Blackbeard is one of the most infamous pirates who ever lived. But can we separate the facts from the myth?
Blackbeard or Edward Teach (c.1680-1718) is one of the most infamous pirates to have ever lived.
Known for his fearsome image and daring acts on land and sea throughout the West Indies and along the North American East coast, his legacy has been the inspiration for many depictions of pirates throughout history.
Little is known of Edward Teach before his rise to Pirate captain. It is thought he began his life at sea as a British privateer in the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1713). Here, he would have plundered Spanish ships in the West Indies for the British government.
After the war, his privateering turned to piracy under the instruction of Captain Benjamin Hornigold. Rising through the ranks due to his naval skill, Teach soon became a captain in his own right.
Around 1716, Captain Hornigold placed Teach in command of a captured sloop and a year later, Teach took control of a frigate, possibly a 1710 Bristol built ship named Concord. It is thought Concord was stolen by French privateers who used as a slave ship and renamed it, La Concorde. Finally, it came into the possession of Teach, who renamed the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. This became his flagship vessel.
While the ship was only in use for a year, Teach sailed to the Caribbean and captured multiple ships, building his flotilla and fortune. Few could compete with him and the Queen Anne’s Revenge which boasted 40 guns and a crew of 300.
In 1718, Blackbeard scuttled the ship near Charleston, North Carolina and moved his crew onto a smaller sloop, named the Adventure.
In 1996, the remains of the Queen Anne's Revenge were discovered offshore of Atlantic Beach in North Carolina. The ship was identified by a series of coins bearing Queen Anne's bust (1702-1714) and her successor, King George I.
After over ten years of excavations and underwater archaeological digs, the divers have now recovered more than 250,000 artifacts from the ship. These findings included huge cannons from all over Europe, from Sweden, England and France. Many of these items can now be found at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
Teach inspired fear in those who came face to face with his daunting appearance. With an enormous black beard reaching his waist, Teach reportedly lit fuses in his long hair giving him a crazed and frightening appearance.
Stories of his misdeeds spread and fact and fiction blended into one. Tales of torturing prisoners, even turning on his own crew with no warning were rife and provided the pirate captain with an excellent method of maintaining order. This added to the image of terror and strengthened his position with both his crew and enemies.
His flag depicted a skeleton stabbing a heart with its spear and toasting the Devil with a glass in the other hand. It showed the danger that Blackbeard brought and his alliance with the Devil. This was another technique used to instill fear into his enemies and to let them know just who was attacking them.
In January 1718, Teach formed a base on Ocracoke Island just off North Carolina, on the eastern seaboard of the United States, then known as the British Colonies.
From here, he continued his acts of piracy such as bribing the local Governor Charles Eden for a royal pardon and gaining the title ‘privateer’ to provide a legal backing to his actions.
In possibly his most brazen act, Teach used his flotilla to blockade the port of Charlestown in the province of South Carolina. Over the course of a week, nine vessels were stopped and plundered as they attempted to sail out of the harbour, where Teach's fleet was moored.
Teach informed some of his prisoners that his fleet required medical supplies from the colonial government of South Carolina and that if none were provided, all would be beheaded and their ships burned.
Two pirates and a prisoner were sent to the town but when they did not return he moved eight ships into the harbour, causing panic and looting within the town. Shortly after his supplies were delivered and the prisoners released, after reportedly being robbed of all worthy possessions.
This siege represents the height of Teach’s notoriety, not just as a skilled captain but a fierce leader who was not confined to the sea and would maraud where he pleased. Exploits such as these made Teach was one of the most commonly reported pirates in the news and in the print of his age.
Edward Teach died on the 22nd November 1718.
His exploits had become too bold and he had angered Alexander Spotswood, the governor of Virginia. Spotswood assembled a private pirate-hunters to overpower Blackbeard’s forces. The main pirate hunting ships were the HMS Pearl and HMS Lyme under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard.
Upon locating Teach and his pirates on Ocracoke Island, Maynard blocked all exits and entered the inlet hoping to surprise Teach and his crew.
However, Teach spotted the ships and cut his anchor, attacking the ships outright with his cannons and destroying a third of the force in seconds.
When the ships closed in, grappling hooks, smoke, and explosive grenades were thrown, and the pirates boarded the ship. Maynard had prepared for this eventuality by hiding the majority of his troops below deck and ambushing the pirate boarders. The ambush proved a success and the pirates were overwhelmed.
Teach and Maynard are reported to have fought man to man with pistol and swords. Teach was eventually wounded by one of Maynard’s soldiers and overwhelmed by the rest of the crew.
After the battle, it was noted Edward Teach had been shot at least five times and received over twenty blade wounds, making it difficult to tell what was the felling blow. The head of the infamous Blackbeard was hung from the mast, and all but two of the captured pirates were eventually hanged.
'Little wind & fair weather, this day I anchored here from North Carolina in the Adventure Sloop Edward Thache formerly Master (a Pyrat) whose head I hung Under the Bowsprete of the Said Sloop in order to present it to ye Colony of Virginia & ye goods and Effects of the said Pyrat I delivered to my Commanders Dispersal.
- Lieutenant Maynard's log entry from 3 January 1719
Teach, and his exploits have become the stuff off lore inspiring books, films and even amusement park rides.
Much of what is known about him can be sourced to Charles Johnson’s ‘A General Historie of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates’. In this book, Johnson outlines many of the earliest known biographies of famous pirates.
His book first introduced the name of the pirate flag the ‘Jolly Roger’, pirates with buried treasure and the idea of them missing legs or with eyepatches.
Johnson’s book directly inspired works such as J.M Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’. Stevenson even directly lifted the name of one of Blackbeard’s crew, Israel Hands and used this in his novel.
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