On This Day: Blackbeard's demise
November 22nd, 1718: On This Day probably the most notorious pirate, Edward Teach, known as ‘Blackbeard’, met his demise. Towards the end of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, Teach had terrorised the Atlantic seaboard of the Americas for two years.
He killed fewer people than other pirates, captured only one major ship, and did not plunder enough goods to make himself wealthy. Yet, by the time of his death, he was practically a household name. How then did a seemingly average pirate become one of the most notorious in history?
Although little is known about his early life, Teach was likely born in Bristol, England. He may have been a sailor on privateer ships during Queen Anne's War before settling on the Bahamian island of New Providence, a base for Captain Benjamin Hornigold, whose crew Teach joined sometime around 1716. Hornigold placed him in command of a sloop he had captured, and the two engaged in numerous acts of piracy. Their numbers were boosted by the addition to their fleet of two more ships, one of which was commanded by Stede Bonnet, but toward the end of 1717 Hornigold retired from piracy, taking two vessels with him.
Teach captured a French merchant vessel, renamed her Queen Anne's Revenge, and equipped her with 40 guns. With this Teach’s celebrity quickly rose, largely in part due to his nickname ‘Blackbeard’. In an age where the fashion for men was to be clean shaven, he grew his thick black hair into a long mane and cultivated a beard that reached halfway down hie chest. To enhance his fearsome appearance he reportedly tied lit tapers under his hat to look like he had emerged from the depths of hell and so frighten his enemies. In this manner, Blackbeard was able to subdue his victims through fear rather than lethal violence.
Teach formed an alliance of pirates and blockaded the port of Charleston, South Carolina. After successfully ransoming its inhabitants, Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground on a sandbar near Beaufort, North Carolina. Teach parted company with Stede Bonnet and settled in Bath Town, where he accepted a royal pardon. He was soon back at sea and soon attracted the attention of Alexander Spotswood, the Governor of Virginia, who arranged for a party of soldiers and sailors to try to capture the pirate. On November 22nd, 1718 Blackbeard’s ship was cornered of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.
During a ferocious battle, Teach and several of his crew were killed by a small force of sailors led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Indeed, Maynard engaged the pirate captain in single combat mortally wounding him. ‘Well done, lad!’ Blackbeard reputedly shouted, to injured to retaliate, before being decapitated. His head was mounted on the ship’s bowsprit to be displayed up and down the eastern seaboard of the North America.
Blackbeard’s final battle was much debated for years afterward resulting in a rich mythology. His skull was encased in silver and used as a drinking vessel, or so some said. Others claimed Blackbeard had fourteen wives and buried treasure.
We can be sure that Teach, a shrewd and calculating leader, spurned the use of force relying instead on his fearsome image to terrorise those he desired to rob. Moreover, and contrary to the modern-day picture of the traditional tyrannical pirate, he commanded his vessels with the permission of their crews and there is no known account of his ever having harmed or murdered those he held captive. He was romanticised after his death and became the inspiration for a number of pirate-themed works of fiction across a range of genres. One thing appears clear: no other pirate ever matched his infamy.
Simon, R., (2022), ‘Q&A: Who was history’s most notorious pirate?’, BBC History Magazine February 2022, p. 48.