Blackbeard’s End, the Death of America’s Most Famous Pirate

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On November 22 1718 (1), Edward Teach (2), better known as Blackbeard, died in combat off the coast of Ocracoke Island North Carolina. Relatively few people know the strange circumstances surrounding Blackbeard’s death, or that at the time of his death he was not a pirate or even technically a criminal. Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia had no legal rights to send an armed expedition into North Carolina territory to kill Edward Teach, a man who had been granted a pardon for his crimes.

Retirement

It was not long after the blockade of Charles Town that Teach sought retirement similar to the way his former mentor Hornigold had done in the Bahamas the year previously. For unknown reasons retirement in the Bahamas did not suite Teach however, so he chose to look for another place that might accept his surrender and grant him amnesty.

The real reason why Teach did not want to retire to the Bahamas will probably never be known, but if Captain Charles Johnson was correct in his biography of Blackbeard, there is perhaps something of an answer that can be guessed at. The Bahamas had recently gotten a new governor in the person of Woodes Rogers, a former privateer captain from Bristol England, if Teach, who was about the same age as Rogers came from Bristol as Johnson claimed, then it is possible that the two men knew each other and that some sort of bad blood might have existed, causing Teach not to trust his chances in Rogers’ colony. Instead he chose to look further north for a colony that would accept him.

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 crew mates 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 unconfirmed 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 indication that Teach threatened any of them or committed any crimes against them or their property.

Alexander Spotswood

Alexander Spotswood, the governor of Virginia from 1710 to 1722, was not a man who had any patience for pirates. The economy of Virginia relied upon sea trade, and pirates threatened to disrupt that economy. Thus it is not surprising that Governor Spotswood was uneasy about having a famous pirate, retired or not, living just down the coast from his colony. In early 1718, many months before Teach had given himself up to Governor Eden in North Carolina, Spotswood had begun laying the groundwork for offensives against pirates in Virginia. When rumors surfaced that Blackbeard might have returned to the sea as a pirate Governor Spotswood saw his chance to act.

This seemed a perfect situation for Spotswood, one in which he could not hope but to come out ahead. It would show the Virginia House of Burgesses, with whom the governor had perennial problems, that he was willing and capable of protecting the colonies shipping interests. Additionally, the law said that a pardoned pirate got to keep his booty, but if that pirate was caught in the act of piracy, or hunted down for his crimes, then the government got to keep any treasure found. In effect Spotswood could line his pocket and make himself look good at the same time.

All Governor Spotswood needed now was a plan and some men to help him. A couple of royal navy captains offered to help him at the first mention of pirate hunting and they quickly came up with a plan to send two forces into North Carolina territory, one overland to Bath Town, where they expected to find Blackbeard, and another by sea, also headed to Bath Town after first clearing out any “pirates” hanging around Blackbeard’s old base on Ocracoke Island. This seabourn expedition would be carried out on two sloops requisitioned by the governor, and lead by First Lieutenant Robert Maynard. It must be stressed that Governor Spotswood had no proof that Teach had actually returned to piracy, and had no jurisdiction what so ever in North Carolina in any case. Despite these shortcomings, Spotswood went ahead with his plan, sending Maynard out of harbor on November 17, 1718.

The Final Battle

When Robert Maynard got to Ocracoke island, he was surprised to find that Blackbeard was there on the ship that he legally owned. The sloops were flying the colors of the royal navy, and from his subsequent actions it can be seen that Teach had no illusions as to why they were there, he immediately took charge of the ship in Ocracoke inlet and prepared for battle.

Captain Johnson’s biography speaks of a long exchange of conversation between Teach and Maynard as the ships closed upon one another, but this seems unlikely. Angus Konstam tells us that Maynard’s version of the dialogue is short and to the point “At our first salutation he [Blackbeard] drank damnation to me and my Men, whom he stil’d Cowardly Puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take Quarter”.

As the ships began to maneuver into position for a battle, Maynard’s two sloops almost immediately ran aground in the treacherous shallows of Ocracoke inlet. Teach knew the channels and sandbars of those waters, and this gave him an advantage. The tide was coming up, however, and it did not take the crew of the sloop Maynard was on long to get their ship afloat again, the second sloop would stay grounded for the entire battle.

Although Maynard’s sloop was not delayed long, it was delayed long enough for Teach’s ship to move into a good firing position. Teach order the cannons fired and grapeshot scoured the deck of the sloop, killing or injuring many of Maynard’s men that were there. After raking the deck, Teach and the ‘pirates’ on his ship boarded the sloop hoping to finish off the wounded and dying royal seamen. Maynard had hidden the majority of his men below decks however, and when the Teach and his mates came on board these men swarmed up to the attack. Far from simply dispatching a few wounded men Teach found his forces nearly evenly matched and in a desperate fight for their lives.

There are conflicting reports about how Edward Teach met his end, the most common one being that Teach, wounded from many cutlass slashes and pistol shots, fought a personal duel with Robert Maynard for a time, and then stepping back to take another shot with a pistol, his wounds overcame him and he collapsed upon the deck, where upon Maynard cut his head off. According to Angus Konstam, a newspaper of the day gave a different account:

“one of Maynard’s men being a Highlander, engaged Teach with his broad sword, who gave Teach a cut on the neck, Teach saying well done lad; The Highlander replied, If it be not well done, I’ll do better. With that he gave him a second stroke which cut off his head, laying it flat on his shoulder”.

However it happened, the great Blackbeard had met his match, and Maynard took his head as a trophy back to Virginia.

Was it Justified

Although the evils he perpetrated as a pirate had been well documented, Edward Teach had received amnesty from the colony of North Carolina, and a royal pardon through the auspices of Governor Eden. There is no proof that he had returned to piracy, at the time that Governor Spotswood sent armed men to kill him. The plan that the governor came up with, and the course of action that he undertook can in no way be construed as legal by any definition of the term.

Notes

1. 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.

2. 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 article will use Teach in deference to tradition.