Who Was Blackbeard and How Did He Become One of History’s Most Notorious Pirates?

On 22 November 1718, Edward Teach, a man better known as Blackbeard, was killed in a fight with Royal Marines on the deck of his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

One of the most notorious pirates in history, his severed head was brought back to the governor of Virginia in order to gain a substantial bounty.

The period in North America from 1689 to 1718 is widely known as the golden age of piracy. As shipping across the Atlantic and down the coast of America increased, pirates decided that they could prey on merchant shipping in order to make a living.

Of all those who preyed upon this shipping, Blackbeard was one of the most feared and the most famous. According to the legends, he was a giant man with a beard covering half his face, wearing a great red coat to make him look even bigger. He carried two swords at his waist and had bandoleers full of pistols and knives across his chest.

Blackbeard the Pirate. Credit: Published in the History of Pirates, 1725 / Commons.

Some reports even say that during a fight he stuck sticks of gunpowder into his long hair to make him seem even more terrifying.

We will probably never know exactly what he looked like, but there is no doubt that he was successful, as recent research has discovered he captured over 45 vessels, despite his relatively short career as a pirate.

It is mostly agreed that Edward Teach was born in the English city of Bristol at some time around 1680, though there is also some evidence that he lived in London, Philadelphia and Jamaica.

Career in the English navy

What is certain is that he crossed the Atlantic at some point and went to sea, probably fighting as a privateer in the War of Queen Anne against the French, from 1702-1713. He used Jamaica as a base from which to raid their shipping.

One the war ended, the now unemployed sailor found himself on the sloop of the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, who also launched raids off of Jamaica. The main difference now was that Teach was stealing from and killing his old employers, the British.

He must have shown uncommon ruthlessness and leadership, for at some point around 1716 Hornigold entrusted Blackbeard with one of his ships – part of a small flotilla of captured vessels that were now used as pirate ships.

Edward Teach (Black Beard), Walking the Plank, from the Pirates of the Spanish Main series (N19) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Commons.

The two became more equal with time and success, and until November 1717 they were known as the most fearsome pirates in the west in concert.

That month they managed to capture a rich French “guineyman” ship bringing goods home, and so lavish was this prize that Hornigold decided to accept the Royal Navy’s offer of an amnesty and retire in respectable comfort.

Blackbeard was left with the ship, which he reinforced with more cannon and renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. 

That winter was the high point of the pirate’s career. With several ships and over 300 crewmen to his name, he terrorised the Caribbean and the American coast, capturing numerous rich prizes and even blockading the port of Charleston in May 1718.

The British authorities in America almost gave up on catching Blackbeard, and instead offered him a pardon and an amnesty if he stopped his activities, the tactic which had rid them of Hornigold.

However, Teach was less willing to play by the rules, and after accepting the pardon he then swiftly broke the conditions of his amnesty and resumed his piracy throughout 1718.

A painting showing a pirate ship attacking a merchants’s ship. It appears to be a version of Ambrose Louis Garneray’s La Prise du Kent par Surcouf, with a Jolly Roger added. Credit: Ambroise Louis Garneray / Commons.

By November, Alexander Spottswood, Governor of Virginia placed a hefty bounty of Blackbeard’s head, and dispatched a naval squadron commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard to deal with the problem.

Having captured and interrogated other pirates, they had an idea of Blackbeard’s whereabouts, and found his ships anchored off Ocracoke Island off the coast of North Carolina on the evening of 21 November.

The final battle

There, the naval officer devised a plan that would be carried out with devastating affect the next day. When his ships attacked many men were savaged by gunfire from the pirate vessels as they surged towards them.

Blackbeard’s broadsides had done their work well, and when he saw the deck of Maynard’s flagship the Jane almost empty of surviving men he ordered a boarding of the enemy ship.

As the pirates grappled their way onto the deck, Maynard and the bulk of his marines suddenly exploded out of the hold and rushed at their surprised enemy.

Blackbeard and Maynard fired shots at each other in the confusion, then drew their swords and hacked at each other until Maynard’s blade broke.

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay. Credit: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris / Commons.

Seeing their leader about to die, one Royal Marine slashed the pirate across the neck with his cutlass and badly wounded him.

Despite the ferocity of the pirates, over time the element of surprise and the superior training of the marines began to tell as the pirates were killed and pushed back.

Despite his terrible wound, Blackbeard kept fighting until he was overcome by sword slashes and pistol shots. Maynard, having won a famous victory, tied Blackbeard’s severed head to his mast, before sailing home and displaying it proudly to Spottswood.

With this new tough stance from the government and the death of Blackbeard, the golden age of piracy was over, but the romantic legacy of the most fearsome pirate of all would live on.

Header image credit: Edward Teach, or as he was more commonly known, Blackbeard. Engraving. Credit: Scanned by Time-Life Books / Commons.

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