The Last Days of Blackbeard
An exclusive account of the final raid and political maneuvers of history’s most notorious pirate
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.
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.
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.
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.