Blackbeard the Pirate and Other Things Piratical

bbeard2t.jpg (2321 bytes)Between the years of 1717 and 1718, one man's name drew terror on the seas more than any other: Blackbeard. An imposing 6 feet, 5 inches and 220 pounds, with a long black braided beard tied in ribbons and smoldering, smoking ropes stuffed in his three-corned hat for effect, the man known as Blackbeard the Pirate struck fear in all he encountered. Though he rarely killed, the sight of his fleet of 25 ships and perhaps more than 2500 men was cause for concern in any reasonable merchant seaman. More times than not, Blackbeard gained his bounty through intimidation, the sailors he looted having no desire to risk their lives for a handful of riches. Perhaps because of his overpowering success, perhaps because he was finally brought down by a Virginian, the legend of Blackbeard entertains and fascinates us to this very day.

Like many pirates, Blackbeard took to the seas as an outcast of society. Aboard ship, he could be among fellow outcasts--friends, if you can call them that--and escape the trappings of a world far more complicated than the simple life at sea. Here, men could concern themselves with keeping the ship fit and fast, they could amuse themselves with camaraderie and song and drink and they could bond in one overriding purpose: to get rich. What could be simpler?

Blackbeard was born as Edward Thatch (aka Teach) in London or Bristol sometime before 1690. Little is known of his early life. It is generally assumed that he started his career as a privateer, a sort of government-sanctioned at-sea rebel, employed by Queen Anne in her war with the French, Spanish or any other enemy of the crown. When Queen Anne's War ended perhaps before then, Thatch pursued pirating, where he joined with Benjamin Hornigold, another privateer-turned-pirate.

Early accounts place Blackbeard at popular pirate rendezvous spots such as Providence, the Delaware Capes and St. Vincent, near Barbados. It was in St. Vincent that the French ship La Concorde with a cargo of slave was captured by Hornigold and Thatch. For his role in capturing the ship, Thatch was given her command and thereafter he named her Queen Anne's Revenge. Hornigold retired shortly afterwards, taking advantage of the King's pardon of all pirate crimes in 1717.

bbeardsflag.gif (5345 bytes)Blackbeard heavily fortified his ship and his image. At least 36 cannons and 250 men were placed on board the Revenge. In November 1717, he may have engaged a British man-o-war to a draw, a battle for which he is famous but for which there is no evidence having occurred. Yet a few months later, he certainly did make his presence felt, capturing the Adventure, an eighty ton sloop, and the Protestant Caesar, a large merchant vessel. Interestingly, Blackbeard had engaged The Protestant Caesar earlier, "which provoked the pirate into searching out and burning the vessel so that her captain…might not brag when he went to New England that he had beat a Pirate…."

In the succeeding months, Blackbeard plundered small ships in the Caribbean, but by May of 1717, he arrived off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, with a fleet of four ships and possibly as many as 400 men. Upon arrival, he sent a dispatch to the governor demanding a ransom: a chest of medicine to cure syphilis. In the meantime, he and his men plundered local ships for a couple thousand dollars worth of gold and silver. A chest of medicine was soon delivered (a tincture of mercury, most likely) and  Blackbeard sailed north to Beaufort, North Carolina.

In Beaufort, it appears that Blackbeard intentionally grounded the Revenge on a sandbar. A report written by one of the captured captains suggest that he did this "to secure what Moneys and Effects he had got for himself and such other of them as he had most Value for." Whatever his reasons, Blackbeard trimmed his fleet considerably: "Thatch having taken what Number of Men he thought fit along with him, he set sail from Topsail-Inlet [near Beaufort] in the small Spanish Sloop [one he captured off Havana], about eight Guns mounted, forty White Men, and sixty Negroes, and left the Revenge belonging to Bonnet there..." [from the QAR Project]

By this time, Blackbeard had plundered at least 25 ships and amassed a fair amount of loot. Whether pleased with his success or wanting to rest a bit, he arrived in the town of Bath, the early seat of government in North Carolina, with much fewer men and a much smaller armada. In Bath, which is near Okracoke, it is reported that he took the King's pardon and took a 16-year old wife, his 14th wife, according to legend. For six months he rested, until the lure of the sea (and possibly a dwindling bank account) called him back to action.

