Blackbeard, America’s Most Famous Pirate

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Blackbeard or Edward Teach

Asking any school child about Edward Teach (1) will likely result in a blank stare, but ask about him using his pseudonym of Blackbeard and an immediate response will be forthcoming. Everybody knows about Blackbeard, arguably the world’s most famous pirate. Without question Edward Teach is the most notorious pirate to have ever died in what is today the United States of America. This fame is certainly nothing new, when Robert Louis Stevenson, seeking to show the vileness of the fictional Captain Flint wrote that “Blackbeard was a child to Flint.” in 1883 he knew full well that his audience would get the significance of the reference.

The Pirate Life

Little is actually known of his life before he became a pirate captain. In a book published only six years after his death, Captain Charles Johnson says this of Blackbeard’s pre-piracy career:

Edward Teach was a Bristol man born, but had sailed some time out of Jamaica in privateers, in the late French war; yet although he had often distinguished himself for his uncommon boldness and personal courage, he was never raised to any command until he went a-pirating…

Although Captain Johnson might not be the most reliable of sources (he is thought to often have invented dialogues that are implausible in his pirate biographies, for instance), it is a good indication of how little is known about Edward Teach’s life before he turned to piracy.

After he became a pirate however, Blackbeard can, fairly easily, be tracked through the historical records. This is in itself significant, as the vast majority of seafaring men throughout history have passed their lives without a single word written about them, it takes doing something (or many things) that is noteworthy before people begin to write about you. Most of his pirating was done in the Caribbean, but he did a fair bit of work off of the east coast of North America as well. He quickly gained a reputation for ruthlessness and aggression, and there can be no doubt about the severity of the crimes he perpetrated.

Much has been written about Blackbeard’s career as a pirate captain, so only the most cursory of overviews appears here. Something that people often do not realize is that his pirating career was very short, lasting only a couple of years, and while Blackbeard was successful he was not nearly so as some of the other pirates of his time, such as Bartholomew Roberts. The reason for his continuing fame has more to do with public relations stunts, and a carefully cultivated self-image then it does with his success as a pirate.

Edward Teach began his career as a pirate captain in 1716, when another pirate captain, Benjamin Hornigold, put him in charge of a sloop that he had captured. Hornigold took an opportunity to surrender and be pardoned in the Bahamas in 1717, but until that time Teach sailed with him, as a sort of under commander in a flotilla of ships under Hornigold’s overall command. This was a technique that Teach himself would use, after his mentors retirement, often commanding several ships at once.

The richest prize that Teach and Hornigold took together was the Concorde, a large slave ship flying French colors, which Teach took to be his own flagship after renaming it the Queen Anne’s Revenge. After parting company with Hornigold in 1717, Blackbeard (as Teach was now more commonly known) continued to be a scourge of the Caribbean, and began to range more often up the coast of North America. Perhaps his most audacious act of villainy was when he blockaded the harbor of Charles Town (present Charleston) South Carolina and held the city hostage for ten days in May of 1718.

Retirement

It was not long after the blockade of Charles Town that Teach himself sought retirement similar to the way his former mentor Hornigold had done the year previously. In the summer 1718 Edward Teach accepted amnesty from Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina and received an official pardon.

There is no real evidence that he actually preyed upon any ships as a pirate after this point, although he was still known to spend time with former friends and crewmates from his pirating days. It is said that there were rumors that he was still pirating during this period, but whether these rumors had any basis in fact, or were in fact distorted reports of a legal salvage operation that Teach took part in, is open to conjecture.

Discounting unconfirmable rumors, it appears that Edward Teach settled down in Bath Town North Carolina, during this period and gave up his pirating ways. During this time Teach married, and aside from some wild parties appears to have integrated himself into society as a relatively normal member of the community.

While his past history and the parties he threw made his neighbors somewhat wary of him, there is no real indication that Teach threatened any of them or committed any crimes against them or their property. The notorious Blackbeard was not to enjoy a long and happy retirement, however, and he was slain on November 18, 1718 (2).

Notes

1. According to all of my sources Blackbeard’s name is variously given as Teach, Thach, Thatch, Thatche, Tach. Tatche, and many more in the documents of the time, this aticle will use Teach in deference to tradition.

2. November 22 is in the old Julian style calendar that the British were using at the time, using the Gregorian calendar, it would have been December 2.

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