Edward "Blackbeard" Teach (1680-1718) was a legend in his own time. Born in England, he plundered ships traveling to and from the American colonies—as well as vessels in the Caribbean Sea. Although his reign of terror lasted only two years, he became one of the best-known sea robbers in all of history.
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the pirate, was probably born somewhere near Bristol, England. Little is known of his early life—except that he went to sea as a young man. As a privateer (legalized pirate) during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), he robbed ships in the West Indies. When the war ended in 1713, he turned to piracy, like many former privateers.
By 1716, Teach was serving under the command of Benjamin Thornigold, a pirate captain. On Thornigold's ship, he sailed from the pirate colony of New Providence in the West Indies to the American mainland. The pirates captured a number of ships, whose cargo ranged from flour and wine to silk and gold bullion (gold still in raw or unrefined form). In 1717, after the pirate crew attacked a large merchant ship headed for the French island of Martinique, Teach took over as the captured vessel's captain. Equipping the boat as a warship, he added some forty guns and renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge.
Shortly after Teach became the captain of his own ship, Thornigold gave up piracy. Captain Woodes Rogers, the British-appointed governor of the Bahamas, had been given the power to pardon pirates who agreed to mend their ways. Thornigold—and other members of Blackbeard's circle— sailed to New Providence to accept the King's pardon. Edward Teach, however, had just begun his short but active career as a pirate.
Smoking Black Beard
A tall man with a booming voice, Teach deliberately developed a terrifying appearance. He had an enormous black beard, which he tied up with black ribbons and twisted into braids. According to some accounts, it covered his entire face and grew down to his waist. Before going into battle, he tucked pieces of hempen rope (rope made from fibers of the hemp plant)—which were soaked in saltpeter and lit—into his hair. The slow-burning chords of rope gave off clouds of thick black smoke that gave him the appearance of a living demon. Captain Charles Johnson, the author of a pirate history that was published six years after Teach's death, wrote what is probably the best-known description of the infamous pirate: "Captain Teach assumed the cognomen [nickname] of Black-beard, from that 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."
Johnson went on to say: "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 … 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 [a belt worn over the shoulder]; 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."
Teach's actions also contributed to his reputation as a monster. He disemboweled captives and fed their entrails to the sharks. He cut off the fingers of victims who were too slow to hand over their rings. He sliced up a prisoner's ears—and then forced him to eat them. What's more, he turned on his crew with no forewarning. He shot randomly at the pirates on his ship and marooned them when he didn't feel like sharing the bounty. Although there's no telling where the facts end and legend begins, it is probably safe to say that Blackbeard deserved his reputation as "the devil's brother."
The Charleston Blockade
Like most pirates, there was a seasonal pattern to Teach's voyages. In the warmer months, his crew robbed ships off the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas. Operating out of Ocracoke Inlet—off the island of Ocracoke in the Outer Banks chain of islands that extends along the coast of North Carolina—his ships anchored in shallow waters that prevented other ships from attacking. As winter approached, Teach headed south, to the warmer climate of the Caribbean. Sailing on board his flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, he traveled with a fleet of other boats—many of which, like his, had been stolen and converted to pirate boats.
Having spent the winter of 1717 in the Caribbean, Teach's crew landed in Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1718. With three other pirate sloops (small, one-masted ships), the pirates blockaded the city's harbor and attacked any ship that attempted to leave or enter. They also took prisoners and put ashore a landing party that had instructions to bring back medical supplies to treat diseases that plagued the crew. Teach promised to release the prisoners in exchange for the supplies. After he received a chest full of expensive medicine, he made good on his word (but not until after the captives had been robbed of their possessions). The governor of South Carolina described the incident in a report to officials in London, England: The pirates "appeared in sight of the town, took our pilotboat and afterwards 8 or 9 sail with several of the best inhabitants of this place on board and then sent me word if I did not immediately send them a chest of medicines they would put every prisoner to death, which for their sakes being complied with after plundering them of all they had were sent ashore almost naked. This company is commanded by one Teach alias Blackbeard who has a ship of 40 odd guns under him and 3 sloops tenders besides and are in all above 400 men."
A Royal Pardon
Shortly after the Charleston blockade, the Queen Anne's Revenge sank. Sailing on another ship, a ten-gun vessel called the Adventure, Teach headed up the Pamlico River to the town of Bath in North Carolina—in search not of treasure but of a royal pardon. (England's King George I, who reigned from 1714 to 1727, offered to pardon pirates who gave up their profession. As a British colony, North Carolina was able to extend the king's pardon to pirates.) Charles Eden, the governor of North Carolina, granted Teach a pardon, and then ordered the court to declare him a privateer. As a privateer, Teach was able to continue to plunder ships in Carolina waters with no fear of being punished—provided he shared his loot with Governor Eden and his secretary and collector of customs, Tobias Knight. Sailing up and down the Pamlico River, Teach stole from ships he encountered as well as from local plantations.
Unable to appeal to Governor Eden for assistance, local traders asked Thomas Spotswood, the governor of Virginia, for protection from the pirates. In November 1718, Spotswood issued a proclamation offering rewards for the capture—dead or alive—of Teach and his shipmates. He also enlisted the help of British navy officers to organize an expedition to capture the infamous pirate, even though the Carolina shoreline was well beyond his jurisdiction.
