Throughout my journey, from Fernandina Beach, Florida to the port of Beaufort, NC (pronounced "bo' fert") I've seen numerous references to the pirates of the American Eastern Coast. Signs, shops, books, statues, even the team name of high schools - all gave testimony to their impact on coastal communities. Having grown up in the Midwest, I wasn't exposed to the local lore that permeates the coastal towns. Like many boys, my fascination with pirates was inspired by movies and was as fleeting as my interest in Cowboys and Indians, Zoro, and Robin Hood. In that same genre of romanticized violence, my knowledge of actual facts was quite limited.
My curiosity finally peaked here in Beaufort, when I visited the North Carolina Maritime Museum, located on popular Front Street. It's a fascinating little museum with a huge collection of shells, a wall of large stuffed fish, displays of various ships, whaling artifacts, marine ecosystems, and remnants of Blackbeard's recently discovered ship, Queen Anne's Revenge. So, having been enlightened, I want to tell you the story of Edward Teach - the headless swimmer, better know as "Blackbeard".
Chapter One - Privateer to Pirate
The whole notion of pirating occurred, like many other bad ideas, when governments decided to solve a problem. The problem was how to cripple your enemy without having to pay more soldiers. The solution: present a "letter of marque" from the government to the captain of a vessel empowering him to attack any enemy ship during wartime and keep the contents of the vessel as payment for his service. The only problem was that Spain, England, France and Holland were in and out of war with each other so many times that a legal privateer could become an illegal pirate with the signing of a treaty.
Now once government begins an institution, we all know how easy it is to abolish it, right? Right! Once set in motion, the momentum of something this lucrative would not be easily stopped. Some men were brought to trial for attacking vessels after treaties were signed, but it was hard to prove that a privateer at sea had heard the news of a treaty signing. Therefore, their crimes often went unconvicted. Privateers, now used to their trade and finding conscience to be an easily expendable thing, happened upon friendly- nation ships alone at sea and began to more freely cross the line from privateer to pirate. After all, who would find out, if no survivors remained and all evidence was sunk. Having tasted the heady sweetness of revenge, the lust for blood, the power of conquest, and the vast wealth of their captured booty, the evolutionary forces congealed to produce what we romantically refer to as the "Golden Age of Piracy". These men actually became richer than their twentieth century counter-parts like Al Capone and Dutch Schultz.
Now every good robber needs a "fence" and there were no lack of willing accomplices. Merchants, angry with England's confiscatory trade laws, quickly learned to look the other way when the presented with cheap, duty free goods. In fact, it wasn't until their own pockets were threatened that tradesmen went to the government for recourse. Prior to suffering losses themselves, merchants often worked in direct collusion with pirates. Some ships were entirely manned and outfitted by wealthy colonial businessmen who commissioned them to raid ships in the Far East. Government officials also made good allies; port authorities, law-enforcement officers, even governors. One notable one was Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina who even married Blackbeard to a 16 year old girl - Blackbeard's 14th wife.
Because of the wealth and influence of pirates, when governments did begin to take action, they first offered the pirates the king's pardon under the condition that they would take an oath to become a law-abiding citizen. Some, including Blackbeard, accepted pardon, entering society as wealthy gentlemen, if not out-of-place curiosities. But civilian life proved too tame for most and like Edward Teach, returned to their life of piracy, only to meet their ultimate fate.
Chapter Two - Brothers of the Coast
Yet, a kind of democratic rule emerged, where elections for officers took place and major decisions were voted on. Here is their code of conduct, as printed in the museum.
Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized and (may) use them at pleasure unless a scarcity make it necessary for the good of all to vote a retrenchment.
If they defrauded the Company to the value of a dollar, in plate, jewels or money, marooning was the punishment. If robbery was only between one another they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an inhabited place but somewhere where he was sure to encounter hardships.
No person to game at cards or dice for money.
The lights and candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night. If any of the crew after that hour still remained inclined to drinking, they were to do it on open deck.
To keep their piece, pistols and cutlass clean and fit for service.
No boy or woman to be allowed among them. If any man were found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea disguised, he was to suffer Death.
To desert the ship or their quarters in battle was punished by Death or Marooning.
No striking another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.
No man to talk of breaking up their way of living till each had a share of 1,000 pounds. If, in order to do this, any man should lose a limb or become a cripple in their service, he was to have 800 dollars out of the public stock, and for lesser parts proportionately.
The musicians to have rest on the sabbath day, but the other six days and nights none, without special favor.
During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it is estimated that 2000 or more buccaneers plied their trade, from Maine to Florida. Many of the pirates came to know one another, would often met and socialize, and sometimes join forces to create a formidable presence. So for their code of honor and their comradery, they were known as "Brothers of the Coast".
