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Will the Real Bad Guy Please Stand Up?

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Key West’s Homage to its Pirating History

Let’s escape to the swashbuckling days of the Caribbean from 1690 -1730, “The Golden Age of Piracy.” Captain Kidd is remembered as the pirate who buried treasure and made a map with X marks the spot. Calico Jack is the pirate whose flag–a black background with white skull and crossed swords–became known as the Jolly Roger. Black Bart was the most successful of the era, with over 470 captures and the pirate depicted as Jack Sparrow  in Pirates of the Caribbean. (I posed with a lookalike on Duval Street once.) Perhaps the most famous of all, however, is Blackbeard.

 

Who was the man behind the legend?

The Early Years

Blackbeard was born 1680 in Great Britain as Edward Teach (or Thatch). He first worked as a privateer in Jamaica, paid by the British government to attack and plunder French and Spanish ships on the Queen’s behalf. After those wars ended, he was out of a job. This was the situation for many of the sailors at the time who turned to a life of cutthroat piracy as a way to make a living. Considering most pirates were either killed in battle or arrested, tried and killed, it wasn’t the most promising of careers.

Rise to Fame

Pirate Benjamin Hornigold took Blackbeard on as part of his crew. The two worked the Caribbean Sea as equals, a fearsome duo. In 1717, Hornigold rewarded his buddy for all his hard work with the perfect pirate present, his very own ship–captured off the coast of the Bahamas (Le Concorde, a French slaving ship). I wonder what happened to the Africans onboard. Were they freed by the pirates or allowed to join forces with them?

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Spanish Silver Coins “Pieces of Eight” — The Original Pirate Booty

Blackbeard didn’t waste any time outfitting his pride and joy, renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge, with an assortment of cannons–the grand total coming to forty such weapons. The ship was large enough to hold a crew of two hundred fifty men. For the next ten months, Blackbeard terrorized the Caribbean region (including the waters off Key West) and the Atlantic Ocean along the southeast coast of America. Ocracoke, an island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, became his home base.

Things may have worked out better for the pirate had he been a bit less dramatic. He wasn’t the most successful pirate of the era, but he certainly was the most renowned because of his appearance.

It’s All About the Image — How to Look like Blackbeard

  • dress all in black
  • braid long black hair into many section with black ribbons attached
  • wear several pistols strapped to your chest
  • wear a large black captain’s hat
  • (Here’s the kicker) wear slow-burning pieces of rope soaked in saltpeter in your hair and beard to add a glowing fierceness to your face and cloud your appearance with sputtering smoke
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Jewels were another coveted find

Blackbeard’s scheme worked–for a while. Most sailors would surrender their cargo rather than risk a fight with such a formidable opponent. In turn, Blackbeard didn’t have to waste energy, weapons, or his men’s lives. The captured ship’s crew was generally left unharmed, as long as they gave up every item he demanded. One sailor refused to hand over a ring. Blackbeard promptly sliced off the finger, ring and all. Perhaps the pirate had a soft side, too. His crew once captured a ship carrying wealthy passengers (including children). He held them for ransom–a medicine chest–threatening to kill them all if he didn’t receive it. The time came and passed, but he didn’t kill anyone. The medicine chest was eventually given to him and the hostages were released.

Can Pirates Retire?

North Carolina Colonial Governor, Charles Eden, pardoned Blackbeard for piracy in return for his promise to retire. It’s uncertain whether Blackbeard broke his agreement or if Eden allowed him to continue, working with him as a silent partner or turning a blind eye to the activities. Local townspeople tolerated the pirate’s presence as well–purchasing cloth, sugar and other goods the pirate supplied at cheap prices compared to those goods brought directly from England.

Henry Every was one of the few Golden Age pirates known to have retired and live off the spoils of his pirating days.

His Downfall — Cocky and Outsmarted

Patriot or Pirate? It's all about perspective
Patriot or Pirate? It’s all about perspective

After returning from the high seas with his pirate booty (mostly goods such as molasses, grain, rum, rope, and tools), Blackbeard invited a bunch of pirate buddies to party at his ship on the Outer Banks. The Royal Navy got wind of it and sent two ships for his capture. The pirate almost managed to escape with his crew through a narrow channel with a hidden sandbar, but Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground during the exchange of cannon fire between the three battling ships.

Leiutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy outsmarted the wily pirate, hiding his crew below deck. When Blackbeard and his men boarded the vessel, Maynard’s men rose to attack. Blackbeard died in hand-to-hand combat, succumbing only after five bullet wounds and twenty sword cuts. As a warning to the other pirates, his head was cut off and displayed on the naval ship and his body thrown overboard. The date was November 22, 1718. Edward Teach was 38 years old.

