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

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

A 1920 painting entitled 'Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718' depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay.
Image Credit: Public Domain

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. Despite his relatively short career as a pirate, he captured over 45 vessels, making him one of the most successful pirates of the age.

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Who was Blackbeard?

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.

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

However, it’s though that Edward Teach was born in the English port city of Bristol around 1680, possibly the son of a wealthy family. He could read and write, which was not the norm for many in the 17th century. When he was eventually killed, a letter from him the Chief Justice and Secretary of the Province of Carolina to Blackbeard was found on his body.

A 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 Queen Anne’s War against the French between 1702 and 1713. He used Jamaica as a base from which to raid their shipping.

One the war ended, the now unemployed Teach found himself on the sloop of the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, who also launched raids from 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.

An 18th century engraving of Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard by Joseph Nicholls.

Image Credit: Public Domain

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 Blackbeard’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.

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

A Bahamas stamp showing the legendary Blackbeard the Pirate – most famous pirate of the Caribbean, circa 1980.

Image Credit: Sergey Goryachev / Shutterstock

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.

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

Over time the element of surprise and the superior training of the marines began to tell as the pirates were killed and pushed back, even though they were ferocious fighters.

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.

Sarah Roller