Chapter Three - Swimming Without a Head
Now all of this sets the stage to tell the tale of the life and times of the most notorious of pirates - Edward Tech, better known as Blackbeard. It seems, he was born, Edward Drummond, then took the name, Edward Teach after he became a pirate. Various records spelled his name, Thatch, Tache, or Tatch, but Teach was the most often used spelling. Teach came from Bristol, England and was raised by educated parents, himself able to read and write (an uncommon skill for pirates). He began his life at sea in 1716 as a privateer during Queen Anne's War, sailing out of Jamaica.
His first seizure was of the sloop Betty near Cap Charles, Virginia in September of 1717. A month later the Robert of Philadelphia and the Good Intent of Dublin were both captured in Delaware Bay. Thus begun the career of one of the most feared and celebrated pirates in American history - a career that would only last a year and two months.
During his reign of terror, Blackbeard mastered the art of intimidation. A large man to begin with, he grew a massive beard that began just below his eyeballs. This in a time when most men were clean shaven. He accentuated his visage by placing fuses in his hat and beard, then lighting them just prior to boarding his victims vessel. The halo of smoke around his head must have stopped the hearts of many a sailor. It was even rumored that he bit on glass so that his lips would ooze blood.
Teach acquired an impressive armada of many captured ships which were used and discarded. His principle ships were the 40-gun Queen Anne's Revenge and Adventure. He managed to persuade Captain Stede Bonnet (the gentleman pirate) to join him in his escapades for awhile and managed to fast talk him off the bridge of his own vessel, the Revenge, placing his own man, Israel Hands in command of the vessel. Thus, Blackbeard became the commodore of his own flotilla.
It was with this flotilla that Blackbeard sailed into Charles Town in 1718, seizing the Crowley, holding its prominent citizens hostage, creating an embargo on the South's busiest port and demanding the town supply needed medicines for his crew. During his siege, he captured no less than eight vessels and brought commerce to a halt. In the end, he got what he wanted and released the citizens unharmed, although half-naked. Without firing a shot, he had brought the most prosperous city of the east coast to it's knees.
Only a month after Charles Town, Teach decided to accept the king's offer of pardon and settled down in Bath Town with his lovely 16-year-old bride. But his true nature chafed at the veneer of civility he had assumed. Within just a short time, the vice-admiralty court in Bath Town gave Teach clear title to the Adventure and permission to trade on the high seas. With his old bucaneers as crew, he quickly began attacking any ship that crossed his path.
While Governor William Keith of Pennsylvania issued a warrant of his arrest, it was Governor Spotswood of Virginia who took decisive action and sent a secret invasion force into North Carolina to capture Blackbeard. Headed by Lt. Maynard, the two sloops manned by 53 men were able to spot Blackbeard's ship at the Ocracoke Inlet on November 17, 1718. The battle that ensued was a classic.
Blackbeard, unaware of danger, had sent most of his men ashore the night before, leaving only a skeleton crew of 18. Maynard didn't know the waters, so on the morning of the 21st, he weighed anchor and with a row boat proceeding him to take soundings, he proceeded into the inlet. The Adventure spotted the row boat and fired on it, sending the men back to the sloop. Blackbeard, in act act of raw courage, headed his ship right for the two sloops, then slowly changed course drawing Maynards vessels onto the sandbars at Ocracoke Beach. Stranded on the sandbars, Maynard was helpless. Within shouting distance, the two men taunted each other. "Damnation seize my soul if I give you mercy or take any from you!", Blackbeard thundered. To which Maynard replied, "I expect no mercy from you. Nor shall I give any".
Blackbeard then fired his cannons, killing or wounding half of Maynard's men. But the act of firing his cannons pushed Blackbeard aground, as well. Maynard could easily have given up at that point, but didn't. Instead, he ordered those who survived the blast to hide below deck, while leaving the bodies of the dead and wounded on deck. Maynard was able to get the Jane free and sailed toward Adventure. But Blackbeard had a surprise for the Jane - hand grenades made from bottles filled with gunpowder and shot, ignited by fuse. When the smoke cleared from the Jane, all Blackbeard could see was dead men on the deck. He ordered his men to board, only to discover the trap that Maynard had laid.
After fierce hand-to-hand combat the two men finally came face-to-face. Each drew their pistol and fired. Blackbeard's volley missed, Maynard's struck Blackbeard body, but did not bring him down. They both drew swords. Blackbeard swung a terrific blow, snapping Maynard's cutlass in two. All Maynard could do was to hurl the broken hilt at Blackbeard and wait for the final blow. As Blackbeard raised his weapon to strike at Maynard, an English seaman shot him through the neck. Like a wounded bull, Blackbeard continued to fight as the soldiers descended on him with swords and pistols. After his death, Maynard counted no less than 5 pistol shots and 20 severe cuts.
Maynard then ordered his men to sever the head of Blackbeard as a sign to all pirates of their potential fate. The head was mounted on the bowsprit of his sloop and brought back to his home port where it was further paraded. It is said that in the end someone had it fashioned into a cup for the gruesome amusement of his guests.
And Blackbeard's body, you ask? Legend has it that the headless body of Blackbeard was thrown off the ship, but was so full of determination and strength that it swam around the sloop three times before it sank.