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Who was Blackbeard?

2018 marks the 300th anniversary of the death of the most famous, or infamous, pirate in history. Blackbeard died as swiftly and as brutally as his short piratical career. In fact, he was only active as a pirate for a brief two years. So why is he still a household name, a legend of history?

What do we know about Blackbeard?

Blackbeard holding a cutlass with ships in the background

What do we know about Blackbeard?

Firstly, most of what we know about Blackbeard and his fellow pirates comes from one source, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, which covers in great detail his exploits and was written in 1724 shortly after his death by Captain Charles Johnson, a possible pseudonym of the popular writer Daniel Defoe. We know with almost certainty that Blackbeard’s name was Edward Teach and whilst information about his early life is scarce it is widely believed that he was born in Bristol in around 1680 and served in the Royal Navy or as a privateer during the Queen Anne’s War.

We are told that ‘he had often distinguished himself for his uncommon boldness and personal courage’ during this time and during his pirate years he is described as having a black beard ‘which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length… he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails… 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.’

After the war with France ended, like the many other privateers lacking legitimate and legal employment, Blackbeard returned to what he knew best. In around 1716 he joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold a renowned pirate operating out of New Providence in the Bahamas, the epicentre of piracy in the Caribbean. Soon Hornigold gave Teach the command of his own vessel and together they continued to plague the Caribbean. The following year the two are noted as commanding a small fleet of ships and it is during this time that Teach captured a French merchant vessel for his own, renaming her ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’. Soon after this Hornigold retired from piracy leaving Teach at large.

The blockade

For the next year, Blackbeard maraudered around the Caribbean, causing havoc in the shipping lanes and indiscriminately taking prizes and cargo as he went. It was in May 1718 that he took part in his most audacious and famous act. In an incredibly bold move he blockaded the port of Charles Town in the Province of South Carolina. Here he held the town to ransom, capturing ships, cargo and sailors until his demands for medicine were met. Then, true to his word, he freed his captives and set sail again, having taken ‘Gold and Silver, about 1500 lb Sterling, besides Provisions and other Matters.’ Now an inordinately wealthy man he sailed to North Carolina where he plotted the ‘breaking up the Company, and securing the Money and the best of the Effects for himself’ and tricked his fleet into grounding itself, marooning the majority of his crew, scuttling the ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’ and then making his escape with a group of chosen men.

Deception complete, Teach headed to Charles Eden, the Governor of North Carolina. He came to a rather shady agreement with him – being allowed to accept the King’s Pardon and retire from a life of piracy. Despite his apparent retirement, it was not long at all until Blackbeard was back to his old ways and making a nuisance of himself, this time sharing his plunder not only with his crew but also with Eden. Then something quite incredible happened; the local population, having grown so frustrated by Blackbeard and the corruption of their Governor, sent a petition to the Governor of Virginia the neighbouring colony, ‘to solicit an armed Force from the Men of War lying there, to take or destroy this Pyrate.’

A public revolt

The Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, was all too happy to oblige. He was already concerned by Blackbeard’s escapades in a neighbouring colony and the appearance of another notorious pirate Charles Vane, who briefly visited Teach whilst passing through the area. The colony furnished two sloops which were commanded by Robert Maynard ‘an experienced Officer, and a Gentleman of great Bravery and Resolution’ a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. They hatched a plan to put an end to Blackbeard.

On the 17th of November 1718, Maynard sailed from Virginia and by the 21st he had arrived at the mouth of the Okracoke Inlet, a favourite haunt of Blackbeard’s, where he got sight of the pirates. Maynard decided to assault the following morning so settled down, blocking any traffic from entering the inlet and alerting the pirates to their presence. On the other side of the island, Blackbeard and a skeleton crew of around twenty-five men were drinking heavily with a visiting merchant and had failed to set a look-out, allowing Maynard to make a surprise approach at dawn. Despite drinking all night, the pirates quickly recovered and fired upon the pirate hunters. They then cut their anchor line and prepared to make a fighting retreat using their ships guns, whilst Maynard, having only small arms, kept up a dogged pursuit.

