Blackbeard Revealed

Mark Strecker’s Historical Perspective
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.
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
Old print, probably drawn after Teach's death and certainly not a true likeness.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
Blackbeard's House
Blackbeard House
This is possibly where Teach lived. It was built in 1709.
Library of Congress
   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 They do so because few historical documents about his life exist.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real name, Edward Teach, presents problems since so many variations of it (such as “Thatch”) have appeared in historical documents.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.
   Wragg suggested Teach might want to send two gentlemen from the pool of hostages to convince the governor of his sincerity. Wragg also warned Teach that Governor Johnson might not have the ability to acquire the named medicines, so he ought to accept suitable substitutes. Teach agreed with both points, but he would not release Wragg himself. He instead sent a gentleman named Mr. Marks accompanied by two pirate officers. He warned that if they did not return in two days, he would burn every ship in the harbor, then invade the town itself, wreaking as much havoc as possible. He moved his fleet farther out to sea and waited.
   One cannot properly imagine the terror the hostages must have felt when the envoys missed their deadline. Teach became furious, yet Wragg managed to calm him. He assured him that the delay must have a good explanation, and insisted Governor Johnson and the Council valued the hostages’ lives. Teach agreed to wait. Near that day’s end, a small boat came alongside Queen Anne’s Revenge. It belonged to a fisherman. He explained what had caused the delay.
   Shortly after departing, the boat containing the envoy had encountered a squall and capsized. Its three passengers swam to an uninhabited island located several leagues from Charles Town and remained marooned there until a hatch from their craft washed ashore. This they used to aid them in swimming to the mainland. Along their way a fisherman—the same one now speaking to Teach—found and picked them up. He deposited them in Charles Town and, by the request of Mr. Marks, sailed out to tell Teach what had happened.
   Teach gave the envoys two more days, yet still they did not return! The morning after the second day he moved his ships (plus four more he had captured) toward the densely populated shore. Here he trained his cannon on the inhabitants. Panic ensued. One eyewitness reported that women and children ran wildly like “insane things.” Before Teach could give the order to fire, a boat came loaded with the two pirates, Mr. Marks, and a chest of medicine.
   Once on board, Mr. Marks gave details as to what had caused this delay. The Council always intended to meet Teach’s demands. The postponement came not from its deliberating or difficulties in finding the said medicines, but rather because of Teach’s own men. They had gone out, found friends, got drunk, then disappeared from sight. The Council had sent out search parties and frantically looked for the missing crewmen, just now finding them. Teach promptly released his hostages and the prizes still in his possession. During his blockade he had taken eight or nine vessels, giving him a rich haul of booty. The total he gained from all his prizes amounted to about £1,500 in gold, silver, and other valuables.
   Blackbeard ordered his squadron to head up to the coast along Pamlico Sound, a chain of islands that encompasses much of North Carolina’s coast with three main inlets: Cape Fear, Beaufort Inlet, and Ocracoke Inlet. As the pirate squadron passed through Beaufort Inlet (then known as Topsail Inlet), the Queen Anne’s Revenge grounded on a sandbar. Teach ordered Israel Hands to use the tender to give the stranded Queen Anne’s Revenge assistance (this event having taken place before Teach made him a cripple), but to no effect. Worse, the tender also became trapped. Blackbeard ordered the abandonment of both vessels.
   Now he offered Bonnet to return the Revenge, but before taking her, he suggested Bonnet head north to Bath Town to receive the king’s pardon, which he had recently issued in an effort to encourage pirates to renounce their illegal activities and return to honest work. Bath Town served as the residence of North Carolina’s governor, Charles Eden, the only man in the colony with the authority to grant the this pardon. Bonnet agreed. He and several others took a boat to their destination.
   Teach remained behind, supposedly to oversee the transfer of goods from the wrecked ships to his remaining two. Yet with Bonnet out of the way, he stripped the Revenge of all her supplies and cargo and put them on board the Adventure, taking forty men with him. When seventeen men protested his actions, he marooned them on a small island described by Johnson as “about a league from the main, where there was neither bird, beast or herb for subsistence.” Upon returning, Bonnet found the Revenge denuded to the point where she could not readily sail. He rescued the men Teach had stranded and, once refitted, set off with them in a quest for revenge against Teach, a venture never accomplished.
   After dividing the treasure, only about twenty of Teach’s men remained with him. Those who stayed headed with him to Bath Town to a gain royal pardon. Arriving in June, the governor granted them one. Most of its recipients scattered, William Howard, Teach’s quartermaster, among them. He returned home to Virginia, a move that would have the unintended consequence of causing his captain’s end.