Blackbeard revived his piratical campaigns along the Carolina and Virginia coasts. Showing some skills as a politician, he shared his booty with North Carolina's Governor Charles Eden, who is also reported to have performed Blackbeard's latest nuptials. This kept him in business for a while and he managed to capture a few ships with small prizes.

However, as the colonies developed and trade became increasingly important, the local citizens grew tired of pirate ships on their coasts. The North Carolinians called upon Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood for help, who had pledged to bring an end to piracy. In November 1718, Spotswood dispatched English Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard with two small sloops, which headed immediately for Okracoke.

On the evening of November 21, 1718, Maynard stole into Okracoke and found Blackbeard's vessel, the Spanish sloop Adventure [a name he had given her], at anchor in the channel. At daybreak, Maynard sent out two small vessels to draw out his enemy. Blackbeard fired upon the vessels and the larger ships engaged. One sloop soon grounded on a sandbar, but the Ranger, under Maynard's personal command, bore the brunt of Blackbeard's attack.

The Ranger was swept with cannon fire, for the British had only small arms with which to press the attack. Cleverly, Maynard ordered all his men below to escape the murderous fire. Seeing an apparently helpless vessel, Blackbeard brought the Adventure alongside and personally led the charge onto the deck of the British sloop. He soon met Maynard face to face, but as Blackbeard charged, the commander grazed his skull with a pistol. Charging up from his hiding place below, a Royal marine dealt the pirate a terrible neck wound with his saber. [The Original Blackbeard Website]

blackbeardhead.gif (7747 bytes)“Blood gushing from the neck wound and from Maynard’s early pistol shot, Blackbeard was struck again and then again, five times in all,” historian David Stick writes in The Outer Banks of North Carolina. “He was hacked and slit and cut by sword thrusts until his body was covered with gashes. Yet he still stood his ground — and his men with him. He stepped back to cock a pistol, half raised it, then slumped forward and crumpled to the deck. The rest of the pirates, observing the death of their leader, jumped overboard into the shallow water — then quickly surrendered.”

A later examination revealed that the pirate had suffered over thirty major wounds. In a grisly gesture, Maynard severed Blackbeard's head from his body and hung the disfigured visage upon the bowsprit. The body was flung overboard and is said to have swum three times around the Ranger before it sank.[The Original Blackbeard Website]

In all, 18 men died in Blackbeard's last battle. But in death, the ghost often rises to far greater heights than in life, and such seems to be the case with Blackbeard. Several legends have been attributed to him.

Before waging battle on a passing ship, he lit slow-burning cannon wicks beneath his broad-brimmed hat. Smoke billowed around his wizened visage, obscuring fierce features. But captains quickly learned to recognize and fear the long, black beard. He dressed all in black, too: a floor-length cape, tall boots, and, of course, a black hat.

Potential victims weren’t the only people who cowered from Blackbeard. His crew often feared for their lives. One night the pirate captain led some of his sailors below deck and locked them in a hold. “Come,” he reportedly said. “Let us make a hell of our own and try how long we can bear it.” Closing the hatches, Blackbeard lit pots full of sulphur and waited for choking fumes to fill the close, dark space. The sailors soon cried for fresh air. Triumphantly, their captain threw open the hatches. By lasting the longest, Blackbeard had beaten his men.

Another time, according to legend, Teach invited two of his top underlings into his cabin to drink. After several draughts of rum — the pirate’s favorite beverage — he blew out the lantern. One crewman crept away in the dark. The other heard a pistol cock.

Blackbeard shot his first mate in the knee cap, leaving the man with a permanent limp. “When other crew members asked the captain why he would intentionally injure a friend,” Hugh F. Rankin writes in Pirates of North Carolina, “Blackbeard explained that if he didn’t shoot one or two of them now and then, they’d forget who he was.”

cannon c-2.jpg (12377 bytes)Whatever the legends, Blackbeard's ghost has risen once again. On November 21 1996, almost 278 years to the day after Blackbeard's death,  Mike Daniel, Director of Operations for Intersal, Inc. discovered an eighteenth century shipwreck, what he believed to be the remains of Blackbeard's first ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. Using historical research provided by Intersal’s president, Phil Masters, Daniel sought for and finally located the wreck in 23 feet of water off the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina

By comparing nautical charts made in the 1700s with modern-day digital charts, geologists have determined that the sandy bottom of the Beaufort coast has changed considerably (as expected.) Recent hurricanes may have uncovered the wreck, which may explain why it wasn't found earlier. In any case, a considerable number of artifacts found aboard the wreck support the idea that the ship is, indeed, the Revenge.

