Blackbeard: The History of the Pirate’s Last Days- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
July / August 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

(Illustration by Yuta Onoda)

The Last Days of Blackbeard

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Virtually all of these pirate materials—as well as the works of Robert Louis Stevenson—are inspired by Blackbeard’s circle of pirates, who shared a common base in the Bahamas, and were active for a very brief period: 1713 to 1720 or so. Despite the brevity of their careers, many of these pirates’ names have lived on through the ages: Sam Bellamy of Whydah fame, the female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, the gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet, the flamboyantly dressed Calico Jack Rackham, the bombastic Charles Vane and, of course, Blackbeard himself.

Part of the reason for their fame is the success they enjoyed. At their zenith, in late 1717, Blackbeard and his Bahamian associates had disrupted the trans-Atlantic commerce of three empires and even had the warships of the Royal Navy on the run. They were threatening colonies, occupying smaller ones at will and burning and blockading the larger ones. The governor of Bermuda expected an invasion at any time. The governor of Pennsylvania feared they would come burn Philadelphia. The lieutenant governor of the British Leeward Islands colony effectively found himself under house arrest for several days when Sam Bellamy’s men took over the island of Virgin Gorda for a few days of recreation and debauchery. The captain of the frigate HMS Seaford abandoned his patrol of the same colony on the rumor that pirates were near because he feared his ship would be captured. It was a genuine concern: Bellamy, Blackbeard and other pirates not only piloted ships every bit as large and well-armed as the 22-gun Seaford, but the pirates also had far greater manpower, which was a critical advantage in boarding actions.

Their success was largely because of the pirates’ sanctuary, a fortified base at Nassau, once and future capital of the Bahamas. Britain had lost control of this colony during the War of Spanish Succession, which ended for Britain in 1713, and during which the French and Spanish sacked Nassau twice. After the war, the pirates took over this failed state before Britain got around to it, shoring up Fort Nassau and brokering a black market trading network with unscrupulous English merchants at Harbour Island and Eleuthera, two Bahamian islands 50 miles northeast. From this well-defended and supplied position, the pirates could spring out into the Florida Straits—a major seaway that, due to the prevailing winds, most Europe-bound ships were compelled to use—capture prizes and quickly carry them back to the safety of their base.

The Bahamian pirates were unlike most other pirates before or since in that they engaged in more than simple banditry. Most of them—Blackbeard included—were former merchant and naval sailors who thought themselves engaged in a social revolt against shipowners and captains who’d made their prior lives miserable. Bellamy’s crew members referred to themselves as Robin Hood’s men. “They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference,” Bellamy once told a captive. “They rob the poor under the cover of law...and we plunder the rich under the cover of our own courage.”

There was also a democratic spirit aboard the pirates’ ships, an unusual development six decades before Lexington and Yorktown, more than seven ahead of the storming of the Bastille. Upon seizing a vessel, the pirates turned its government upside down. Instead of using whips and beatings to enforce a rigid, top-down hierarchy, they elected and deposed their captains by popular vote. They shared their treasure almost equally and on most ships didn’t allow the captain his own cabin. “They were very shrewd in the way they reorganized their ships to limit the captain’s power,” says maritime historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh. “There was a real social consciousness at work there.”

***

Blackbeard was likely one of the first pirates to come to Nassau after the end of the War of Spanish Succession. He was probably one of the 75 men who followed the Jamaican privateer Benjamin Hornigold to the ruined town in the summer of 1713, and whose early exploits were documented by the governor of Bermuda and even received attention in the American colonies’ only newspaper, the Boston News-Letter. The war was over, but Hornigold’s gang continued attacking small Spanish trading vessels in the Florida Straits and isolated sugar plantations in eastern Cuba. Operating from three large open sailing canoes called periaguas, in just eight months the gang pulled in plunder worth £13,175, a staggering fortune at a time when a naval sailor made only about £12 a year. Nine months later their haul had grown to £60,000, several times the annual income of Britain’s wealthiest noblemen. They soon drove the last authority figures out of the Bahamas and traded their periaguas for large, nimble sloops-of-war, which extended their range as far north as New England and south to the Spanish Main.

In the fall of 1715, Nassau’s pirate population grew from dozens to hundreds after an early hurricane wrecked the annual Spanish treasure fleet on the nearby beaches of Florida, scattering bodies and gold coins across what has since been called the Treasure Coast. At year’s end, Henry Jennings, another former Jamaican privateer, arrived in Nassau with £87,000 in recovered Spanish treasure. Prostitutes, smugglers, escaped slaves and adventure-seekers flowed into Nassau, which expanded into a city of huts and tents, an open-air Las Vegas and tropical Deadwood rolled into one.