   Teach settled in Plum Point, an area on the east side of Bath Creek across from Governor Eden’s town home. Teach married his previously mentioned fourteenth wife here, a ceremony over which Governor Eden officiated, probably because few others had that power. Teach registered the Adventure with the local government, then manned and sailed her on a voyage he claimed would take him to St. Thomas Island on business. He instead headed north to Philadelphia, where he nearly got arrested for piracy. Next he went to the Caribbean in which he took several English ships as prizes. On his return to Bath Town, he captured two French ships, one of which contained a rich cargo of sugar and cocoa. He kept this vessel and allowed her crew to sail away on the other, then boldly returned to Bath Town with his prize.
   Not wanting to give up his pardoned status, he reported to both the governor and the colony’s chief justice, Tobias Knight, that he had found her abandoned. Eden and Knight assembled a vice-admiralty court and declared her a derelict. Under international salvage rights, Teach and his men took legal possession of the ship and her cargo. Because members of the court also received a share, Eden gained sixty cases of sugar and Knight received twenty. Shortly after the court’s verdict, Teach claimed the French ship had become so unseaworthy she might sink, so he received Governor Eden’s permission to burn her. This had the effect of removing the evidence of his attack on her.
   He now sailed out of Bath Town to nearby Ocracoke Island. Here he dropped anchor and set up a base because the island allowed he and his crew to watch ships passing through Ocracoke Inlet. If a vessel looked valuable, the pirates would take her. One day another pirate captain, Charles Vane, sailed past. When he and his men recognized their fellow pirates ashore, they landed and caroused for several days. By the time word of this event reached the ears of Virginia’s governor, Alexander Spotswood, it had morphed into a planned meeting at which the two pirate captains had decided to build a fortress on the island as the first step in making it a new pirate settlement. Believing this, Spotswood decided Blackbeard had to go.
   Having worked against piracy since taking office, he had successfully petitioned the Crown to send two naval ships to Chesapeake Bay: the HMS Lyme, commanded by Captain Ellis Brand, and the HMS Pearl, commanded by Captain George Gordon. While useful to have, they could not realistically sight every pirate who happened into the bay, not could they stay in it exclusively as their standing orders mandated they patrol other parts of the North American coast. Spotswood therefore decided to do something more to curve the potential of piracy in Virginia.
      On July 10, 1718, he issued an order that any pardoned pirates moving into Virginia had to register with a local justice of the peace or officer of the militia. They further had to give up their personal arms and could not travel with more than three companions at a time. Upon hearing that William Howard had come into the colony and thus his power, Spotswood ordered his arrest on the pretense that he had no lawful business in Virginia. He confiscated the former pirate’s two black slaves and all the money on his person, an impressive £50, then declared him a vagrant seaman, forcing him to serve on board the Pearl.
   Howard did not submit passively. For three ounces of gold, he hired a lawyer named John Holloway, who filed a lawsuit against the Pearl’s captain, George Gordon, and her first lieutenant, Robert Maynard, for unlawfully detaining his client and forcing him to work as a seaman. In a common law civil court, Holloway asked for £500 in damages. Through some tricky legal work, he caused the justice of the peace who had signed Howard’s arrest warrant to himself be arrested. Most Virginians, Spotswood included, considered Holloway the best lawyer in the colony.
   Spotswood countered Holloway’s legal maneuvering by arresting Howard a second time. He charged him with acts of piracy committed after January 5, 1718, the legal cutoff date set by the King’s Pardon. The Governor’s Council resisted trying him, but Spotswood convinced it to change its mind. The Council agreed, but only if Howard received a jury trial. Spotswood refused, digging out the law books out and showing the Council that Howard had no entitlement to one. A three-man panel of judges assembled instead.
   The trial took place in Williamsburg, but it had a surreal quality considering the three men serving as its judges: Captain Gordon, Captain Brand, and Holloway. Spotswood pointed out that Holloway currently represented Howard in a civil case and this created a conflict of interest, giving Spotswood the excuse he needed to force Holloway’s dismissal and replace him with the colony’s attorney general, John Clayton. Spotswood could have but did not have Gordon disqualified as well since the man over whom he stood judge had a civil suit against him.
   The charges filed against Howard included his participation in the attack on the Concord as well as one against a ship off the coast of Virginia, the latter charge being brought to give the Virginian court jurisdiction to try the case. If the judges found Howard guilty of any of these crimes, the pardon given to Howard by Governor Eden would become void, Howard would certainly hang.
