A Fury from Hell—or Was He?- page 5 | 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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This "demon from hell" look is well detailed in the General History. Its description, some of which is corroborated by eyewitness accounts of the time, outdoes anything that Hollywood could invent: "...our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face....This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length...he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails...and turn them about his Ears: In Time of Action, he wore a Sling over his Shoulders, with three Brace of Pistols, hanging in Holsters like Bandaliers; and stuck lighted Matches under his Hat, which appearing on each Side of his Face, his Eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a Figure, that Imagination cannot form an Idea of a Fury, from Hell, to look more frightful." That, and 40 cannon, would be pretty intimidating.

While he provoked feelings of fear and terror among the ships' crews he encountered, he was greeted with a different sort of emotion across the Atlantic. "Not only were the pirates taking property," says Lindley Butler; "they were an affront to the hierarchical, class-based social structure in Britain. I think that burned them back in England as much as the property taking." Butler is referring to the way the pirates organized themselves, which was radical for its time. They elected their captain, quartermaster and other ship's officers; conducted "general consultations" on itinerary and strategy (such as the meeting held aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge in Charles Town Harbor), in which all members of the crew voted; worked out an equitable division of prizes (for example, one share for all but the captain, who got two). This pirate code was written up in articles that each crew member signed upon joining the company. In the articles of pirate Bartholomew Roberts' crew, for example, every detail of shipboard life was covered; there were provisions for the settlement of disputes ("No striking one another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol"); for gambling ("No person to game at cards or dice for money"); for wounds suffered in battle ("If...any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple...he was to have 800 dollars"). "Unlike the Royal Navy, the merchant navy, or indeed any other institutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," notes British historian David Cordingly in his book Under the Black Flag, "the pirate communities were...democracies."

Yet another affront to the British may have been that some pirate ships, perhaps including Teach's, included blacks as members of the company. During the battle at Ocracoke Inlet, Teach told a man named Caesar, one of several blacks on board, that if it looked like Maynard was going to win, he should torch the sloop. It is unlikely, say Butler and Moore, that Teach would have given that task to anyone but a full crew member.

Fifteen pirates were rounded up and taken by Lieutenant Maynard to Williamsburg, Virginia, and tried, but unfortunately the trial transcript was lost, most probably during the Civil War. It is known, however, that in Williamsburg the decision had to be made whether to treat the five black defendants as slaves or to try them as pirates. Pirates it was. In the end, 13 men were convicted and hung.

Of course, Teach himself didn't survive to be tried; he died on the windless early morning of November 21, 1718, after Maynard's two sloops slipped into Ocracoke Inlet, where Teach and his crew were bleary-eyed from a night of carousing. If, indeed, Teach never killed a man prior to this battle—an intriguing thought, although it will never be known for sure—he made up for it here.

Teach had roughly 20 men; Maynard had three times that. But while Maynard had only small arms, cutlasses and pistols, Teach had nine mounted guns on his sloop, the Adventure. When Teach and his crew headed the Adventure into a winding channel, Maynard's sloops ran aground. As Maynard's men worked frantically to free them, Teach's voice bellowed across the water. "At our first salutation," Maynard later reported, "he drank Damnation to me and my Men, whom he stil'd Cowardly Puppies." Once afloat, Maynard's sloops moved toward the Adventure. Maynard was no fool; when Teach's crew fired a broadside of nails and iron scraps from the mounted guns, Maynard had his men hide below to trick him, causing Teach to believe they'd been killed. Then, when Teach's crew pulled alongside and boarded, Maynard's men stormed the deck.

Teach and Maynard engaged in brutal face-to-face combat, swinging their swords as men dropped around them, coating the deck with blood. Maynard's sword bent upon hitting Teach's cartridge box; the lieutenant then shot Teach with his pistol. But the tall pirate captain kept fighting. At this point, as reported in the Boston News Letter in 1719, in the most complete account of the battle, one of Maynard's men jumped in to assist, slashing Teach's neck with his sword. "Well done, lad," Teach said to him. With that, Maynard's man swung the sword through Teach's neck, cutting off his head. When Blackbeard fell, he had five gunshots and 20 cuts in his body. Some 20 lay dead.

"Here was an End of that courageous Brute, who might have pass'd in the World for a Heroe, had he been employ'd in a good Cause," says the General History. "His Destruction, which was of such Consequence to the Plantations, was entirely owing to the Conduct and Bravery of Lieutenant Maynard and his Men." Well, they're not so sure about that in North Carolina's low country; back then, the fortunes of Britain's plantations meant nothing to them. And today, aboard boats passing by a certain shipwreck just outside Beaufort Inlet, more than one bottle of rum has been raised in a toast of damnation to that cowardly puppy Lieut. Robert Maynard.

Contributing editor
Constance Bond wrote in 1998 about Vincent van Gogh, posters, and photographs from the gold rush.

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