A Fury from Hell—or Was He? | History | Smithsonian
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A Fury from Hell—or Was He?

As underwater archaeologists pull artifacts from what may be the wreck of Blackbeard's flagship, historians raise new questions about the legendary pirate

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It's late May 1718, and the good people of Charles Town, in the colony of South Carolina, are in an uproar. The nearly 20,000 residents of this fledgling, walled city have had their hands full fighting with the Yamasee, Creek and other Indian tribes angered by the spread of rice plantations. And now, this.

Moored just outside the entrance to their harbor and blocking all traffic is a flotilla of four vessels. Three of them are sloops of modest size. But the fourth, the Queen Anne's Revenge, is a true pirate ship. More than 80 feet long, the square-rigger sports three tall masts, a raised quarterdeck at its stern, dozens of cannon ominously poking through its gunports and a deck swarming with some 150 crew. On the deck, a large man with a long black beard curses and rages. Edward Teach, nicknamed Blackbeard, is holding the city hostage. He and his company of some 400 men have waylaid and plundered several ships, capturing the crews and passengers, including some of Charles Town's most prominent citizens. His demand? Deliver a chest of medicine, or he will deliver the prisoners' heads and burn the vessels.

Shortly after capturing them, the pirates herd the prisoners off the Queen Anne's Revenge and shut them in darkness in the hold of a captured vessel. Huddled together, the captives listen in terror for the pirates' footfalls on the wooden deck above, certain that their return will signal death by cutlass, pistol or a toss into the drink.

But it doesn't happen. Within hours, the hatches are opened and the prisoners pulled back on deck. Then, in a manner more befitting a CEO holding an impromptu business meeting than a bloodthirsty madman, Teach calls a delegation of the prisoners into his own cabin on the Queen Anne's Revenge. Calmly, he explains that they were taken off the ship so that the pirates could hold a "general council" to decide on their next move.

It is an odd departure from the anticipated script of mayhem and murder. This episode and others have raised questions about the character of Blackbeard. Blackbeard may not have been the evil cutthroat of popular imagination. The reality is far more complex. He was a master of psychological warfare and intimidation, a charismatic and dramatic personality, a savvy outlaw and, until the very end, perhaps not even a murderer at all. It appears that coastal North Carolinians may have known this all along, celebrating him as a folk hero who stuck a hot poker in the eye of their imperious British overlord.

Within a week, the medicine chest is duly delivered and the prisoners are returned, unharmed except for their pride. The pirates strip them of their fancy duds, and they are "sent ashore almost naked," as South Carolina's governor later complains in an indignant letter to London. Teach's flotilla triumphantly weighs anchor and heads north. But within only a week, the Queen Anne's Revenge lies aground on a sandbar near the entrance to present-day Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina. And within six months, in Ocracoke Inlet, just south of Cape Hatteras, Teach's severed head hangs unceremoniously from the bowsprit of a sloop commanded by British lieutenant Robert Maynard, sent after him into North Carolina waters by the governor of the colony of Virginia.

Everyone who was anyone knew about the villainous exploits of Blackbeard and his crew, especially the tobacco plantation owners and British colonial operatives around Williamsburg, Virginia, and their rice-growing counterparts in Charles Town to the south. Blackbeard's death must have been welcome news to the British investors back in Bristol and London, who were fed up with harassment of their extremely lucrative three-point trade: guns, textiles and other relatively cheap goods exchanged in Africa for slaves, who were then sold to the Colonies and the islands of the West Indies for sugar, rum, tobacco, rice and other commodities.

Blackbeard's demise was little celebrated, however, among the sparse, hardscrabble population of white settlers in the watery frontier wedged between Virginia and South Carolina, an area that one day would become the state of North Carolina. Running along its entire coast is a ribbon of barrier islands cut through by squirrelly, constantly shifting inlets. With no deepwater port, this was a backwater economy. Most of these folks were fishermen, farmers and, on the barrier islands, shipwreck scavengers. It didn't bother them that the planters of Virginia and South Carolina looked down on them.

As the noose tightened on pirates in the other Colonies, it remained loose in North Carolina. Edward Teach was quite at home behind its barrier islands, slipping behind Ocracoke Island to hole up (navigation charts today still identify this stretch as "Teaches Hole") and crossing shallow Pamlico Sound to Bath, the only town of any size in the area. There, he sold coveted goods at well below the British-tax-inflated prices and hobnobbed with residents, perhaps even the governor himself. According to some sources, he married a local woman. In short, Edward Teach became entwined with the region's history.

After his death, his reputation continued to grow. In Boston, a teenage Ben Franklin wrote a "sailor's song, on the taking of Teach (or Blackbeard) the pirate," copies of which he hawked in the streets. Letters from Virginia describing the bloody battle at Ocracoke between Maynard and Teach were published in London papers. Just six years later, in 1724, a massive tome entitled A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates was published in London, detailing the exploits of Teach and his contemporaries. Already, fact was overlapped with myth: Blackbeard tucked slow-burning fuses under his hat when approaching mariners at night, giving him the appearance of the devil (possible); Blackbeard had 14 wives (less likely); Blackbeard's headless body swam several times around his sloop at Ocracoke Inlet before sinking (not likely). And what of Blackbeard's legendary flagship?

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