   Spotswood made it a point to name Edward Teach as Howard’s pirate captain, knowing it would inevitably force Howard to speak about Teach in his defense, which it did; Howard revealed all of his former commander’s various hideouts and locations. He further admitted the French ship the vice-admiralty court in under Eden had condemned as a derelict had in fact come into Blackbeard’s possession by force. Finding Howard guilty, the judges sentenced him to hang. Luckily for him, the night before his execution, a ship came into harbor bringing news that the king had extended his general pardon to all acts of piracy occurring up to July 23, 1718, to any perpetrator who surrendered. Because Howard had arrived in Virginia before that date and had previously surrendered himself to Governor Charles Eden, he went free.
   With Blackbeard located, Spotswood now needed someone to catch him. He approached Captains Gordon and Brand and asked them to do this. Although willing, both commanded deep-draft vessels incapable of safely traveling into the shallow Pamlico Sound where Teach lurked. For such a venture, one needed shallow-draft sloops, but neither captain had authorization to purchase one. Spotswood told them he would take care of this detail if the captains would provide the men. They agreed to loan him fifty-five.
   Spotswood obtained two sloops, the Jane and the Ranger, the collective command of which went to Lieutenant Robert Maynard, the same man who Howard had named in the lawsuit against the officers of the HMS Pearl. Maynard made the Jane his flagship and gave command of the Ranger to midshipman named Baker. Each vessel carried thirty-two men, the additional numbers coming from civilian volunteers. Because the sloops lacked any cannon, the crews would have to rely on small arms for their attack against the pirates. They departed for North Carolina at 3:00 p.m. on Nov 17, 1718.
   As this transpired, Teach did nothing to prepare for such an attack, the rumors about which he had heard and dismissed. Nor did he react when he sighted two suspicious-looking sloops on November 21 coming through Ocracoke Inlet, possibly because he thought that since they flew no enemy flag nor had any cannon, they posed no threat. Maynard did not move to attack until the next morning. When his vessels came within range of the Adventure, Teach opened fire without bothering to ascertain the sloops’ identities.
   Now Maynard had the British ensign raised. Teach ordered his ship’s anchor cable cut and attempted to run past the enemy sloops all the while firing his cannon at them. Maynard, using sail and oar, maneuvered to stop the Adventure, forcing the pirate vessel aground. Although this prevented Teach from escaping, it also kept the British sloops from getting close enough to effectively attack for fear of becoming grounded. Maynard and Teach exchanged words, Maynard establishing his identity, and Blackbeard damning the British lieutenant and his crew. Teach told his men that if taken, someone needed to go below and set the gunpowder alight to blow up the ship, captors and all.
   Teach fired another cannon volley at the sloops, killing twenty men on the Jane and nine on Ranger. Before the thick smoke from the cannon dispersed to give the pirates a clear view of their prey, Maynard ordered his remaining men to  go below save for his pilot, making Teach believe that all but these two men had died. The Ranger then went aground. Teach sensed victory. He freed the Adventure from her captive sandbar, then ran alongside the Jane. Before boarding, the pirates threw grenades onto their enemy’s deck, but neither the pilot nor Maynard suffered a wound from them. The pirates stormed on deck via the bow, but because of the smoke from the grenades, they could not see the Jane’s deck very well. Now Maynard’s plan came into action. He told the ten men below to ready their swords and pistols, then ordered them to come aloft. Now his eleven men faced Teach’s fourteen.
   Maynard and Blackbeard, being the highest ranking officers, naturally crossed swords. Teach broke his adversary’s blade, but before he could cut his enemy down, one of Maynard’s men slashed at the pirate captain’s neck. With Blackbeard distracted, Maynard fired his pistol at him, but it appeared to have no effect. Teach continued his furious assault. Death only toppled him after he had suffered from twenty cuts and taken five bullets. Eight of his men died on that deck. The surviving pirates jumped overboard and asked for quarter. By now the Ranger had moved in and her crew boarded the Adventure. After a brief mêlée, the pirates surrendered. At this point a black man named Caesar went below and tried to light the powder in the stores to blow up the ship, but two men who Teach had taken prisoner and placed below stopped him.
   When the victors searched the Adventure, they found a good quantity of the cocoa and sugar that Teach had taken from the French ship, which the victors duly confiscated. The search also turned up several papers and letters to Blackbeard, one of which came from the hand of Tobias Knight. Based on this, the chief justice faced a trial and other legal troubles, but he died before the truth came out in full. Maynard had Teach decapitated and hung his head from the Jane’s bowsprit. Here it stayed until it reached Williamsburg, at which point the town took possession of it for its own display.

*This passage, updated for modern readers, came from the 1998 The Lyons Press edition of Johnson’s book.