Blackbeard's Last Stand
Under the charge of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, an experienced officer, two ships sailed to the Carolina coast with specific orders to rout the pirates. Because the pirate ships were anchored in shallow waters that were difficult to navigate, Maynard took small vessels that had no guns, which meant his crew would be forced into hand-to-hand combat with knives and swords. Having learned from other seamen that Teach was anchored in a sheltered spot off Ocracoke Island, Maynard reached the area on the evening of November 21, 1718. Anchoring his ships nearby, he waited until morning to attack.
Maynard's ships—the Jane and the Ranger—headed for Ocracoke Island at dawn. Spotting the approaching ships, the pirates sounded the alarm and pulled in the anchor. Maynard's vessels chased the pirate ships, using oars since there was very little wind to sail by. Navigating shallow waters that were filled with sandbars and submerged obstacles, Maynard's ships ran aground.
Next came a shouting match between the navy lieutenant and the pirate captain. In his pirate history, Captain Johnson describes the exchange: "Black-Beard hail'd him in this rude Manner: Damn you for Villains, who are you? and from whence come you? The Lieutenant make him Answer, You may see by our Colours [the flags that identified a ship] we are no Pyrates. Black-beard bid him send his Boat on Board, that he might see who he was but Mr. Maynard reply'd thus; I cannot spare my Boat, but I will come aboard of you as soon as I can, with my Sloop. Upon this Black-beard took a Glass of Liquor, & drank to him with these Words: Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters [a place to stay], or take any from you. In Answer to which, Mr. Maynard told him, that he expected no Quarters from him, nor should he give him any."
Eventually, Maynard's crew managed to free its two vessels. Rowing toward Teach's ship, the crew was hit by a broadside volley that killed several men and wounded others. (Broadsides could be devastating: firing at the enemy, a ship discharged all the guns on one side of the boat at once—and at close range.) Maynard ordered the remainder of his crew to conceal itself below deck.
Teach assumed that most of Maynard's men had been killed by the broadside attack. But when he climbed aboard the Jane, he was surprised by Maynard's sailors. The fight that followed was Blackbeard's last battle. According to Captain Johnson's account, he "stood his ground and fought with great fury till he received five and twenty wounds." Of Teach's twenty-five wounds, the last was fatal: the pirate had been decapitated.
The year after Teach was killed, the Boston News Letter published a detailed account of the pirate's last battle: "Maynard and Teach themselves began the fight with their swords, Maynard making a thrust, the point of his sword went against Teach's cartridge box, and bended it to the hilt. Teach broke the guard of it, and wounded Maynard's fingers but did not disable him, whereupon he jumped back and threw away his sword and fired his pistol which wounded Teach. Demelt [another sailor] stuck in between them with his sword and cut Teach's face pretty much; in the interim both companies engaged in Maynard's sloop, one of Maynard's men … engaged Teach with his broad sword, who gave Teach a cut on the neck, Teach saying well done lad; [the man] replied If it be not well done, I'll do it better. With that he gave him a second stroke, which cut off his head, laying it flat on his shoulder."
Maynard's crew threw Teach's headless corpse overboard. (According to local legend, his headless body swam around the ship before disappearing into its murky grave.) They hung the bearded head of the infamous pirate from the bowsprit of Maynard's boat as a warning to other sea robbers. The head also offered concrete proof of Teach's death, something that made it easier for Maynard to collect the reward on the pirate's head.
In June 1718, shortly before Teach was captured, his flagship—the Queen Anne's Revenge, a 103-foot forty-cannon vessel—became grounded on a sandbar off the coast of North Carolina. It eventually sank, taking with it secrets about the day-to-day existence of one of the world's most infamous sea robbers. But on November 21, 1996, one day before the anniversary of Teach's death in 1718, archaeologists found what they believe to be Teach's long lost flagship.
The wreck of the Queen Anne's Revenge probably doesn't contain any of the pirate's treasure. Historians believe that Teach had already hidden most of his loot. Members of his crew could easily have hidden anything else of value as they jumped ship. What is most valuable about the find is the history that it may reveal—such as insights into the daily workings of life aboard a pirate ship. It may also fill in missing pieces about what is known of the eighteenth-century. For example, the chest full of medicines that the pirates received as a ransom payment could provide valuable clues about medicine and health care in Teach's day.
The wreck was discovered in just twenty feet of water two miles off the North Carolina coast near Beaufort, in an area called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because of the number of ships that are wrecked there. Towing an underwater metal detector over an eight-square-mile area, a team of archaeologists discovered numerous metal objects— including a bell dated 1709, large anchors, and a number of cannons. It may take four to five years to determine whether the wreck is what remains of the Queen Anne's Revenge, but evidence suggests that the submerged vessel is, in fact, the flagship of the infamous Edward Teach.
According to legend, "Blackbeard's treasure" is buried at various spots along the eastern seaboard. But chances are, there is no such treasure: a typical pirate's plunder consisted of silk, cotton, tools, and assorted sailing supplies. Archaeologists are still hoping to recover the wreck of the Adventure—the vessel that carried the pirate to his last battle—and one other ship in his fleet. In those wrecks they hope to find not chests full of gold and jewels but a treasure of information on the age of piracy.
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Pirotta, Saviour. Pirates and Treasures. Thomson Learning, 1995.
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Current Events, May 5, 1997.
New York Times, March 4, 1997; March 11, 1997.
People Magazine, March 17, 1997.
Time for Kids, March 14, 1997.