This Week in Military History: November 17th – 23rd

This Week in Military History: November 17th – 23rd

November 22nd: The Last Battle of Blackbeard

1736 engraving of Edward Teach.1736 engraving of Edward Teach.

Of all the men and women who terrorized the Caribean Sea during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, none were so feared or as well remembered as the only of them crazy enough to stick lit fuses in his hat. A man who was born Edward Teach (or possibly Thatch) in England but would be remembered by his deeds in America under the descriptive sobriquet Blackbeard. And for two years he struck cold dread in the hearts of mariners all across the West Indies.

Map of the West Indies, late 18th century.Map of the West Indies, late 18th century.

Almost nothing is known of Teach’s early life, although it is believed he was born in the English port city of Bristol (or thereabouts) sometime around the year 1680. As pirates were, for obvious reasons, typically secretive about their pasts and real identities, the first thirty or so years of Blackbeard’s life was probably as mysterious in his own times as it is today (and probably always will be). But he could read and write, indicating he may have come from some level of privilege, and is rumored to have served as a privateer on behalf of the English during Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713).

Part of the ongoing French and Indian Wars of the 18th century, Queen Anne's War was a theater of the larger War of Spanish Succession.Part of the ongoing French and Indian Wars of the 18th century, Queen Anne’s War was a theater of the larger War of Spanish Succession.

Blackbeard began his career of piracy sometime in the year 1716 when he joined the crew of the famed Captain Benjamin Hornigold, a founder of the loosely confederated Republic of Pirates on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. Sometime later that same year, Hornigold put Teach in command of a small, single-masted ship the pirates captured in battle, demonstrating his clear faith and trust in the new recruit. They spent the next year marauding and raiding ships and Blackbeard, though still under the command of Hornigold, began to make a name for himself as a pirate captain in his own right. A third ship, the Revenge captained by Stede Bonnet, joined Hornigold’s little pirate fleet and Blackbeard was eventually given command of her (with the permission of Bonnet who was a less-than-effective pirate and commander).

Stede Bonnet, the "Gentleman Pirate."Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate.”

In 1717, the pirates of Hornigolds ships voted (yes, voted; pirate ships were often run in an oddly democratic manner albeit with slightly more murder and theft) to demote him. A former British privateer, Hornigold only allowed his men to attack ships of other countries. But his crew grew weary of sparing such a large percentage of the trade in the Caribean from their pillaging. Hornigold chose to leave with his own ship, the Ranger, leaving Blackbeard in command of the two remaining ships and their crews. On November 28th of that year, Blackbeard captured a large French slave ship (sometimes called a “guineaman”), refitted it with at least 40 guns, and renamed it Queen Anne’s Revenge.

A 1736 Sketch of Queen Anne's Revenge.A 1736 Sketch of Queen Anne’s Revenge.

With her as his new flagship, Blackbeard’s career of terrorizing the Caribean and southern American colonies really took off. He took numerous prizes, increased his command to several hundred men, and continued to supplement/replace the ships of his small fleet with larger, better armed ones. Those who survived encounters with him described him as terrifying, sporting a thick, braided black beard and smoldering hemp fuses tucked into his hat so his very head seemed to smoke and smolder in battle. But most interesting is the fact that, during all his time marauding, he likely never killed or harmed anyone outside of combat, relying instead on reputation and fear to force merchant ships to surrender their cargo.

A 1725 illustration of Blackbeard.A 1725 illustration of Blackbeard.

By May of 1718 he was referring to himself as a commodore and established an audacious blockade of the American colonial port of Charles Town (today Charleston, South Carolina). After nearly a week of capturing and ransacking any vessel that tried to leave or enter the harbor, Blackbeard let known his demands: medical supplies. With the pirate commodore threatening to kill the prisoners he’d taken (including a member of the Provincial Council of Carolina) and burn all captured ships, the local government agreed to his demands. During this time, Blackbeard learned that an English fleet led by Woodes Rogers, a famed ex-privateer and recently appointed Royal Governor of the Bahamas, was en route to eliminate all pirates in the West Indies.

Painting of Woodes Rogers (far right) and his family by William Hogarth, 1729.Painting of Woodes Rogers (far right) and his family by William Hogarth, 1729.

Blackbeard’s next move was to sail slightly further north to Topsail Inlet (in present day North Carolina) to careen his ships (the difficult and lengthy process of running a ship aground at high tide in order to clean the hull of barnacles and detritus when said tide goes out). Likely done in anticipation of needing his fleet at his fastest and most maneuverable for any potential confrontation with Rogers, it marked the beginning of the end of his piracy. First, Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground on a sandbar that severely damaged her. When his other ships attempted to pull the flagship free via ropes, another sloop ran aground and was also damaged beyond repair. Commodore Blackbeard’s fleet was now reduced to a small sloop and Bonnet’s old ship, Revenge.

Topsail Inlet, North Carolina.Topsail Inlet, North Carolina.

At this point, Blackbeard and his men, including Bonnet, heard of Roger’s public offer of a full pardon to all pirates who gave up their ways and surrendered. Fairly sure that the Governor of North Carolina, Charles Eden, would honor the decree if they went to him for the pardon, Blackbeard urged Bonnet to give it a try before he did himself. Bonnet agreed, turned himself in, received his pardon, and returned to Blackbeard to rejoin his crew and ship. He found Blackbeard and much of the crew gone, the Revenge stripped of provisions and supplies, and the men loyal to him marooned on a nearby island. Some historians theorize that this was Blackbeard’s plan all along, with the wrecking of ships done on purpose, to shrink his grew and increase their shares of future plunder. Bonnet swore revenge but never got it; he soon fell back into piracy, was captured in September 1718, and executed shortly thereafter.

