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This Day in History: The Life and Death of a Pirate of the Caribbean

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

"Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you!" yelled the pirate Blackbeard, as he faced his final battle with Royal Navy forces under Lieutenant Robert Maynard on 22 November 1718. It was the beginning of the end of an extraordinary but notorious life, and career as a pirate of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean which lasted from 1716 to 1718. The fearsome mystique Blackbeard created for himself during this time was so successful that his story fascinates people to this day.

Maynard recorded Blackbeard's real name as Edward Teach, but since pirates tended to use false names, even that detail about his identity is uncertain. Little is known about his childhood and youth; his ability to read and write suggests he came from a family wealthy enough to educate him, but there is no known record of his parentage. He was probably born between 1680 and 1690 in the English seaport of Bristol, then a hub for trade with Britain's American colonies. Clearly he determined to make his fortune in those colonies - by fair means or foul.

His opportunity came during the 1703 – 13 War of the Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne's War, fought between 1702 and 1713, when France and Spain did battle with Britain over American territory. Edward Teach served on a Jamaican-based British privateer during this war. Privateers, as their name suggests, were ships under private ownership, which governments hired to attack enemy ships in time of war. Teach and his shipmates targeted ships from France and Spain, and kept the goods they stole from them. In wartime, they had the official permission of the British authorities; privateers were rewarded by their government when they stole from an enemy country. They became pirates when they went on attacking ships and stealing cargo after the end of the war.

In 1716 Edward Teach joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, a pirate who operated from the small Caribbean island of New Providence which an earlier privateer turned pirate, Henry Jennings, had begun to use as a base. Teach stood out for his daring and determination as a pirate as much as he had as a privateer, and it was not long before he was given command of a sloop and began to operate as a pirate captain in his own right, concentrating mainly on the Caribbean shores of America. The areas where he was most active had been left in heavy debt by the war: South Carolina by military expenses, and Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania by high economic costs, because it was more expensive to send tobacco and the other main American exports to Europe during wartime.

Teach based his operations on the coast of North Carolina, then a British colony, near a string of islands called the Outer Banks, from which it was easy to launch attacks on ships travelling the coast on a main shipping route between Britain and America. At one point there were over two thousand pirates active around the Caribbean.

In 1717 Teach captured the British-built ship Concorde from a French crew off the Bahamas, and renamed it Queen Anne's Revenge, no doubt a reference to the war that had formed his career. He increased the ship's number of cannon from twenty-six to forty, and strengthened her sides to further arm her against attacks. Before long he made more captured ships his own, naming them the Adventure and the Revenge - again likely references to the things that were most important in his life.

The names of the ships were also part of the notoriety Teach needed, to give him a reputation that no-one would dare to challenge. His nickname of Blackbeard was developed for the same purpose. Tall and impressive already, he made himself look more intimidating by tying black ribbons into his dark beard, and, before he attacked, putting ends of burning rope under his hat and slinging several pistols over his shoulder when fighting. The idea was to appear as evil and demonic as possible, so that people would be too afraid to even think of defying him. There was a legend that Blackbeard's crew once discovered an unexpected extra man - the devil himself.

The image Blackbeard preferred

It was the sort of tale Blackbeard was happy to encourage. Like the other pirates of the Caribbean at that time, he had his own version of the Jolly Roger, or pirate's flag. It showed a horned skeleton with an hourglass in one hand and a spear or arrow in another, pointing at a bleeding heart. The message, to those who found themselves trapped by one of Blackbeard's ships, would have been plain: they had a certain amount of time to surrender, or else face a particularly devilish form of death. Blackbeard had a supply of the flags of various countries, and would lull his victims into a false sense of security by raising the same national flag as the one they sailed under. He replaced it with his own flag only when the pirate ship was too close for the other ship to be able to escape. Often its crew would surrender at the first sight of Blackbeard's flag.

Blackbeard's flag

The crew were taken hostage and robbed of any money or jewellery they had; passengers on the ship got the same treatment. All the stolen goods were shared among the pirates, with the captain and officers receiving the largest portions. According to many accounts Blackbeard treated his prisoners courteously, despite his terrifying image. However, there was a story that he cut off a prisoner's finger when the man refused to let him have the expensive ring he was wearing on it. Another version of this story is that the man was Blackbeard's rival for a beautiful girl, and the ring she had given him was left on his severed hand when Blackbeard made her a present of it in a silver box - a 'gift' that caused her to collapse on the spot.

Treasure such as the valuable ring was rare booty for the pirates: merchant ships tended to carry more practical cargo, like grain, molasses, rum, rope, tools and ammunition. But all these necessities were just as valuable to the pirates, because they enabled them to do business - with the authorities as well as the local people. The residents of the Caribbean coastline were glad to buy cloth and sugar at reduced prices from pirates, rather than pay high prices at a time of economic hardship to have them imported from England. This was why colonial officials often turned a blind eye to piracy. It also helped many pirates to escape punishment by co-operating with the law when it suited them.

This was something Blackbeard managed to do on two occasions during the last year of his life. In early 1718, he deliberately ran the Queen Anne's Revenge aground near Fishtown, now Beaufort, North Carolina, and surrendered the Revenge, before going to surrender to Charles Eden, the colonial Governor of North Carolina, in Bath Town, North Carolina. After promising to live an honest and upright life, he used the gold he had gained from his piracy to build a home for himself on Plum Point overlooking Old Town Creek, now Bath Creek, near the home of Tobias Knight, Secretary of North Carolina. Another of his neighbours here was Charles Eden. There were allegations that Eden and Knight gave favours to pirates in return for a share in the goods they stole.

