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Early American Criminals: The Last Stand of Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard

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The merchants and planters in and around Bath, North Carolina had had enough of Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard. The pirate had been living–and carousing–in town, and had been pillaging ships up and down the inlets and rivers of the colony. But the citizens knew that they could not complain to Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina, because he tacitly approved Blackbeard’s actions.

Earlier in the summer of 1718, Blackbeard secretly met with Eden, who was eager to bring money into his backwater colony. The Governor agreed to issue pardons for past actions to Blackbeard and his pirate crew, and Blackbeard and his closest allies would then settle down in North Carolina to lead what would appear to be normal lives. With the pardon serving as cover and with government officials looking the other way, Blackbeard could then freely attack vessels along the coast. In exchange, Eden would receive a cut of Blackbeard’s spoils and serve as a fence for the rest.

Since the merchants and planters of North Carolina could not rely on their own governor, they instead looked north to Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia. Spotswood was no saint, either. He nurtured a culture of corruption in his colony by building a lavish Governor’s mansion for himself and using his position to take private possession of 85,000 acres of public land. With political opposition to his administration mounting, Spotswood saw the pursuit of Blackbeard as an opportunity to shift attention away from his own misdeeds, so he agreed to help out.

The Most Powerful Pirate in the Atlantic

Blackbeard was born around 1680 in Bristol, England’s second largest port at the time. He was educated to read and write, and he went out to sea at a young age. He was tall, thin, and–true to his nickname–sported a long beard.

Starting in the early 1700’s, Blackbeard served on privateer ships, which attacked and plundered Spanish merchant vessels in the Caribbean under English sponsorship during the War of the Spanish Succession. But when peace with Spain brought an end to privateering in 1713, Blackbeard joined Benjamin Hornigold to embark on a new profession: piracy.

In the fall of 1716, Hornigold captured a ship that could be outfitted perfectly for piracy, so he rewarded Blackbeard’s loyal service by placing him in command of it. Blackbeard outfitted the ship with 40 guns and renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge. By the spring, Blackbeard had 70 men under his leadership. He was the fourth most powerful pirate in Nassau and was well on his way to becoming the most powerful pirate in all of the Atlantic.

Blackbeard enhanced his ferocious reputation as a pirate through his appearance. He braided pigtails in his hair and beard, and when he attacked a ship, he would dangle lit fuses out from under his hat and around his face. This fiery display, along with his “fierce and wild” eyes, made him look like he was a demon from Hell. Yet, despite coming off as a madman, there is no evidence that he ever killed outright anyone on board a seized ship, and he won public support with his kind treatment of captured crewmembers and the return of cargo that he did not need. His look and act was specifically designed to scare ships into submission rather than to provoke a fight, since avoiding violence ultimately benefitted both sides.

Pirates like Blackbeard created a crisis in the Atlantic trade system with their attacks on merchant ships. Indeed, in the spring of 1717, Blackbeard completely disrupted trade and produced terror throughout the city of Charleston, South Carolina when he blockaded the sea route to the city in order to procure medicine to treat his wounded crew. The devastating effect that piracy had on trade is why pirates were harshly treated if they were ever caught. Captured pirates were quickly brought to trial and hanged in chains if found guilty, with their decaying bodies serving as notice to other seamen who might think about following a similar path.

When Blackbeard learned in April 1717 that the Whydah sank in a storm taking pirate captain Samuel Bellamy down with her and that the survivors were to be hanged in Boston, he was incensed and changed tactics. From now on, Blackbeard vowed to disrupt and destroy as much British shipping as he could. He still respectfully treated passengers and crew who submitted to him, but the cargo was another story. He now dumped into the ocean any goods that he did not need. And when he captured a Boston merchant vessel, he exacted revenge for the executions of the Whydah’s crew by setting it on fire. The mid-Atlantic coast now seemed to be at his mercy.

The Hunt for Blackbeard

When Spotswood ordered the hunt for Blackbeard, he shrouded the plan in the greatest of secrecy in fear that it would be leaked to Blackbeard in some way. He did not even share the plan with British government officials. Spotswood enlisted Lieutenant Robert Maynard to head the covert mission into North Carolina. In the meantime, he pushed a proclamation through the Virginia Assembly that offered a reward for the capture or destruction of any pirate within the year and specifically set the reward for capturing Blackbeard at one hundred pounds.

Maynard arrived in the neighboring colony with two ships on November 21, 1718 and soon spotted Blackbeard’s ship hiding in shallow waters. The next day, he sent an exploratory boat, which received fire once it got close enough to Blackbeard’s ship. Maynard immediately raised the British flag and sailed after the pirate. Eventually, both Blackbeard’s and Maynard’s ships ran aground, but Maynard removed all of his ship’s ballast and began to close in on Blackbeard.

Blackbeard shouted, “Damn for you Villains, who are you? And, from whence came you?” Maynard responded, “You may see by our Colours we are no Pyrates.”

Blackbeard fired a broadside that took out twenty men on Maynard’s ship and nine on the other. Maynard ordered his men below deck and told them to ready themselves for close combat. Blackbeard’s men then lobbed several grenades–bottles filled with powder, shot, lead, and iron with a quick match inserted into their mouth–at Maynard’s ship as it approached, but since almost everyone was below deck by this time, they did little damage.

In the belief that only a handful of men were left on Maynard’s ship, Blackbeard cried, “Let’s jump on Board, and cut them to Pieces.” As soon as Maynard spotted Blackbeard through the smoke of the grenades, he signaled to his men, who rose and attacked the pirates. Maynard and Blackbeard each fired a pistol at one another, and each was wounded by the shot. The two then attacked each other with swords. In the middle of the fight, Maynard’s sword broke, and as he stepped back to cock another pistol, Blackbeard moved to strike him with his cutlass. But one of Maynard’s men at that same instant wounded Blackbeard’s neck and throat, so Maynard came away from the blow with just a small cut on his fingers.

Blackbeard received another shot from Maynard’s pistol, yet he continued to stand and fight. In the course of the mêlée, Blackbeard received twenty-five wounds, five from pistol shots, but as he cocked another pistol, Blackbeard fell down dead. Without their leader, the pirate crew quickly surrendered.

But Maynard’s crew was not out of danger yet. A black pirate named Caesar was hidden away, waiting to carry out orders to blow up the ship if Blackbeard was taken or killed. Africans and African-Americans, both enslaved and free, served on pirate ships in significant numbers. In fact, before Blackbeard “retired” to North Carolina, 60 out of 100 of his crewmembers were black. Luckily, two prisoners prevented Caesar from carrying out the plan. Otherwise, the ship and everyone on it would have been blown to pieces, as would have papers and letters between Blackbeard, Governor Eden, and some New York traders that were found on the ship after it was searched.

Maynard had Blackbeard’s head severed from his body and in triumph dangled it from the front of his ship as he traveled back to Virginia to collect his reward. He brought fifteen of Blackbeard’s crew with him, and all but two of them were executed by hanging.

Even though Maynard’s crew valiantly fought against Blackbeard, the experience was not enough to dissuade them from later becoming pirates themselves. The fact that government officials cheated these sailors out of the prize money that was owed them for their role in killing Blackbeard perhaps had something to do with their shift in loyalty.

The defeat of Blackbeard did not clear the way for free and safe trade throughout the Atlantic. In 1724, when Governor Spotswood planned a trip to London, he needed a well-armed man-of-war to protect him on his voyage. Otherwise, if he ran into a pirate on his journey, he most certainly would have received retribution for his role in killing Blackbeard and executing his crew, much like the Boston merchant ship received when Blackbeard exacted revenge for the execution of the Whydah’s crew.


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