A swashbuckling life on the high seas came to a grisly end 300 years ago today for history’s best-known pirate – the fearsome Blackbeard!
Little is known about the early life of the buccaneer, who was probably born around 1680 in or near Bristol, at that time a major port and the second largest city in England. His real name is generally recorded as Edward Teach, though several different spellings of his surname exist, from Thatch to Theach. In any case, pirates habitually adopted made-up names so their infamy would not tarnish the real family name.
What evidence there is of Teach’s life suggests he could read and write, which was the exception at the time. It means he could have been born into a respectable and wealthy family, able to afford his education – another reason why he might have adopted a false name to hide his true origins. A family with influence could also have secured him his first position aboard ship, above that of a common sailor.
It seems the young Teach learned his seafaring skills aboard privateer ships during Queen Anne’s War, arriving in the Caribbean sometime around the turn of the 18th century. He settled on the Bahamian island of New Providence, a notorious nest of pirates and the stronghold of Captain Benjamin Hornigold, whose crew Teach joined around 1716.
Recognising Teach’s abilities, Hornigold put him in command of a captured sloop and the two engaged in numerous acts of piracy. As more vessels were captured, their pirate fleet grew, but Hornigold retired from piracy near the end of 1717, taking two ships with him.
Teach, now operating alone, captured a substantial French merchant ship, equipping her with 40 guns and renaming her “Queen Anne’s Revenge”. Flying his own pirate flag – depicting a skeleton spearing a heart and toasting the devil – the mere sight of his ship would strike fear into the hearts of merchantmen throughout the region.
Teach also cultivated his own striking appearance, designed to spread his legend and intimidate his enemies. A tall and powerfully-built man, he grew the thick, long black beard which gave him his nickname. He was also said to tie lit and smoking fuses under his hat to frighten his enemies during an attack, and carried several pistols and blades into battle.
Yet despite his dreadful image, he was known to be fair and even generous to his own crews and to his enemies, once defeated. A shrewd and calculating captain, he used force only as a last resort, instead relying on his reputation and the firepower of his ship to terrify other captains into surrender. There is no known account of Blackbeard having ever harmed or killed those he captured, instead setting them free at the first opportunity, albeit relieved of their ships and cargoes.
Neither was Blackbeard the most successful pirate of his day in terms of prizes captured, but as his reputation and fleet grew, so did his enemies’ determination to bring him down. If anything, Blackbeard was a victim of his own renown, which made him a figurehead and a valuable target for those intent on ending piracy in the Caribbean.
Perhaps realising his days were numbered, Teach ran his flagship aground in June 1718 and accepted an official pardon from the local governor on condition that he abandon piracy. He briefly settled on the North Carolina coast, reportedly marrying the daughter of a local plantation owner, but the lure of the sea was too strong and by the end of August he had returned to piracy aboard a new ship, a sloop named “Adventure”.
Blackbeard’s last battle came on November 22nd, 1718, when he was cornered by two armed sloops under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, of the Royal Navy. Details of the battle are confused, except that it was fierce and bloody. After apparently running aground on a sandbar while trying to navigate a narrow channel, Adventure turned her guns on her pursuers and unleashed devastating broadsides.
Buoyed by the attack, Blackbeard then led his men in boarding Maynard’s ship, but the wily lieutenant had hidden most of his men below decks, bursting from the hold to surprise and overwhelm the invading pirates. Hand-to-hand fighting was fierce, but the pirates were gradually pushed back. Maynard personally sought out Blackbeard and the two fired pistols at each other and fought with swords until one of Maynard’s men slashed the pirate across the neck.
Badly wounded, he was then set upon and killed by several more of Maynard’s crew. When Blackbeard’s body was examined later, Maynard himself noted the pirate had been shot five times and cut at least 20 times. One more cut would follow; Blackbeard’s head was removed so Maynard could collect the bounty on it, while his body was dumped in the sea.