Blackbeard first appears in the historical record in early December 1716, when he was Hornigold’s lieutenant and in charge of his own eight-gun, 90-man pirate sloop. (The pirates were apparently preparing a feast: They relieved a Jamaica-bound brigantine of its beef, peas, oysters and other foodstuffs before releasing it and the captain to tell the tale to authorities in Kingston.) Of his life before then we still know very little. He went by Edward Thatch—not “Teach” as many historians have said, apparently repeating an error made by the Boston News-Letter. He may have been from the English port of Bristol (as the General History says), where the name Thatch appears in early 18th-century census rolls that I scrutinized in that city while researching Republic of Pirates. During the war, he probably sailed aboard Hornigold’s privateering vessel, and he was known to merchants as far away as Philadelphia, where he had sailed as “a mate from Jamaica,” the commercial hub of the British Caribbean. The only eyewitness description—that of former captive Henry Bostock, originally preserved among the official papers of the British Leeward Islands colony—describes him as “a tall Spare Man with a very black beard which he wore very long.”

Despite his infamous reputation, Blackbeard was remarkably judicious in his use of force. In the dozens of eyewitness accounts of his victims, there is not a single instance in which he killed anyone prior to his final, fatal battle with the Royal Navy. “I haven’t seen one single piece of evidence that Blackbeard ever used violence against anyone,” says Trent University historian Arne Bialuschewski, who unearthed several forgotten accounts by captives and others in the archives of Jamaica in 2008. Imperial authorities and allied newspapers, Bialuschewski says, “created this image of Blackbeard as a monster.”

Thatch’s first fully independent command came under unusual circumstances. In late August 1717, an unfamiliar vessel came into Nassau Harbor, its rigging, hull and crew bearing the scars of battle. When the captain showed himself, Nassau’s pirates must have gasped. He was clad in a fine dressing gown, patched with bandages, and spoke and carried himself like a gentleman and a landlubber, both of which he turned out to be. This was Stede Bonnet, the 29-year-old scion of a wealthy Barbados family of sugar planters who built his own armed sloop, hired a crew of 126 and ran away with them to start a life of piracy—an account that I recently confirmed in the letters, now in Britain’s National Archives, of an 18th-century Royal Navy captain. Why Bonnet did so is unclear—he had no maritime experience and three small children at home—but the author of the General History claimed he suffered from “a disorder of his Mind” caused “by some discomforts he found in a married state.” On arrival on the American seaboard, he’d foolishly engaged a Spanish warship, losing a third of his crew, suffering serious injury himself and barely escaping capture.

Bonnet sought sanctuary among Nassau’s pirates; they complied, but turned command of Bonnet’s sloop, Revenge, to Edward Thatch. When Thatch set sail a couple of weeks later, Bonnet remained lodged in his book-lined captain’s cabin, barely able to leave his bed on account of his injuries. He would remain there as Thatch led one the most dramatic and attention-grabbing piracy operations the American colonists had ever seen.

In battle, he cultivated a terrifying image. According to the (often unreliable) General History, he wore a silk sling over his shoulders on which were “three braces of pistols, hanging in holsters like bandoliers.” Under his hat he tied lit fuses, dangling some of them down the sides of his face so as to surround it with a halo of smoke and fire, making him “look more frightful” than “a fury from Hell.”

Merchant crews would take one look at this apparition and the army of wild men around him bearing cutlasses, muskets and primitive hand grenades and invariably surrender without firing a shot. It was during this cruise that Thatch’s victims began referring to him as Blackbeard, as documented in merchants’ letters now housed in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Over the first three weeks of October 1717, Blackbeard terrorized the approaches to the Chesapeake Bay, Philadelphia and New York Harbor, never staying more than 48 hours in one place. He captured at least 15 vessels, becoming the most feared pirate in the Americas practically overnight. Traumatized captains poured into Philadelphia and New York with tales of woe: cargoes thrown into the sea; pirates leaving vessels and their crews to run aground after hacking down their masts and cutting loose their anchors; an entire cargo of indentured servants whisked away, perhaps because they wanted to join the pirates’ ranks as so many other members of captured ships did. “Pirates...now Swarm in America and increase their numbers by almost every Vessel they take,” Philadelphia merchant James Logan wrote a friend in London after Blackbeard’s raids. “If speedy care be not taken they will become formidable...and [they] know our govern[men]t can make no defence.”

Throughout his career, Blackbeard stayed one step ahead of his adversaries, and by the time military authorities had been alerted, he, the Revenge and his two prize sloops were well offshore and halfway to the far eastern Caribbean. There he would capture the ship that made him a threat not just to merchant vessels, but also to naval frigates and colonial capitals.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus