Blackbeard: The History of the Pirate’s Last Days- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 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 2)

On November 17, 1717, Blackbeard’s flotilla intercepted the French slaver La Concorde in the open ocean approaches to the Windward Islands. The ship was formidable: At nearly 250 tons it was as big as most of the Royal Navy frigates stationed in the Americas and had enough gun ports to accommodate 40 cannons. But the ship was in no condition to resist the pirates. Sixteen crewmen had died in the eight-month journey from France and Africa, and most of the survivors were stricken with “scurvy and the bloody flux,” according to accounts by their officers unearthed in Nantes in 1998 by Mike Daniel. Most of La Concorde’s cannons had been left in France to make room for an oversize cargo of 516 slaves chained below decks. Unable to outrun Blackbeard’s swift sloops, Capt. Pierre Dosset surrendered without a fight.

For Blackbeard, it was the perfect pirate ship. “Slavers had all the right elements: They were large, extremely fast and could carry a lot of armament,” says Daniel. “They could be easily converted to a large, totally open, flush deck that could house many people and allow them to easily move around during a boarding action.” Blackbeard brought the ship to a remote anchorage where his crew refitted her as a pirate frigate, renaming her Queen Anne’s Revenge. They kept food and valuables, of course, but what of her human cargo?

Pirate vessels were among the few places in European America where slaves could free themselves. A remarkable number of pirates were of African origin, according to accounts of captives and pirates brought to trial. There were more than 30 Africans in Bellamy’s crew, and in the months after capturing the Concorde, witnesses would report as many as 70 serving with Blackbeard. “Most of these black sailors on pirate ships were not slaves,” Rediker, who has studied both the pirates and life aboard slave ships, told me recently. “We have an account of a group of rebellious slaves on one of the islands rowing offshore to join a pirate ship. And the pirates knew they could count on them to be totally committed and to fight to the end, because their only other option was a life of plantation slavery.”

But not everyone was seen as a potential recruit. Of the 455 slaves who were still alive when Blackbeard intercepted Concorde, all but 61 were given back to Captain Dosset, along with a small sloop, which he used to ferry them back to Martinique to be sold at auction. How it was decided which people were crew and which were cargo remains a mystery, beyond the lucky minority being able-bodied males. What is known is that a substantial number of black people would remain within Blackbeard’s inner circle until the day he died.

***

With the Queen Anne’s Revenge at the center of his flotilla, Blackbeard raced up the Lesser Antilles, the island chain ringing the outer arc of the Caribbean like a string of pearls, leaving fear and destruction in his wake, events described in the testimonies of some of those he held captive and the letters of the colonial officials whose islands he terrorized. He set fire to part of Guadeloupe Town, burned a fleet of merchant vessels in the shadow of the British fort on St. Kitts and caused the governor of the Leeward Islands to abandon a tour of his colony aboard HMS Seaford for fear the frigate would be captured. Blackbeard and his crew repaired to St. Croix, burning an English sloop for amusement, and sailed for Puerto Rico, where, in early December, they learned shocking news from the captain of a merchant sloop they’d seized.

King George I had decreed that any pirate who surrendered to a British governor by September 1718 would be pardoned for all piracies committed before January 5, and could even keep his plunder. The day before, Blackbeard and the 400 other men in his fleet had thought they had already taken an irrevocable step into criminality and rebellion. Now they could consider the possibility of a second chance. What Blackbeard did next reveals a great deal about his character.

Until recently, nobody knew exactly what that was. The great pirate vanished from British records for the next three months, last seen continuing westward toward Cuba. Spanish merchants spoke of a pirate known only as “the Great Devil” stalking the Gulf of Mexico in a ship filled with “much treasure.” A London newspaper reported Blackbeard and Bonnet had that winter been seen around the Mexican gulf port of Veracruz, hunting for “a galley called the Royal Prince” and the 40-gun HMS Adventure, which at the time was the most powerful Royal Navy warship in the Western Hemisphere. Was there any truth to these sensational-sounding stories, or had Blackbeard actually gone somewhere to lie low until he figured out the safest way to receive the king’s pardon?