On June 28, 1999, a news release from the University of North Carolina reports that a radiocarbon study of wood taken from the wreck indicates an age consistent with the Queen Anne's Revenge. The wood dates back to about 1630, when the Revenge is believed to have been built.

The results are totally consistent with when Queen Anne's Revenge was built," said Christopher Martens, William B. Aycock professor of marine science at UNC. "Does this without a doubt prove that it's the Queen Anne's Revenge? No, but the state's underwater archaeologists are finding so many physical pieces of evidence that, taken in their entirety, we're building a strong scientific case that this likely was Blackbeard's ship.[From the Hill]

The importance of this discovery and others like it lies in the information they can shed on the life and culture of Blackbeard and his men. And they help to dispel some of the myths that fiction writers and Hollywood have built for these men. Recent shipwrecks and analyses of journals and historical accounts reveal a much different picture of the pirate that once thought. In fact, these data suggest that Blackbeard, who commanded by intimidation, may have been an exception rather than the rule.

For example, the wreck of another pirate, the Whyday, Sam Bellamy's ship, was recently discovered near Provincetown, a former pirate haunt on Cape Cod. What these artifacts reveal is a democratic sharing of the loot, at least on this pirate ship. African gold treasures found on the ship appear to have been cut into pieces so that they could be evenly divided among the men. While speculative, these kind of data help historians to discover the true nature of these men.

Another example of a kinder, gentler pirate is provided by Captain Charles Johnson, whose book A General History of Pirates is considered the authoritative account of pirates (though even his accounts have been accused of exaggeration). He reports the following Code of Conduct for pirates:

The keeping of boys appears to have been common on pirate ships, especially by ship's officers. (Blackbeard kept a black boy as his personal servant.) This tradition and numerous historical accounts have generated much speculation about the sexual preferences of pirates. Indeed, B.R. Burg, a Professor of History at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, has put a great deal of research into this subject, published in his book,   Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition

Burg suggests that homosexuality may have been common among pirates. Homosexual men may have felt outcast from society or may have been aware of homosexual practices aboard ships and, thus, chosen a pirate's life because of the freedom it afforded. Whatever the reasons, it did not appear to concern the pirates to any unusual degree. Burg writes:

Those who signed aboard vessels destined for the Caribbean or the eastern seas, whatever their reasons or sexual preferences, found themselves in situations where the only manner of fulfillment was with members of the same sex. Homosexuals may have congratulated themselves on having blundered into good fortune.Those with no preference could easily adapt. Heterosexuals had a choice between sodomy or abstinence, but their choice was influenced not only by having grown to adolescence or adulthood in a society that did not rigorously condemn homosexual conduct but also by the fact that many of the men aboard were homosexuals; those in positions of authority by virtue of their long seafaring experience were surely aware of the sexual situation aboard ship when they took employment. [Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, 1983]

While Burg may overexaggerate the incidence of homosexuality among pirates, what his book does offer is a provocative look at the lifestyle of these men that challenges not only our notions of pirates but our interpretations of the history of people. Considering that latter century history books (up until a few decades ago) have largely ignored indigenous cultures (including Native Americans and South Pacific Islanders, among others), non-Christian religious practices (except for a few Eastern religions), treatment of minorities (including women, African Americans and even the Irish) and human sexuality (especially homosexuality), it's not surprising that much of modern history is being rewritten as the importance of these people and these activities receives more objective attention.

Much remains to be learned about the pirates. That they were great seaman with a vast knowledge of navigation and currents is unquestionable. And as archaeologists and cultural anthropologists sift through the artifacts of their culture, perhaps some day we'll know just what kind of oceanographers the pirates really were.

National Geographic's Pirates!

Quest for a Pirate

Provincetown Home Page

NY Times Article: Archaeologists Revise Portrait of Buccaneers as Monsters

Treasures of the Pirate Ship Whyday (WID-ah), Sam Bellamy's Pirate Ship

Beej's Pirate Image Archive

Offical Home Page of the Wreck of the Queen Anne's Revenge: Blackbeard's Ship
The best source of accurate information on Blackbeard and his ship

Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge Educational Project