What’s your take on Blackbeard and other pirates of his day? Do you admire or revile them? How do they compare to modern-day pirates–whether on the high seas or in cyberspace?

Related Links:

National Geographic Website

Information about The Queen Anne’s Revenge – Blackbeard’s ship was discovered in 1996 twenty feet underwater near the coast of North Carolina. Its contents were donated to the state.

Famous Pirates and Their Flags

Pat Croce’s Pirate Museum — St. Augustine FL

14 comments on “Will the Real Bad Guy Please Stand Up?

  1. I so want to watch Pirates of the Caribbean now! For some reason I find piracy (in the old times) so romantic. It might have to do with it being historic, adventurous, involving travel and ships and rugged men. Modern day (online) pirates are more likely to be computer nerds who haven’t seen the sunlight in days. lol.

    1. Good points, Nicole! I find them fascinating yet repulsive. I love reading historical romances on the high seas. I don’t necessarily want the hero to be a pirate, but it’s okay if he’s posing as one for a good reason. 🙂

  2. These days you have to revile them because they were quick to kill usually and seemed to think life cheap. Yet in those days, I suspect it was. It’s difficult to think of them as ‘bad’ men against the law since the Crown even appointed Henry Morgan the renowned pirate as Governor of Jamaica.
    It was while looking at Henry Morgan ( The Welsh Pirate) that I wondered just how many Welsh pirates there had been. It was then I realised that Black Bart or Bartholemew ( born John) Roberts was a Welshman. There was a reluctant pirate. The ship he was serving as third mate on was captured off Ghana by (Welsh) Pirate Howell Davis and his crew. He was forced to join Davis’ crew. ( His other option may have been to die). Davis was killed about a month later and his crew recognised Roberts’ seamanship and voted him Captain. He is supposed to have said “It is better to be a Commander than a common man since I have dipped my hand in muddy water and must be a pirate.
    His career was just 4 years but in that time he was the most successful pirate of record. To his detriment it’s said that he tortured French captives but then Britain and France were at war most of the time.
    At the end a British ship came on Roberts at anchor and fired a volley. The pirates returned a volley but when the smoke cleared Roberts was found slumped over a gun barrel, the victim of the first volley. The crew threw his body overboard rather than let the English have him. It seems there was honour amongst thieves.

    1. Thanks for the additional history, Lord David. I enjoyed researching this weekend and hope to do more when I get a chance. I found Calico Jack’s story especially interesting.

      What struck me most during my research was the fine distinction made between privateers and pirates. Their jobs were basically the same, although one was legal and the other not.

      Hope your weather is improving. We were just hit with a cold snap here in the northeast US and I’m ready to travel south for some relief. 🙂

  3. Fantastic post, Jolyse! I love the pictures, especially the one of you and Jack Sparrow ~ great photo! When I think of the modern day pirate, I think of bullies.

    1. Hey Jill. When I think of modern pirates, I think of the Somalian pirates off the east coast of Africa. I also think of people who steal copyrighted works. I guess bullies would fit in the pirate category too.

  4. My sister and mom live about 25 minutes from Beaufort, where Black Beard’s ship was found. Every year they host Beaufort Pirate Invasion weekend with different activities. I bought my daughter a poster for the event depicting women pirates, yes there were a few, stating “They wielded axes. They cut off heads. Then, applied lipstick”.

    I find pirates really interesting. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Interesting, Donna. Calico Jack was famous for a few reasons, one being that he had two female pirates on his crew. I think you’d get a kick out of his story. Check out the links if you’d like.

  5. Great post, Jolyse! Coincidentally, I was reading about Blackbeard yesterday. I found out he was married something like 14 times. Women do like those bad boys, don’t they? It does seem like a lot of marriages for someone who only lived to be 38.

    1. Great minds think alike, huh? Well, I don’t know about fourteen wives but I did research that his wife (or one of them) at the time of his death was Mary Ormand.That made me wonder: Are there descendants of Blackbeard living here in America today?

  6. I don’t know. Will we hail the pirates who take ships on the high seas today in such grand fashion? Isn’t a high jacker and thief always just that?

    Still, they do make for great stories and I am all about the story. I loved reading this post.

    Tim

    1. I agree that we shouldn’t revere thieves, whether the pirates of yesterday or today. Why then were the same men hired by the governments of that time and honored for their work as privateers? I suppose it comes back to winning war at all costs.

      I love the stories, too. Can’t wait to see the next Blackbeard movie.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Tim. I liked your story about writing ethics in light of recent events.

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