It turns out these rumors were accurate. Working in the British archives after my book was published, I found the papers of Capt. Thomas Jacob of the HMS Diamond, whose task that winter was to escort the Royal Prince, flagship of the South Seas Company, to Veracruz. The papers—handwritten and stitched into a leather-bound folio by 19th-century archivists—include depositions from merchant captains describing how Blackbeard had cleverly captured their vessels in the Bay Islands off Honduras by anchoring innocently nearby and seizing officers after they naively rowed over to say hello. One witness, who spent 11 weeks aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, reported that 70 of the 250 crewmen were black and that they all sought to seize the Adventure. Another reported that they “often threatened to take his majesty’s ship the Diamond, as they heard she was weakly manned.” Blackbeard’s intelligence was excellent. Jacob’s letters indicate his warship’s crew had been critically weakened by tropical diseases en route to Veracruz. Blackbeard hadn’t been lying low; he’d doubled-down on piracy, risking everything in an effort to make a massive final score.

It was not to be. Blackbeard never found the frigates or the Royal Prince, probably because he abandoned the search too early. He spent much of February, March and April in the islands off Honduras and Belize, seizing ships filled with wood and molasses, rather than Spanish gold and silver. Indeed, despite capturing a huge number of vessels, his enormous crew had fairly little wealth to show for it. Morale was apparently poor, especially when they ran out of rum for a time. “A damned confusion amongst us!” Blackbeard reportedly wrote in his journal, which was found and remarked on by naval officers after his death and quoted by the author of the General History but has since been lost. “Rogues a plotting [and] great talk of separation.” While he was able to replenish the liquor supply and head off mutiny, he must have been desperate for real treasure.

In the spring, Blackbeard pointed Queen Anne’s Revenge north. His four-vessel fleet dropped into Nassau —perhaps to sell goods—then tried their luck diving among the Spanish treasure fleet wrecks on the nearby Florida coast. In May he made another bold move, blockading the entrance to Charleston’s harbor for six days and capturing every vessel that came or went. I found Charleston’s customs records for these weeks in the British archives. The cargoes he intercepted were useless, mostly barrels of pitch, tar and rice. Improvising, Blackbeard seized passengers instead, sending word to the town that he wished to ransom them. In the end, his crew of 400 left the area with plunder worth less than £2,000. They needed a hideaway, and the creeks and inlets of poor, sparsely populated North Carolina had hideaways in abundance.

What happened next is a matter of scholarly debate. We know that on June 3, 1718, Blackbeard guided his fleet into Topsail Inlet, home to the tiny hamlet of Fish Town, now Beaufort. Bonnet’s Revenge and the fleet’s two other sloops went first, negotiating the narrow, comma-shaped channel to the village. Queen Anne’s Revenge ran hard aground, apparently while under full sail. The pirates tried to get their flagship off the shoal, but only managed to sink one of their sloops in the effort. We know that Blackbeard sent Bonnet away with the Revenge before marooning dozens of his remaining crew on a large sand bank. He then set off in the remaining sloop with his closest crewmen—“forty white men and sixty Negroes”—and all the company’s plunder. One of his captives, David Herriot, later told authorities it was “generally believed the said Thatch ran his vessel a-ground on purpose” to get rid of the riff-raff. Others—including the man who would find the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge nearly 300 years later—think that Blackbeard simply made the best of the situation.

Not all the evidence of Blackbeard lies hidden in archives; it also lies at the bottom of the sea, with the wrecks of his vessels, each an artifact-packed time capsule. Daniel, then working for the salvage firm Intersal, found the remains of Queen Anne’s Revenge one November day in 1996, and with it a treasure trove of physical evidence. There’s the ship itself, which is just as witnesses described it and was equipped with a variety of cannons of mixed English, French and Swedish origin, some of which were loaded when it sank. During his blockade of Charleston, Blackbeard’s most urgent ransom demand had been a chest of medicine; on the wreck, divers found a pewter urethral syringe containing traces of mercury, which in the pirates’ day was used to treat syphilis. Daniel thinks that the wreck’s location shows the grounding was an accident. “He didn’t run right into a bank, he hit the sandbar at the shallowest part as you enter,” he says. “She was just too big to get in there.”

“The Queen Anne’s Revenge was his claim to fame—he was an admiral when he had that,” Daniel continues. “After that he was just a small operator working out of a 35-ton vessel. Why would he have done that to himself?”

***

Crammed aboard their small Spanish-built sloop, Blackbeard and his followers headed for their final sanctuary. The tiny hamlet of Bath, located up a narrow creek from Pamlico Sound a day’s sail from Beaufort, was a frontier settlement. Just over ten years old and comprising fewer than two dozen homes, it had only a hundred residents. But it was also, in effect, the capital of North Carolina, and counted Gov. Charles Eden among its residents.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus