For years on the Nov. 22 anniversary of Blackbeard’s death, members of a Virginia college fraternity toasted America’s archetypal pirate by drinking rum punch from his skull. It is said that pirates had the skull silver-plated and crafted into a goblet; somehow it later appeared at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg before ending up in the hands of fraternity brothers. Judge Charles Wedbee, writing in Blackbeard’s Cup, recalled drinking from the cup, its rim engraved with the words “Deth to Spotswoode,” as a college youth.
While these stories persist, they cannot be authenticated. The same can be said of much of the intrigue that shrouds the life of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. Practically nothing is known about his early years, although it is commonly believed that he was born in Bristol, a seafaring city in southern England, around 1680. Even his name is subject to conjecture, with several spellings—Teach, Thatch, Thach—and other permutations. (Some said his name was Drummond.) He could read and write—in fact, he maintained correspondence with several colonial officials—so presumably came from a literate family.
Teach’s meteoric rise to prominence was due to unique conditions that prevailed in the late 1600s and early 1700s. In Europe, disease was rampant, sanitation nonexistent, and social injustice prevalent. Men were jailed for failing to pay debts, hanged for felonies, and tortured for various offenses in between. England, France, and Spain fought almost continuously. Life in general was “nasty, brutish, and short,” as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes had written. Life at sea was worse; discipline was brutal, pay was low, and navy sailors lived with the threat of death or disfigurement from war as well as brutal captains whose power was absolute.
Privateering offered a brighter outcome. The Crown commissioned privately funded ships to attack merchant ships flying under enemy flags. Sailors seized both ship and cargo, earning a share of whatever they captured. The War of Spanish Succession, which erupted in 1701 when the grandson of King Louis XIV of France was named heir to the Spanish throne, provided many opportunities for ambitious British and colonial seamen to raid Spanish and French ships.
Teach in Jamaica
It was during this war, known in the American colonies as Queen Anne’s War, that Teach first appeared in Jamaica, distinguishing himself among other privateers. When the war ended in North American territory in 1713, Teach moved his base to New Providence (now Nassau, Bahamas), which provided more strategic access to shipping lanes, and continued his profession—only now, without government sanction, it was piracy.
Pirates, who frequented the waterfronts and bars of most colonial seaports, were not a great threat to the colonists. Merchants were eager to buy their cheap (albeit stolen) goods, which circumvented British taxes, and to sell them supplies. Many who spoke publicly against them quietly maintained a brisk pirate trade. Even the venerable College of William and Mary accepted 300 pounds sterling of pirate loot, although the exact circumstances behind the gift are somewhat vague.
Bartholomew Roberts, captain of the Whydah, a pirate ship whose wreck was discovered off Cape Cod in 1984, summed up his philosophy: “In an honest service there is thin rations, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.” This was the world that Edward Teach took by storm.
Teach’s career is clouded by conflicting accounts, but it seems clear that in 1716 he was the master of a sloop armed with six cannon and crewed by 70 pirates. In spring 1717 he cruised the North American coast with mentor Benjamin Hornigold, going as far north as Delaware and seizing rich cargoes but probably little gold.
By fall Teach had returned to the Caribbean; in November, off the island of St. Vincent, he captured a French merchant ship, La Concorde, and her cargo of slaves, gold, money, and jewels. Teach wasted no time in commandeering the three-masted vessel, mounting additional cannon and renaming it Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR). By now his crew had swelled to 300. When he captured the large, heavily armed merchant ship Great Allen soon after, word of the fierce pirate began to spread.
One contemporary account had him battling HMS Scarborough, a 30-gun man-of-war out of Barbados. According to this story, challenged by recent research, the QAR engaged the Scarborough in a running battle for several hours before the Scarborough withdrew. David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology with the North Carolina Maritime Museum, says there is currently no evidence to support the claim that such a battle ever took place. “In fact,” he says, “according to historical documentation, the Scarborough was safely moored at Barbados, undergoing general maintenance and repairs, during most of the appropriate time frame when any such battle could have taken place.”
Nevertheless, Teach began to assume a greater-than-life stature—and nickname. Taller than six feet, he had a heavy black beard and long hair, which he braided and tied with ribbons. In battle he tied slow-burning fuses in his beard. Surrounded by an acrid cloud of smoke and armed with pistols, knives, and swords, he intimidated even his crew and fostered the story that he was in league with the devil himself. A master of psychology, Blackbeard played his role well; his ship was his stage and the world his audience. According to a contemporary source, he once challenged some of his crew: “ ‘Come,’ says he, ‘let us make a Hell of [our] own, and try how long we can bear it.’ Accordingly he, with two or three others, went down into the Hold, and closing up all the Hatches, filled several Pots full of Brimstone, and other combustible Matter, and set it on Fire, and so continued till they were almost suffocated, when some of the Men cry’d out for Air; at length he opened the Hatches, not a little pleased that he had held out the longest.”
