The Last Days of Blackbeard

An exclusive account of the final raid and political maneuvers of history’s most notorious pirate

(Illustration by Yuta Onoda)
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No eyewitness accounts of the initial meeting between Blackbeard and Eden have survived, but it must have gone well. Eden was a wealthy English nobleman who governed an impoverished colony spread out over what was literally a backwater: vast tracts of pestilent, low-lying cypress forests pierced by sluggish, tea-colored creeks, inlets and swamps. Most of its approximately 20,000 colonists were penniless and outnumbered by aggrieved Indians who, just six years before, had nearly wiped Bath and the rest of the colony from the map. Blackbeard’s men wanted a pardon—one to include even their blockade of Charleston—and they offered the colony something in return. First, with their arrival, the population of Bath nearly doubled, and the newcomers were armed combat veterans, men who could help defend the settlement if war resumed with the Indians or anyone else. Second, they had money and the means and inclination to bring in more, so long as Governor Eden refrained from asking too many questions about where it came from. In the end, Eden granted all of them a pardon and, later, legal title to the sloop they’d arrived in.

Blackbeard and several of his men settled in Bath, building homes and leading what might appear at a distance to be honest lives. Blackbeard even married a local girl, a fact that reached the ears of Royal Navy officers in nearby Virginia, who noted the development in their dispatches to London. But in reality the pirates were intent on slipping down the creek and into the open sea to prey on vessels passing up and down the Eastern Seaboard or to and from Chesapeake Bay. As later court testimony reveals, they set up a camp on Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, where they could sort their plunder, repacking it for transshipment and sale back in Bath. It was the perfect arrangement: a new Nassau, only better in that it had a sovereign government and therefore, the pirates might well have assumed, not subject to British invasion.

Blackbeard started small at first, “insulting and abusing the masters of all trading sloops and taking from them what goods or liquors he pleased,” according to one witness. But in August he and his gang took the Spanish sloop far out to sea in search of foreign vessels whose crews would be unlikely to be able to identify them. On the morning of the 24th, they captured the Rose Emelye and the Toison d’Or, or “Golden Fleece.”

True to form, Blackbeard’s men terrorized the Frenchmen, but did them no harm. According to mate Pierre Boyer’s account—recently found by Daniel in the city of Nantes—they tied up the five crewmen and kept them aboard the pirate sloop, while armed men strip-searched the rest for valuables. Pleased with the Rose Emelye’s cargo—180 barrels of sugar and hundreds of bags of cocoa—they transferred the crew to the Toison d’Or and “ordered them to make without delay” for France or Blackbeard would burn their ship. In parting, the pirates told the crew that if the extra vessel had not been available “they would have thrown them into the sea”—the nearest reference to “walking the plank” ever found in connection to the golden age pirates.

Blackbeard brought Rose Emelye back to Ocracoke. While his crew began unloading its cargo and storing it in tents on the beach, he set off in a small boat bearing presents for Bath authorities: sweetmeats, loaf sugar, chocolate and some mysterious boxes. Arriving at midnight at the home of Tobias Knight, North Carolina’s chief justice and His Majesty’s customs collector, he was welcomed inside and stayed, eyewitnesses later testified, “till about an hour before the break of day.” When he emerged —without the gifts—he headed back to Ocracoke. A day later, Governor Eden granted him full salvage rights to the French ship, which Blackbeard alleged to have found abandoned at sea. Meanwhile a large parcel of sugar found itself into Knight’s barn, hiding itself under a pile of hay.

Blackbeard may have had Eden in his pocket, but the lieutenant governor of Virginia was another matter. Alexander Spotswood had been keeping tabs on Blackbeard for months, even sending spies into North Carolina “to make particular inquiry after the pirates.” Merchants had bombarded him with complaints about Thatch, but when he learned of the Rose Emelye incident, Spotswood later wrote, “I thought it necessary to put a stop to the further progress of the robberies.” He didn’t have the authority to send an expedition into another colony, but Spotswood was not one to be constrained by legal and ethical niceties. Legislators were already working to have him thrown out of office for various power grabs and for squandering tax revenue on Williamsburg’s fantastically opulent new Governor’s Palace. Through blind trusts he would ultimately give himself 85,000 acres of public land, an area that came to be known as Spotsylvania County. He contacted the captains of the two naval frigates at anchor in Hampton Roads and hatched an audacious and illegal plan to wipe out the fearsome pirate.

Not knowing if Blackbeard would be in Bath or on Ocracoke, the naval captains launched a two-pronged invasion of their southern neighbor. One led a contingent of armed men overland on horseback, arriving at Eden’s house in Bath six days later. The other dispatched 60 men under Lt. Robert Maynard in two small, unarmed sloops Spotswood had provided. They arrived at Ocracoke five days later. Blackbeard’s sloop was anchored there.

The following morning, Lieutenant Maynard’s men attacked. Blackbeard’s crew of 20 had spent the night drinking and might have been surprised at anchor, had one of Maynard’s sloops not run aground coming into the anchorage. By the time the naval sailors got their small vessel free, Blackbeard had gotten his sloop underway and greeted them with a broadside that killed or injured many. But as the pirates sailed for open water, a musketball severed a halyard on their sloop, causing a sail to drop and a critical loss in speed. The second sloop—Lieutenant Maynard’s—caught up to them, only to receive another broadside of deadly grapeshot and a salvo of hand grenades. In seconds, 21 members of Maynard’s crew were killed or wounded. Staring down at the smoke-veiled carnage, Blackbeard concluded the battle had been won. He ordered his sloop to come alongside Maynard’s sloop, so his men could take control of it. Blackbeard was the first to step aboard, a rope in his hands to lash the vessels together.

Suddenly: chaos. Maynard and a dozen uninjured sailors rushed up from the hold where they had been hiding and engaged the pirates in hand-to-hand combat. In a scene that would inspire many Hollywood movies, the dashing naval lieutenant and the arch-pirate faced each other with swords. In the end, Blackbeard’s men were overwhelmed, and the pirate fell to the deck “with five shot in him, and 20 dismal cuts in several parts of his body,” according to Maynard. The second sloop arrived to overwhelm the rest. Maynard returned to Virginia with 14 prisoners (nine white and five black). Blackbeard’s head was strung up from his bowsprit.

The controversy over the invasion helped bring down Spotswood, who was deposed in 1722. Although Eden was cleared of wrongdoing, his reputation never recovered from his dealings with Blackbeard. He died from yellow fever on March 17, 1722. “He brought the country into a flourishing condition,” his tombstone reads, “and died much lamented.”

Blackbeard had no grave at all. His body was thrown into Pamlico Sound, his head given as a trophy to Spotswood, who had it displayed on a tall pole in Hampton Roads, at a site now known as Blackbeard’s Point. But while the governors have both been all but forgotten, the pirate has lived on, more famous in death than ever he was in life.

The Nassau pirates were self-interested, to be sure, but their idealistic way of organizing themselves, sharing their plunder and settling scores with social betters made them heroes to many common people throughout Britain’s empire. The example they set—choosing to live a dangerous but free life over one of stability and servitude—has proven a captivating one, and the new archival and archaeological discoveries accentuate the incredible (and often unnecessary) risks many of them took, even after being offered a second chance. Many intriguing questions remain unanswered—from the status of former slaves to the origins of principal figures like Blackbeard—but scholars hope the answers are out there, in long-forgotten documents at French, Spanish and Caribbean archives, or beneath shifting sands at the bottom of the sea.


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