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?
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
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
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?
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.