Following the capture of the Great Allen, Teach sailed to the Bay of Honduras, where he encountered pirate Stede Bonnet on the Revenge. Maj. Bonnet had been a well-to-do Barbados plantation owner. Tired of a sedentary life and, some said, to escape a nagging wife, he bought his ship and hired a crew. Teach considered him inept and brought him aboard the QAR, assigning command of the Revenge to one of his own men. Soon after, the pirates took the Adventure, which Teach gave to trusted lieutenant Israel Hands to captain. By now Teach commanded a formidable force of more than 400 men.
Sailing north, Teach paused off the Georgia coast, where, according to legend, he and others rowed ashore and buried a substantial amount of treasure on an island. To mark the spot, he wrapped a chain around the trunk of a large oak tree and sawed off one of its branches. The pirates never returned to Blackbeard Island, now a national wildlife refuge where treasure-hunting is prohibited.
Teach’s most audacious feat occurred in May 1718, off the South Carolina coast. Needing medical supplies, the pirates captured the Crowley, a vessel headed for London with one Samuel Wragg, a member of the Council of the Province of Carolina, among the passengers. Holding crew and passengers hostage, Teach dispatched two pirates and one captive to Charleston with a shopping list of medicines. If they didn’t return in two days, hostages would be killed.
Two days passed; the fearful victims awaited their fate. Teach raved about being double-crossed while Wragg bargained for an extra day. The third day passed with no sign of the three emissaries. One hostage suggested sailing into the harbor, an idea that Teach embraced immediately. So the pirate fleet, with four captured vessels, dropped anchor in Charleston harbor.
Citizens were terrified by the sight of this flotilla bristling with guns and pirates brazenly walking the waterfront. Men hastily armed themselves while others ran for safety. The terror was short-lived, however, for the three missing men appeared with the medicine chest. It seemed that when the pirates wandered off on a drinking binge, the lone hostage had been afraid to return to the pirate fleet without them.
By now Teach realized that his fleet was too large to manage. At some point he had recorded in his log: “Such a day, Rum all out. Our Company somewhat sober. A damn’d Confusion amongst us! Rouges a plotting; great Talk of Separation, So I look’d sharp for a Prize; such a Day took one, with a great deal of Liquor on board, so kept the Company hot, damn’d hot, then all Things went well again.”
He hatched a plot to downsize. Sailing northward, he ran the QAR aground on a sand bar off Topsail Inlet (now Beaufort Inlet, N.C.). In a prearranged maneuver, Israel Hands grounded the fourth vessel while appearing to try to free the QAR. This reduced the fleet to two—the Revenge, Stede Bonnet’s ship, and the Adventure. Marooning some of his crew and sending Bonnet off in quest of a royal pardon (which was granted), Teach made his exit on the Adventure with 40 handpicked men and headed for Bath, N.C., where in June he too accepted a royal pardon.
Bath had survived a drought, epidemics, internal rebellion, and the onset of the Tuscarora War in 1711, but had rebounded quickly to become the de facto state capital. Charles Eden, named governor in May 1714, granted the king’s pardon to Bonnet, Teach, and others as part of the Crown’s effort to entice pirates to give up their profession. It was cheaper than hunting them down and ensured a ready supply of privateers in case another war erupted. Many of these gentlemen of fortune found retirement too confining, however; Teach, too, found it impossible to settle down. Although he found a house in Bath and married his 14th wife—previous shipboard weddings bestowed prestige upon his many brides but were forgotten by the groom as soon as he left port—he spent much of his time aboard the Adventure, typically anchored off Ocracoke, a remote island on the Outer Banks.
Although historians disagree on the chronology of events, according to biographer Robert Lee, in August Teach headed for Philadelphia. There he discovered that Gov. William Keith had issued a warrant for his arrest and hastily set sail for Bermuda, capturing two French sloops before he arrived. He took one sloop and all of the cargo, let the sailors go free on the other, and returned to Bath, claiming he had found the ship abandoned. In accordance with Admiralty Law and his crew’s sworn (but perjurious) testimony, the ship was declared a derelict, and Teach was awarded cargo as a salvage fee.
In September a lookout spotted a sail approaching Ocracoke. An alarm was sounded but it was unnecessary; the ship was mastered by pirate Charles Vane, whom Teach greeted enthusiastically. For days they partied and caroused, enjoying barbeques, storytelling, hunting, fishing, and drinking. Friendly North Carolinians happily sold them food and rum, but the event attracted the attention of Virginia’s Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who already looked down on his southern neighbors. The appearance of so many pirates fostered rumors that they were establishing a major base on Ocracoke.
Spotswood was determined to rid the coast of Teach, but to avoid arousing the suspicions of pirate sympathizers in both colonies, he made his plans in secret: “I did not communicate to the Assembly nor Council, the project then forming against Teach’s crew for fear of his having intelligence, there being in this country and more especially among the present faction, an unaccountable inclination to favor pyrates,” Spotswood wrote.
Spotswood planned a two-pronged attack on Ocracoke. Capt. Ellis Brand would lead a land-based assault on Bath while Lt. Robert Maynard captained two sloops that Spotswood leased personally.
