Fire rages, a volley gun booms, a grenade explodes and then from the smoke emerges a man with matches smouldering beneath his tricorn and brightly coloured ribbons braided into his beard. Another merchant ship has been pirated by the most fearsome man ever to take to the seas… Blackbeard.
Blackbeard was born Edward Teach or Edward Thatch, probably in Bristol c1680. He only gets a few brief mentions in Five Guns Blazing, but his story is too remarkable to miss out of my Leading Ladies and Gents series.
Blackbeard was a sailor and later privateer during Queen Anne’s War before settling on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. New Providence was a pirate haven, a shanty town full of sail tents which sprang up around Bonefish Pond, also home for a while to the treacherous Anne Bonny and the so-called ‘Pansy Pirate,’ Pierre Bouspeut. It was here that Blackbeard joined forces with Benjamin Hornigold and was placed in command of one of his sloops. For a year, the pair terrorised the seas until Hornigold retired from piracy in 1717.
By 1718, Blackbeard was at the height of his reign of terror. In May of that year he barricaded himself into the port of Charlestown, later Charleston in South Carolina. As the town had no guard ship, all vessels entering the port were easy prey. Over a period of six days, ten ships were ransacked and relieved of their rum, spices, tobacco and weapons. On board one of the ships, was one Samuel Wragg, member of the Council of the Province of Carolina. His fellow passengers were questioned about the vessels still in port and then locked below decks for several hours. Teach told Wragg that unless the government of South Carolina handed over medical supplies, all prisoners would be executed, their heads sent to the Governor and all captured ships burnt.
Wragg agreed to Teach’s demands, but the pirates charged with the task of collecting the drugs got so drunk that they could not be found for two days! At the eleventh hour Blackbeard finally received the medical supplies and let the prisoners go unharmed, albeit without their money or clothes!
Blackbeard’s piratical spree finally came to an end on 21st November 1718 after a party with notorious pirates Charles Vane and John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham. Lieutenant Maynard found the pirates anchored off Okracoke Island. He blocked the inlet so that other ships could not warn Blackbeard of his presence and lay in wait while the pirates continued their celebrations without a lookout. At daybreak, Blackbeard’s men boarded one of Maynard’s ships believing it to be unmanned. Maynard’s men burst from the hold and such a fierce battle ensued that the decks were soon slick with blood. Blackbeard was shot five times and cut twenty before he was finally killed. The rest of the surviving pirates were later hanged.
Blackbeard was not the most successful pirate but he is certainly the most infamous, having inspired many books and later, films over the last three hundred years.
Image: Blackbeard in Smoke and Flames by Frank Schooner, 1922.