The hanging of Stede Bonnet.The hanging of Stede Bonnet.

Whatever his real reasons for abandoning Bonnet, Blackbeard soon sought his own pardon. In June of 1718 he and his crew arrived in the town of Bath, the then-capital of North Carolina, and received their from Governor Eden. Blackbeard settled in the town and lived there in peace. For about three months. By August he was back to piracy, operating his single sloop, the Adventure, out of Ocracoke Inlet in the Outer Banks. This provoked some condemnation, including a warrant for his arrest issued by the Governor of Pennsylvania, but since he limited his targets to French ships little was done by the colonial or British authorities. Until, that is, he threw a huge party.

Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina.Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina.

Sometime in the fall of 1718 Blackbeard’s old friend, Charles Vane, stopped by Ocracoke for a visit with his ship. Vane, another of the leaders of the former pirate republic, was widely considered one of the most cruel and brutal among them. Their reunion, which greatly blossomed into a several-day bash attended by other famous pirates such as Israel Hands, Robert Deal, and “Calico” Jack Rackham, understandably riled the local authorities. As a result Alexander Spotswood, Governor of Virginia, decided to capture and deal with Blackbeard permanently despite not knowing exactly where the pirate’s regular anchorage was.

Governor Alexander Spotswood.Governor Alexander Spotswood.

When Spotswood learned the location of William Howard, Blackbeard’s former quartermaster (for you land-based military branch types, a quartermaster in maritime services is the person in charge of navigation and steering of a vessel), he had the pardoned private illegally arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. Howard was saved from the noose by a pardon ordered from London, but not before he gave up his former commander’s location. Spotswood sent two contingents of men, selected from the crews of the HMS Pearl and HMS Lyme to capture Blackbeard: one by land, and the other by sea aboard two commandeered civilian sloops (Jane and Ranger). The naval contingent of 57 men was commanded by a 32-year-old Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant Robert Maynard.

Robert Maynard, Royal Navy.
Robert Maynard, Royal Navy.

On November 21st, Maynard and his two ships spotted Blackbeard anchored near Ocracoke Island and set about posting lookouts and blocking the only channel out to sea. His actions went unnoticed by the pirates, who had set no lookouts. Most of the attendees of the large gathering that first raised Spotswood’s ire had left, and about half of Blackbeard’s crew were in nearby Bath with Hands, so only the famed commodore and somewhere between 19 and 25 men remained aboard the Adventure. Thus, the stage was set for the next day’s bloody conflict. It would be Blackbeard’s last.

Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

At dawn, Maynard’s ships entered the channel behind a smaller boat sent ahead to conduct depth soundings. The boat was quickly spotted at the Adventure opened fire. Blackbeard cut her anchor and began to maneuver her so she could fire a full starboard broadside at the approaching ships. Maynard ordered the Union Jack unfurled on both his vessels. The details of what happened next varies from version to version, and one or all of the ships may have run aground at some point, but the key points are agreed upon by all. Adventure managed to get off a broadside that wiped out roughly a third of Maynard’s men, including his second-in-command. The Ranger was completely disabled, leaving just Maynard and the survivors aboard the Jane. Things looked good for Blackbeard and his skeleton crew.

The Adventure engaging Maynard's ships.The Adventure engaging Maynard’s ships.

Hurling grappling hooks and grenades, the pirates boarded Jane and attacked Maynard and a small group of his men clustered near the stern. Blackbeard was probably feeling pretty confident in his victory, and was no doubt completely surprised when the rest of Maynard’s men burst out of the hold where they’d been hiding and opened fire. Surprised and facing far more men than they expected, the pirates fought in desperate hand-to-hand combat against the British sailors. Blackbeard and Maynard ended up facing each other in the melee.

Blackbeard and Maynard face each other in battle in a 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.Blackbeard and Maynard face each other in battle in a 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

After firing their flintlock pistols at each other (and then throwing the empty guns way like in a cheesy pirate movie), they briefly sparred with swords until Blackbeard managed to break Maynards. As this went on, Maynard’s men managed to corner the rest of the pirates in the bow and cut them off from Blackbeard who made one final lunge at Maynard but was stopped by a blow to the neck from a British sailor. Several more of them then set upon the pirate, finally killing him. The survivors of Blackbeard’s crew, seeing their chief dead, surrendered. Blackbeard’s body, which Maynard examined to find it had been shot five times and cut twenty during the battle was beheaded and tossed into the water. The head was hung from the bowsprit of the Jane. The bloody career of history’s most famous pirate was over.

Blackbeard's head hangs from the Jane.Blackbeard’s head hangs from the Jane.

In the aftermath, Lieutenant Maynard no doubt expected his men to be rewarded and his career to blossom. But the prize money ended up being split evenly between the crews of the Pearl and Lyme, the ships that the men of the expedition had been picked from, regardless of the fact that most had not participated. And even those of the land-based contingent had not arrived in time to take part in the battle. Maynard protested the slight, but his complaints were severely undercut when it was discovered he and his men had pilfered some of the booty aboard the Adventure. He remained in the Navy, eventually reached the rank of captain, but had pretty much faded to obscurity by the time of his death in 1751 at age 66. Blackbeard, however, has lived on in legend, in books, on film, as a character in video games, and as pretty much the quintessential image of a Caribbean pirate.

Anchor of the Queen Anne's Revenge.The anchor of Queen Anne’s Revenge off the coast of North Carolina. The wreck was discovered in 1996 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

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