On Nov. 21, 1718, Maynard’s ships dropped anchor off Ocracoke Island. It appears likely that Blackbeard knew of Maynard’s presence, but he nevertheless spent the night drinking with the captain and three crew members of a local trader.
‘Damn you for villains’
Early on the morning of Nov. 22, according to contemporary battle accounts from author Charles Johnson and correspondence to the Boston News-Letter, Lt. Maynard weighed anchor. As Maynard’s sloops approached, Blackbeard roared across the water.
“Damn you for villains, who are you? And whence come you?”
“You may see by our colors we are no pirates,” came the reply.
Blackbeard then ordered Maynard to lower a boat and come aboard the Adventure. “I cannot spare my boat, but I will come aboard of you as soon as I can, with my sloop,” Maynard fired back.
With drink in hand, Blackbeard raised his cup to Maynard: “Damnation seize my soul if I give you any quarters, or take any from you.” Both sides knew that death was imminent.
Each side had advantages. Maynard had two ships, with 32 fighting men on one and 22 on the other. But they lacked cannon, having only small arms. Blackbeard had one sloop armed with eight cannon and a crew that estimates placed between 18 and 25. Moreover, he was intimately familiar with the treacherous sandbars that surrounded Ocracoke.
Blackbeard fired a broadside with his cannon aimed at both sloops. Twenty men fell, killed or wounded, on Maynard’s ship, nine on the other. As Maynard’s sloops approached, Blackbeard tried to slip behind a sandbar but miscalculated. The Adventure went aground, as did both of Maynard’s vessels, but the tide was rising. Throwing water and ballast over the side to lighten his ship, Maynard soon floated free; so did the Adventure.
Maynard, knowing that another broadside would be devastating, ordered his crew below deck. Seeing that only three remained on the deck, Blackbeard ordered his men to board. Grappling irons were thrown, and the ships were lashed together. Blackbeard led 14 of his men over the rails and onto his adversary’s deck.
It was a trick that Blackbeard had probably used, but this time the hunter became the hunted. Lt. Maynard gave the signal; his men swarmed out of the hold. Blackbeard came face to face with Maynard. As the fighting raged around them, Maynard lunged at Blackbeard, but his sword hit the pirate’s cartridge box and broke. Blackbeard returned the blow, cutting Maynard’s hand but not seriously.
Maynard’s men now surrounded the pirate. One cut his face with a sword. Like a wounded tiger at bay, Blackbeard fought ferociously. Another sailor cut his neck.
“Well done, lad,” Blackbeard taunted his attacker. “If it be not well done, I’ll do it better,” replied the sailor. And with that he swung his sword, cutting off Blackbeard’s head—at least according to the Boston News Dispatch. Other accounts contend that Blackbeard was killed before parting with his head.
The battle was over. The remaining pirates surrendered. Blackbeard’s body, with 25 wounds, was thrown overboard, where legend says it swam around the ship three times before it sank. His head was hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship.
In the battle’s aftermath, Lt. Maynard met Capt. Brand in Bath. They lingered for several weeks, looking for the treasure they were sure that Blackbeard had hidden, but they returned empty-handed to Virginia along with 15 prisoners who faced trial for piracy. Only one—not a pirate, but one of Blackbeard’s drinking companions the night before the battle—was acquitted. Israel Hands was convicted but escaped hanging when a ship arrived with royal pardons for pirates who surrendered. The remaining 13 were hanged along Capitol Landing Road—subsequently known as Gallows Road—outside Williamsburg.
Thus ended, after just three years, the career of America’s mightiest pirate. His head was carried back to Virginia as proof of his death and hung for a time from a pole at the mouth of the Hampton River as a warning to others tempted by piracy. Then it vanished.
So the mystery lives on. And what of the buried treasure? Once, when he was asked, Blackbeard responded that only he and the devil knew its whereabouts, and whichever lived the longest would get it all.
Historians Tom and Gena Metcalf are the authors of Pieces of Eight, a children’s book about Blackbeard. They live in Georgia.
Queen Anne’s Revenge—Lost or Found?
After almost 10 years of searching for the Queen Anne’s Revenge in Beaufort Inlet, N.C., divers from Intersal, a maritime research and salvage firm, located a pile of cannon, ballast stones, and other artifacts in November 1996 and began recovery a year later.
Is it the QAR? The location, site size, and dating of artifacts suggest that it is; historians have failed to identify another ship that might have been wrecked in the area. Although recovered items include cannon, small arms, lead shot, anchors, barrel hoops, navigational instruments, bottles, and more, archaeologists have not yet found a “smoking gun.” Consistent with the QAR hypothesis is the fact that the cannon are not uniform, suggesting that they might have come from various captured ships. Some were loaded, as if the ship were ready to attack on a moment’s notice.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project in Morehead City, N.C., offers pictures and information on the ship’s recovery at its Web site (www.qaronline.org/default.htm). For the more adventurous, a limited number of scuba dives on the QAR are available.—T.M. G.M.