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The rise and fall of Blackbeard

It was 300 years ago this November that a man named Edward Teach drew his last breath. Although his name may ring a bell to some, most will know him by his nickname, Blackbeard.

The exact date of his demise was the 22nd November 1718 and upon his death, Blackbeard was one of the most notorious pirates of his time. Yet he was by no means the most successful. In fact, his reign of terror on the seas lasted just over a year. So how did Blackbeard gain such a reputation within so short a period of time and one that would still be remembered some three centuries later? Let’s find out.

Very little is known of Teach’s early years. It’s presumed he was born in England, probably Bristol around the 1680s, making him around 35-40 years old when he died. Again it’s presumed he served as a privateer during Queen Anne’s War, the North American theatre of the War of the Spanish Succession. Privateers were private individuals or ships who were commissioned by governments to legally carry out acts of war. In a nutshell, they were pirates with papers.  

Since it wasn’t such a large leap from privateering to piracy, it’s understandable why so many sailors did after the war ended in 1713. It was at this time that the infamous pirate haven at Nassau was at its peak, with over 1,000 pirates occupying the fortified sanctuary. 

Teach’s first appearance in the official records came in December 1716, when he’s documented as being in the crew of English pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold. Hornigold had placed Teach in charge of a pirate sloop (a sailing boat with just a single mast and head-sail) with a crew of around 70 men. 

After many successful acts of piracy together, Hornigold decided to retire towards the end of 1717, leaving Teach to go it alone. In November of that same year, Teach attacked and captured a French slaving ship, called La Concorde, off the coast of Saint Vincent. The ship was a monster, as big as most of the Royal Navy frigates stationed in the Americas at the time. Teach loaded it with 40 canons and renamed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge. 

Teach knew the importance of reputation and understood how he could use it to his advantage. He didn’t want to destroy the ships he went after; he wanted to take them with as little effort, loss of life, and damage to cargo as possible. To do that, he knew he had to have a fearsome reputation. And so, unlike most pirates of the time, Teach actively sort infamy.

Along with the fear-inducing Queen Anne’s Revenge, Teach himself was said to be an intimidating sight. He was a tall broad-shouldered man with a large thick black beard, a facial accessory that was far from the norm in those days. Three pairs of pistols hung from a silk sling wrapped around his shoulder, whilst a cutlass and some knives completed the look. 

With his striking image and intimidating ship, Teach became one of the most notorious and recognisable pirates of his age. He became Blackbeard.

He was also a fan of theatrics, placing slow fuses under his hat and dangling them down his face. He would light them before going into battle, shrouding himself in smoke and looking like the devil himself. He was described as 'such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to look more frightful.'

With his striking image and intimidating ship, Teach became one of the most notorious and recognisable pirates of his age. He became Blackbeard.

Blackbeard’s infamy was then aided by some audacious and aggressive piracy. In April 1718, he successfully captured the large merchant vessel known as the Protestant Caesar. After looting it, he ordered it be burned to cinders to send a message to all those people who dared stand in his way.

The following month, Blackbeard and his flotilla blockaded the port of Charleston in South Carolina. Then known as Charles Town, it was a big established harbour of its day. For several days he stopped all vessels entering and exiting the port and in total he managed to capture and plunder around nine ships. He even held hostage the crew of the Crowley, which contained a number of prominent citizens from Charleston. He threatened their lives in exchange for medical supplies that his crew needed. The South Carolinian government agreed to his terms and all hostages were released unharmed, although stripped of their valuables and in some instances even of their clothes.

Things started to unravel for Blackbeard though after he ran his beloved Queen Anne’s Revenge aground in June 1718. He lost another sloop attempting to free the Queen Anne and in the end, he had to maroon most of his crew. He then proceeded to Bath Town in North Carolina where he accepted a royal pardon from Governor Charles Eden, a man firmly in Blackbeard’s pocket. 

For a month or so Blackbeard appeared to have turned his back on piracy, marrying the daughter of a local plantation owner and leading a somewhat 'normal' life. This, however, was most likely a ruse. He’d actually set up camp on nearby Ocracoke Island, the perfect spot to see passing merchant ships just off the coastline. Blackbeard had returned to piracy, albeit somewhat more covertly. 

Unlike Nassau, Blackbeard was now operating from a place with a sovereign government. With the backing of Governor Eden, Blackbeard might well have assumed he was safe from any reprisals, even having the audacity to host parties with notorious pirates Charles Vane and Calico Jack Rackham.

His pirate paradise was not to last though and his presence caught the eye of the nearby Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood. Spotswood viewed Governor Eden with so much contempt that he was prepared to go beyond his jurisdiction and send forces into North Carolina to take care of Blackbeard. 

On 22 November 1718, on Spotswood’s orders, Lieutenant Robert Maynard commandeered two sloops towards Blackbeard’s position.  After an intense exchange of fire, it seemed the pirates had won the day and prepared to board Maynard’s crippled vessel. Blackbeard was first aboard, Maynard’s sloop looked empty. The Lieutenant, however, had prepared for his vessel to be boarded; in fact, it’s what he wanted. He’d hidden most of his crew in the hold and when the pirates were on board, the crew stormed the deck capturing the element of surprise. 

As if written by Hollywood, Blackbeard and Maynard found themselves engaged in direct combat. Flintlocks were fired before sword clashed with cutlass. In the end, it was one of Maynard’s crew who dealt the final blow to Blackbeard, approaching him from behind and slashing his throat. His head was cut off and displayed on Maynard’s sloop as he returned victorious. Blackbeard’s battle-scarred body, said to have suffered five gunshot wounds and twenty cuts, was thrown overboard. 

Six years later a book published in Britain cemented the legend of Blackbeard for all time.  A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates contained Blackbeard’s biography, dedicating a good portion of the book to him, often speaking about him in near-mythical terms. 

The author, just like the public then and now, was most likely drawn to Blackbeard’s larger than life character and catchy nickname. A General History would go on to inspire countless more books, plays and most recently movies.  It could be argued that Blackbeard has helped shape the stereotypical image of a pirate that we envisage today more than any of his other peers.

Even more impressively, Blackbeard shaped that image without there actually being any known account of him ever harming or killing anyone before his final battle with Maynard. 

So, to answer the initial question about how Blackbeard managed to gain such a reputation within so short a period of time and one that would still be remembered some three centuries later, the answer it seems is branding!