Writer and film-maker Kevin Duffus, in his 2008 book The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate, argues that Blackbeard does not deserve to be remembered as a pirate: that he was actually an upstanding citizen, a sea captain and landowner named James Black Beard, who got on well with his neighbours, had never killed anyone, and only involved himself briefly with piracy when he skirmished with the Spaniards at Eden and Knight's request over the treasure of a Spanish ship sunk off the coast of Florida.

However genuine Blackbeard's reformation was, it lasted only until his gold ran out. By the spring of 1718 he had returned to piracy; he surrendered again later in the year to take advantage of an amnesty from Eden, and earned an official pardon from the British king George I - which did not arrive in Bath Town until a month after Blackbeard was killed. During his second amnesty period in Bath Town, he married a local girl, sixteen-year-old Mary Ormond, a plantation owner's daughter. His cruelty to her is said to have shocked even the most hardened pirates. Blackbeard, it appeared, was not well suited to the life of a respectable civilian.

Probably his most audacious act was the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina, then known as Charles Town, in May 1718. His crew captured the pilot boat, which effectively gave them control of access to the port. Among the nine ships they stopped and robbed was one that was taking some prominent Charleston citizens to London, including a member of the Council of the Province of Carolina. All the passengers were held hostage, with Blackbeard threatening to send their heads to the Governor and burn all the captured ships, unless he received medical supplies for his crew. Blackbeard got what he wanted, minutes ahead of the deadline beyond which he had threatened to hang the hostages. But during this time he also heard that Woodes Rogers, sea captain and privateer, and now the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas, had left England with several heavily-armed ships, determined to rid these seas of pirates. Blackbeard would soon have good reason to need medical supplies in reserve for his crew.

In the autumn of 1718, Blackbeard gathered with other pirates, including Israel Hands, Calico Jack Rackham, Robert Deal and Charles Vane, off Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. They held a celebration there that openly challenged the local authorities. If Eden and Knight were prepared to tolerate piracy, the Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, had other ideas. He was sure that if the coast of North Carolina remained a base for pirates, the economy of Virginia would be damaged, and the stability of the British colonies threatened. The local people of Carolina had also begun to appeal to Spotswood to take action against the pirates, knowing that officials such as Eden and Knight were unlikely to challenge their activities. Events like the blockade of Charleston convinced them that the pirates posed a threat to the local community as well as passing ships. In the long run, they would damage the important trade route between Europe and America.

It was Spotswood who sent the Royal Navy, under Lieutenant Robert Maynard, to search for Blackbeard off Ocracoke. Blackbeard's words of defiance were uttered in the lead-up to what he knew was likely to be his final battle. When he warned Maynard that he would show him no mercy, Maynard replied that he expected none - and would give none in return. The two sides waited through the night of 21 November, because they would need daylight to negotiate the sandbanks that surrounded Ocracoke. The pirates, on Blackbeard's remaining ship Adventure, spent the time preparing for battle, throwing sand over the decks to soak up blood and getting wet blankets ready to put out fires. Maynard would later discover that Blackbeard had arranged to blow up his own ship as soon as his enemies set foot on it.

All night the Naval crew could hear the pirates laughing and swearing, and there is a legend that Ocracoke Island got its name from Blackbeard's shouts of "O Crow, Cock!" as he defiantly wished for the morning to come, so that he could prove to his enemies how little he feared death. One of his men asked him if his wife knew where he had buried his treasure; he answered that only he and the devil knew that, "and the longest liver shall take it".

Next morning, Blackbeard used his knowledge of the sandbanks to drive one of the two Naval sloops, or small, fast ships, aground. But his own ship also got stuck on a sandbar, and Maynard managed to approach it in his remaining sloop, the Ranger. He ordered his men to hide below decks, weapons at the ready. To the pirates, the apparently empty Ranger looked like an easy target. When they boarded it, however, they were ambushed on all sides by Maynard's men.

The battle that followed, in what is now Teach's Hole Channel on Ocracoke, was ferocious, as Blackbeard and Maynard fought each other in the midst of their men; the sea around the ship is said to have been dyed red. In the end, Blackbeard was killed when a naval seaman cut his throat from behind as he was about to kill Maynard. Over thirty major battle wounds were found on his body: he had been shot five times.

Blackbeard fights his final battle, with Lieutenant Robert Maynard

Blackbeard's head was cut off and hung from the bow of Maynard's sloop, as an example to other pirates and a proof of his death which would allow Maynard to claim the reward offered for this capture by George I and Alexander Spotswood. His body was thrown into the sea; it is said that it swam seven times around the Ranger before sinking, as though Blackbeard's demonic strength continued even in death. Those of his crew not killed in the battle were captured and brought to trial. Despite Maynard's best efforts, the treasure of Blackbeard, if it really existed, was never found.

Ocracoke Island today

Blackbeard's reputation in popular folklore was recorded for the first time when he featured in a book published in 1724, called A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, written by a Captain Charles Johnson, which could have been a pen-name for the British author Daniel Defoe. He was described here as "such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to look more frightful". It was perhaps a fitting epitaph for a man who literally fought to the death to defend his choice of a pirate's life. Those who made other choices included Blackbeard's own mentor in piracy, Benjamin Hornigold. Some five months before the final battle at Ocracoke, he accepted the king's pardon and took a job - as a hunter of pirates for the Governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers.

Woodes Rogers, in a 1729 portrait by British artist WIlliam Hogarth, being presented with a map of a now pirate-free New Providence Island by his son



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