For the 18 men aboard the French merchant ship Rose Emelye, the evening of August 23, 1718, was shaping up to be as routine as the 167 that had preceded it since they’d left Nantes. They’d spent the spring following the winds and currents across the Atlantic to tropical Martinique, and much of the summer unloading French cargo and taking on bags of cocoa and barrels of freshly refined sugar. Now they were following the Gulf Stream home in the company of another French merchant ship, La Toison d’Or, sailing just a stone’s throw behind and to leeward. The American mainland had disappeared behind the horizon days before. The next day would raise Bermuda above the horizon, the final waypoint before making landfall in Europe.
Then, as the sun sank low in the sky, someone spotted sails bearing down on their stern.
Over the next three hours the sky grew dark and the vessel drew ever closer. To the Frenchmen’s relief, it was a tiny vessel: a sloop with Spanish lines better suited to shuttling cargo between Caribbean islands than to crossing an ocean. Still, something wasn’t right. What was it doing out here in the open ocean, and why was it on an intercept course with the Frenchmen’s much larger oceangoing merchant ships? As the mysterious sloop overtook them and pulled alongside, they knew they would have answers soon enough.
In the last moments, Capt. Jan Goupil would have seen three cannon muzzles rolled out of gun ports on the tiny sloop’s sides and dozens of armed men crowded on its decks. He ordered his crew of 17 to prepare for action, getting Rose Emelye’s four cannons to the ready. Remove yourselves, Goupil’s mate cried out to the men on the sloop, or we will fire!
On the tiny sloop, a tall, slim man with a long black beard barked out an order. His helmsman threw the tiller hard to lee, men released ropes, and, sails briefly flapping, the strange vessel suddenly swung hard about, shooting by in the opposite direction.
Goupil’s skin may have turned cold. The sloop—the pirate sloop—swept down to the unarmed Toison d’Or. Minutes later the vessels’ wooden hulls came together with a moan. Pirates swarmed over the gunwales and onto the ship’s decks, seizing the crew, perhaps as human shields. The bearded man had fooled him. Now he found himself facing not one attacker but two.
Soon the bearded man was alongside again and his men discharged their cannons. Musket balls flew over Goupil’s head. There was nothing to be done. He turned Rose Emelye into the wind, drifted to a halt and surrendered his command.
Blackbeard, the notorious pirate, had captured two vessels more than twice the size of his own—a feat described here for the first time. He could not have known that these would be the last prizes of his career and that in just three months he and most of his crew would be dead.
Out of all the pirates who’ve trolled the seas over the past 3,000 years, Blackbeard is the most famous. His nearest rivals—Capt. William Kidd and Sir Henry Morgan—weren’t really pirates at all, but privateers, mercenaries given permission by their sovereign to attack enemy shipping in time of war. Blackbeard and his contemporaries in the early 18th-century Caribbean had nobody’s permission to do what they were doing; they were outlaws. But unlike the aristocrats who controlled the British, French and Spanish colonial empires, many ordinary people in Britain and British America saw Blackbeard and his fellow pirates as heroes, Robin Hood figures fighting a rear-guard action against a corrupt, unaccountable and increasingly tyrannical ruling class. So great were these pirates’ reputations—daring antiheroes, noble brigands—that they’ve been sustained ever since, inspiring 18th-century plays, 19th-century novels, and 20th- and 21st-century motion pictures, television shows and pop culture iconography. In his lifetime, Blackbeard—who terrorized the New World and died in a shipboard sword fight with sailors of the Royal Navy—captivated the public imagination like no other. He has never let it go.
And yet Blackbeard’s life and career have long been obscured in a fog of legend, myth and propaganda, much of it contained in a mysterious volume that emerged shortly after his death: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Nobody knows for sure who wrote the book—which was published pseudonymously in 1724—but the General History almost single-handedly informed all the accounts that have come since. Parts of it are uncannily accurate, drawn word-for-word from official government documents. Others have been shown to be complete fabrications. For researchers, it has served as a treasure map, but one that leads to dead ends as often as it does to verifiable evidence, which scholars covet like gold.
In recent years, however, researchers have dug up new evidence, buried in the archives of England, France and the Americas, or beneath the sands of the American coast, allowing them to piece together a fuller and extremely compelling picture of Blackbeard and his cohorts, one that shows him to have been a canny strategist, a master of improvisation, a showman, a natural leader and an extraordinary risk taker. “Researchers are often drifting around without a rudder not sure what pirate stories are real,” says underwater explorer Mike Daniel, president of the Maritime Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida, who found the never-before-published account of the Rose Emelye’s capture buried in the Archives Départementales de Loire-Atlantique in Nantes in 2008. “Then all of a sudden you find documents like these and it’s like finding an island. There are solid facts beneath your feet.”
Many of the discoveries shed light on the final months of Blackbeard’s life, when he executed a series of daring schemes that, for a time, kept him one step ahead of his enemies as the golden age of piracy was collapsing all around him. They go a long way in explaining why a pirate active for, at most, five years has managed to grip the public’s attention for nearly three centuries.
Of late, pirates are everywhere. Disney is planning the fifth installment of its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, while the fourth installment of the multi-billion-dollar Assassin’s Creed video game series is entitled “Black Flag.” (I worked on the game as a script consultant.) And there are two new television series: “Black Sails,” which premiered in January on Starz, and, launching this winter on NBC, “Crossbones,” which features John Malkovich as Blackbeard and is based on my 2007 nonfiction book, The Republic of Pirates.