Copyright © 2012 by Mark Strecker.
This 1955 posthumous portrait of Blackbeard by MMcM Rumley offers one of the most realist artistic renditions of the pirate.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
*This passage, updated for modern readers, came from the 1998 The Lyons Press edition of Johnson’s book.
Several full length biographies about Blackbeard the pirate exist, but readers inevitably find them disappointing because those authors spend most of their pages writing about everything but Blackbeard. They do so because few historical documents about his life exist. Even Blackbeard’s real name, Edward Teach, presents problems since so many variations of it (such as “Thatch”) have appeared in historical documents. Writers of full length biographies have such a scant amount of information about their subject, they have to include mostly filler. The main source for Blackbeard’s life comes from Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. Over the years historians have scrutinized its facts and, though at one time many considered most of its information apocryphal, further investigation has verified its overall accuracy.
Teach came from Bristol, born there perhaps around 1680, and served in the War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War, until 1714, the year that conflict ended. He had an impressive physical appearance he used to terrorize victims into submission. Johnson described him as such:
Teach … assumed the cognomen of Blackbeard from the large quantity of hair which, like a frightful meteor, covered his whole face and frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there in a long time. This beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant length; as to breadth it came up to his eyes. He was accustomed to twist it with ribbons, in small tails, after the manner of our ramilies wigs, and turn them about his ears. In time of action, he wore a sling over his shoulders with three brace of pistols hanging in holsters like bandoliers [sic], and stuck lighted matches under his hat, which, appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure, that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell, to look more frightful.*
The first clue to Teach’s personality comes from his own lost journal, a fragment of which Johnson reproduced: “Such a Day, Rum all out: – Our Company somewhat sober: – A Damned Confusion amongst us! – Rogues a plotting; – great Talk of Separation. – So I looked sharp for a Prize; – such a Day took one, with a great deal of Liquor on Board, so kept the Company hot, damned hot, then all Things went well again.”* The passage drips of sarcasm, leading one to conclude that, if nothing else, Teach had a sense of humor. Yet he had a brutal nature as well.
When he married a sixteen-year-old girl—his fourteenth wife despite the fact twelve others still lived and had not divorced him—he would, after having sex with her, hand her over to five or six of his companions to watch them gang rape her. On one occasion he challenged several of his crewmen to a bizarre contest. They would lock themselves in the hold and light pots of sulfur to see who could hold out the longest before leaving the room. After nearly suffocating, everyone except Teach evacuated, which pleased him. On still another occasion, as he and two of his men sat drinking in his cabin, he drew out two pistols hidden beneath the table and pointed them crisscross at the men opposite him. One of his companions, Israel Hands, did not notice this, so he remained seated. The other did, and he vacated the cabin. Teach blew out the candle lighting the cabin and fired, inflicting upon Hands a wound to his knee that would leave him crippled for life. When asked why he had done it, Teach simply stated that if he did not kill a man or two now and then, his crew would forget who he was.
He began his pirating career in late 1716 under the tutelage of Benjamin Hornigold. In the late part of 1717, he led a boarding party onto a French slave ship named La Concorde, which he rechristened the Queen Anne’s Revenge and took as his own. This two hundred ton French Guineaman with sixteen guns belonged to a French slave merchant named Rene Montaudoin, who operated out of the French port of Nantes. At the time Blackbeard captured La Concorde, she carried a crew of seventy-five and a cargo of 516 captive Africans slated for sale in America.
Teach placed the crew and slaves on an island and searched the ship. Thanks to a talkative cabin boy, the pirates found some gold dust. He gave the French crew one of Hornigold’s two sloops, then added more cannon to his new vessel to bring the total to forty. Not long thereafter, this heavy armament allowed him to fight a British man-of-war, HMS Scarborough, to a standstill. The Scarborough headed back to her home port of Barbados, and Teach sailed to Spanish America.
In these waters he encountered an oddity in the world of piracy: Major Stede Bonnet. Unlike any known pirate before him, Bonnet had purchased, not stolen, his ship. He also qualifies as the most well-educated pirate captain of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, the era in which Blackbeard operated. Born an English gentleman, he had served in the British Army as an officer and, after retirement, lived on the island of Barbados running a successful plantation. With money in his pocket, he had no need to go pirating and may have done so either because he suffered from mental illness or he wanted to escape his nagging wife. He knew nothing about ships in general and sailing in particular. At first Teach offered to sail with him as a partner, but when the latter’s ignorance of the sea became apparent, Teach had him removed, placing his own man, a fellow named Richards, in charge of his ship. Bonnet became Teach’s unwilling guest on board the Queen Anne’s Revenge. While lacking details, Johnson reported Blackbeard did not treat him well.
Teach soon added a third ship to those under his command when he took the sloop Adventure, then a fourth when he captured a vessel off the Cayman Islands that he made into a tender. Now he commanded four vessels and about three hundred men. In May 1718, when his crew found itself in need of medicine, he hatched an ambitious plan to obtain it.
He ordered his little flotilla to head to Charles Town, South Carolina, a harbor easily blocked because a ring of islands enclosed it. The pirate vessels dropped anchor at the harbor’s mouth and proceeded to capture any ship that passed by, including the Crowley, bound for London. She had on board a number of Charles Town’s prominent citizens, who Teach took as hostages. One of them, a merchant and member of the Council of the Province of Carolina named Samuel Wragg, became the hostages’ spokesman. He wanted no trouble, all the more so because he had his four-year-old son with him.
Teach planned to send word to the colony’s governor, Robert Johnson, that he would only release the hostages when Johnson handed over a specific list of medicines. Teach added, with typical piratical bluster, that if the governor and his Council did not comply, he would send them the hostages’ heads. No one knows just what sort of medicine Teach wanted; conjecture has led some to believe his crew suffered from syphilis, but no evidence supports (or refutes) this.
A View of Charles-Town, the Capital of South Carolina(1774)
Engraving by Samuel Smith based on a painting by Thomas Leitch.
Library of Congress