Blackbeard the Pirate
The years from 1713 to 1725 are thought of as the Golden Age of Piracy. The popular image of a pirate is firmly rooted in this period, thanks to books like Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island and Hollywood films like Pirates of the Caribbean. It followed on from the War of Spanish Succession (1703 to 1713) - known as Queen Ann’s War in North America. This was a conflict that involved all the major maritime powers, and saw the large-scale use of privateers for the first time. A privateer was a privately owned warship licensed by the government to prey on the seaborne commerce of opponents. At a time of rapidly expanding trade in the Caribbean and North America, there were rich pickings to be had and British privateers did particularly well. But when the war ended, so did legitimate privateering. Faced with the prospect of returning to normal life after a decade of war some took the short step from privateering to piracy.
Many factors coalesced to make this a lucrative time to be a pirate. A pool of highly trained but unemployed privateer crews was available to recruit, while the end of the war saw the exhausted participants making sweeping reductions in the size of their costly navies. Not only were North American waters rich in targets, they were now poorly policed. In addition to this, there were plenty of colonists content to turn a blind eye to the activities of pirates. Navigation laws meant that only British goods could be shipped into British colonies, which created a ready demand for luxury goods taken from the holds of captured Spanish and French merchantmen. Soon pirates like Calico Jack Rackham and Bartholomew Roberts were plundering at will. These buccaneers even created their own ‘Pirate Republic’ on Nassau island in the Bahamas, and put in place an egalitarian Pirate Code that included compensation for work-related injuries - 600 pieces of eight for the loss of a right hand, for example. But among all the most significant pirates from this period, none looms larger than Edward Teach, known more commonly as Blackbeard.
Teach was born in Bristol around 1680, probably into a middleclass family involved with the sea. Little is known about his early life, but he was a well-educated man who could read and write, and had a sufficient knowledge of mathematics to be able to navigate. In his early twenties he appeared in Jamaica where he joined the ship of a privateer called Benjamin Hornigold. Teach did well, rising to be his employer’s most trusted deputy. When Hornigold turned pirate in 1713, Leach did too. After four years of buccaneering Hornigold retired, gifting his ship, the Revenge to Teach, as a reward for his pupil’s loyalty. This is when Edward Teach became Blackbeard.
Blackbeard’s career as a pirate captain only lasted two years, but this proved long enough for him to became the most notorious buccaneer of them all. Partly this was because he cultivated a terrifying persona. At a time when the norm was for men to be clean shaven and short haired (so as to be able to don the large wigs fashionable at the time), he grew a huge beard and long hair. To further intimidate opponents, he attached smoldering lengths of slow match to both when going into action, ensuring he was always wreathed in smoke. He made sure he developed a reputation for extreme violence if resisted. All this had a practical purpose, in that it induced his victims to surrender quickly, saving valuable pirate lives and potential damage to their ship. In reality Blackbeard was something of a charmer, particularly where women were concerned. Tall and charismatic, he enjoyed female company to such an extent that he is believed to have married at least fourteen times in different ports spread across the Americas.
Success came early for the newly independent pirate, with the capture of a large French slave ship called La Concorde. Blackbeard renamed her Queen Ann’s Revenge, fitted her out with forty cannon and sailed on her in place of the Revenge. With such a powerful warship at his disposal his plundering became prodigious. In a two-day period off the coast of the Carolinas he captured 15 ships. More and more pirates began to work with him, until he found himself in command of a considerable fleet. In May 1718 he was able to arrange the formal blockade of Charleston in South Carolina until he was paid off by the inhabitants.
But time was running out for Blackbeard. In 1717 the Proclamation for Suppression of Piracy had been issued by the British government, introducing a policy of both stick and carrot. Substantial Government forces were to be deployed to hunt pirates, but those that turned themselves in before September 1718 would be pardoned and allowed to keep their loot in exchange for full disclosure of the activities of their accomplices. This offer was too tempting for Blackbeard. He deliberately wrecked his ships in Beaufort inlet in North Carolina and turned himself in, abandoning many of his men. After receiving his pardon, he retired with his fortune. But not for long.
Unoccupied and bored pirates, of which there were now many in the coastal settlements of the Carolinas, were becomingly increasingly troublesome for the law-abiding inhabitants. One solution to the problem was to offer them commissions as privateers to go and help track down other pirates, and this offer was made to Blackbeard. But once at sea again in a sloop called Adventure the temptation of his former calling was too much for him. By August he had returned to piracy and was attacking shipping further north up the coast. The governor of Virginia, off whose coast he was now operating, decided that enough was enough and sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard of HMS Pearl in command of two commandeered sloops to hunt him down. Within a few months, Maynard had tracked the pirate to his base.
Blackbeard’s final battle took place on the 22nd of November 1718 off Ocracoke Island. Although heavily outnumbered, true to their reputation, he and his men fought ferociously. The pirate captain is said to have loudly declared that “damnation seize my soul if I give you quarter, or take any from you!” Maynard lost thirty-five of his men in the battle, which only ended with Blackbeard’s death. His head was then cut off, beard and all, and paraded up and down the coast dangling from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship as a warning to other pirates.