The last stand

During the chase, the two leaders exchanged a challenge, with Maynard calling out ‘I will come aboard of you as soon as I can, with my Sloop.’ Blackbeard, liquor in hand, drank to him exclaiming ‘Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you.’ To which, Maynard responded ‘That he expected no Quarters from him, nor should he give him any.’ The stage was now set for their bloody showdown.

Blackbeard let out one volley from his guns, ‘a Broadside, charged with all Manner of small Shot. —A fatal Stroke to them!’ crippling Maynard’s crews and driving one ship aground. At this Maynard ordered his men down and commanded the crew to ready their pistols and swords and to prepare for his order. Fearful of another broadside from Blackbeard, he remained the only person on the deck save for the helmsman.

When the Lieutenant’s sloop reached Blackbeard’s ship the pirates threw in several ‘grenadoes, Case Bottles fill’d with Powder, and small Shot, Slugs, and Pieces of Lead or Iron, with a quick Match in the Mouth of it’, which other than causing brief confusion, did little damage to the hunters who remained hidden and safely below decks. Seeing few opponents on the deck Blackbeard cried out ‘That they were all knock’d on the Head, except three or four;’ commanding his men to ‘jump on Board, and cut them to Pieces’ and with fourteen men he boarded Maynard’s ship intent on murder. At this point Maynard again surprised the pirates as he ordered his men up. He then personally engaged the pirate leader in combat as each discharged their pistols, with Blackbeard taking his first wound. The two then came together in a deadly sword duel which saw Maynard’s sword unluckily break. ‘Stepping back to cock a Pistol, Black-beard, with his Cutlash, was striking at that Instant, that one of Maynard’s Men gave him a terrible Wound in the Neck and Throat, by which the Lieutenant came off with a small Cut over his Fingers.’

The two crews were now fully engaged ’till the Sea was tinctur’d with Blood round the Vessel’, Blackbeard received a third wound, a shot to the body again from Maynard’s pistol ‘yet he stood his Ground, and fought with great Fury, till he received five and twenty Wounds, and five of them by Shot. At length, as he was cocking another Pistol (famously carrying three pairs slung across his shoulders), having fired several before, he fell down dead’. At this time, his remaining crewmen either jumped overboard to escape or called out for quarter, which they were granted. This clemency was short-lived as they were later hanged for the crime of piracy. Maynard’s second sloop then caught up and attacked the crew who had remained on Blackbeard’s sloop ‘with equal Bravery, till they likewise cry’d for Quarters.’ After the fight Maynard had Blackbeard’s head severed ‘and hung up at the Bolt-sprit End’ as a warning to other pirates as they arrived back to civilisation.

Ironically though, it is Blackbeard’s legend that lives on rather than the hero of the hour Lieutenant Maynard, who ultimately reached the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy before retiring.
The answer to Blackbeard’s continued fame is ultimately given in the pages of General History of Pyrates as this: ‘In the Commonwealth of Pyrates, he who goes the greatest Length of Wickedness, is looked upon with a kind of Envy amongst them… The Hero of whom we are writing, was thoroughly accomplished this Way, and some of his Frolicks of Wickedness, were so extravagant, as if he aimed at making his Men believe he was a Devil incarnate’

Blackbeard in popular culture

Since his death Blackbeard has been featured in numerous books, plays, films and TV shows, each one further embellishing his legend until his actual exploits have largely been forgotten and he has taken on a whole raft of other adventures. Interestingly though, despite only participating in piracy for two years, his true story is perhaps far more fascinating and wild than his characterisation in the centuries of works written since his death and that now surround him.

You can learn more about Blackbeard and his notorious plundering of the Caribbean seas in our Legends weekend from 23rd June to 24th June. Inspired by our global collection, the Legends event season explores mighty and mysterious warrior legends from cultures around the world through storytelling, performances, combat demonstrations, music, film, and activities for all ages.

At the Museum you can also see the types of weapons used by pirates and the Royal Navy at that time.

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