided Europe from 1701-14. Teach likely then fell in with the pirate crowd around Jamaica and the Bahamas after Britain pulled out of the war, but what is known for sure is that, by 1716, he was mingling with career pirates on the island of New Providence.

Teach first comes to light in written records in 1717, when he’s reported as working as a lieutenant to his compatriot Captain Benjamin Hornigold, a former privateer who’d been involved in piracy since 1713 and was a big noise in the Pirate Republic of Nassau, where Teach was now living.

In 1717, after he’d captured a 30-gun ship he renamed The Ranger, Hornigold placed Teach in command of his original sloop and the two boats set sail for the American mainland. En route, a further three ships – all merchant vessels laden with wine and food – were successfully ransacked.

Around this time, Teach encountered the so-called ‘Gentleman Pirate’, Stede Bonnet – an eccentric Barbadian from a well-heeled background, whose chief motive for entering into piracy appears to have been to get away from his nagging wife. Bonnet, who had no knowledge of the sea or ship culture, was paying his crew wages – unheard of in pirate circles, where everyone from the captain down typically reaped their rewards from treasures plundered.

For all these reasons, Bonnet commanded little respect from his men, and at the time of meeting Teach he was seriously injured after a skirmish with a Spanish man-o-war. At the crew’s request, and with Bonnet’s approval, Teach took command of his ship, The Revenge. Bonnet remained on board, but as a background figure.

Up until this point, Hornigold had steadfastly refused to attack British ships – possibly out of a sense of patriotism or, more likely, because it would eliminate his last shred of defence against accusations of piracy. However, these scruples were not held by his crew, most of whom just wanted a slice of whatever loot they could lay their hands on. After a vote – taken while Teach was elsewhere – Hornigold was replaced as captain by Samuel ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy, and shortly afterwards Hornigold sailed off in The Ranger to accept the Kings’ pardon. Later, Hornigold turned pirate-hunter, but he and Teach never met again.

In November 1717, off the coast of St Vincent, Teach attacked and captured a large French slave ship, La Concorde de Nantes, which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. His new flagship was equipped with 40 guns. Teach now had three ships and presided over 150 men.

Blackbeard and Charles Vane’s crews party the night away on Ocracoke Island. © Topfoto
Blackbeard and Charles Vane’s crews party the night away on Ocracoke Island. © Topfoto

The power of image

Over the next few months, Teach, with Bonnet still on board, attacked and plundered multiple targets around the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of America, adding several new boats to his expanding flotilla and cultivating a ferocious reputation. Much of this was an illusion, however. Teach was an intelligent man who fully realised the power of image over brute force.

Henry Bostock, captain of a boat that Teach ransacked around this time, recounts the pirate as “a tall spare man with a very black beard which he wore very long”. This appears to have been the source of his simple but effectively menacing nom de guerre, Blackbeard.

The really evocative depictions of Teach, complete with lit fuses under his hat and in his beard, come from the book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724 and written by a mysterious Captain Charles Johnson. The book describes Teach as “Such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to look more frightful.”

Yet, for all his demonic bluster, most eye-witness accounts of Teach paint a picture of a man who honoured his word when dealing with hostages, and never resorted to wanton indiscriminate violence. This is in sharp contrast to some of his contemporaries, such as Edward Low, who was known for torture, sometimes for little more reason than his own amusement.

In May 1718, Teach pulled off his most audacious stunt to date, blockading the port of Charles Town (now Charleston) in South Carolina. He pillaged all boat traffic for five days, kidnapped several local dignitaries and held the entire town to ransom to demand medical supplies. Shortly afterwards, further north in Beaufort Inlet, two of  Teach’s ships ran aground on a sandbar, and were critically damaged. The pirates were left with just Bonnet’s ship The Revenge and one other sloop.

According to eye-witness accounts, Blackbeard wore a sash of pistols – almost certainly flintlocks – during combat. Flintlocks were effective, but hard-to-load weapons. © Wikimedia Commons
According to eye-witness accounts, Blackbeard wore a sash of pistols – almost certainly flintlocks – during combat. Flintlocks were effective, but hard-to-load weapons. © Wikimedia Commons

Predator turned prey

During the Charles Town blockade, Teach and Bonnet had learnt that the Royal Governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, was on his way east, with orders to smash the Pirate Republic and restore order. The men were already aware that they had until 5 September 1718 to present themselves to British authorities in order to get a royal pardon. Possibly at Teach’s insistence, Bonnet travelled to Bath in North Carolina to test the waters, and duly received his pardon from Governor Charles Eden.

While Bonnet was absent, Teach stripped the The Revenge of all its valuables and took off, marooning some of the crew. When Bonnet returned, he was furious at this betrayal and followed in pursuit. Perhaps fortunately, Bonnet never found his former colleague. He ended up falling back into piracy, however, and was caught just a few months later. The ‘Gentleman Pirate’ – a curious character to the last, who offered to have all his limbs cut off in return for his life – was hanged in Charles Town on 10 December 1718.

Meanwhile, Teach had received his own pardon from Governor Eden and was living in semi-retirement in Bath. He kept his last remaining ship, renamed the Adventure, and moored it close by at Ocracoke Island. He occasionally slid back into piracy – he earned an arrest warrant from the Governor of Pennsylvania and attacked two French ships leaving the Caribbean. Eden – who was possibly taking a slice of the loot – appears to have been covering his back.

Boozy shindig

When an old acquaintance, Charles Vane, attempted to lure Teach back into a full-time life of piracy, however, he declined. Instead, the pair embarked on a week-long boozy shindig on Ocracoke Island, together with a number of other old buddies – including, according to some accounts, ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham.

Vane had rejected the offer of a pardon, and was a wanted man. He was being hunted by none other than Teach’s old mentor, Captain Hornigold, and when word of this Flying Gang reunion emerged, it was big news.

Alexander Spotswood, Governor of Virginia, was not amused at the thought of partying pirates living next door. He decided to take pre-emptive action to protect his citizens, just in case the pirates decided to go on the rampage.

Although Carolina was well beyond his jurisdiction, Spotswood commissioned a task force to hunt Teach down – which he paid for using his own money. One group of men went overland to Bath Town, while Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy led the approach by sea. Maynard, who had 57 trained men aboard two armed sloops – the Jane and the Ranger – discovered Teach entertaining guests aboard the Adventure at Ocracoke, on the evening of 21 November. He waited until morning before making his move.

When Maynard launched his attack, Teach was caught with a reduced crew, but he still made a fight of it. He quickly cut his anchor rope and hit the ships with a broadside that disabled the Ranger and killed its senior officers.

A dramatic interpretation of Blackbeard’s last moments. © Topfoto
A dramatic interpretation of Blackbeard’s last moments. © Topfoto

 

As the Jane and the Adventure drew close to each other, Teach’s men sent their grappling hooks across and boarded Maynard’s ship. In anticipation of close combat, the lieutenant had ordered most of his men to stay below decks, fooling the pirates into thinking they had the numerical advantage. The ruse worked, and the pirates were caught by surprise.

Teach and Maynard fired their flintlocks at each other, and then reached for their blades. Teach broke Maynard’s sword with his cutlass, but the pirates had been forced back, leaving their captain surrounded and isolated. Teach was slashed across the neck by one of Maynard’s men and then finished off with multiple wounds. Their leader down, the remaining pirates surrendered.

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Teach’s head was hacked off and hung from bowsprit of Maynard’s sloop – a grim trophy from his victory. Blackbeard would long live on in the public’s imagination, but his pirate days were done.

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of History Revealed.