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Sunday, September 12, 2010
What amazes me about Blackbeard is that he became a legend in his own time. He awed Benjamin Franklin. At the time of Blackbeard’s death, 1718, Ben was twelve years old and apprenticed to his brother, a printer, who lived in Boston. Reading the type he set, Ben learned of Blackbeard’s death in the Battle of Ocracoke Inlet, and wrote a poem, which he printed, about the battle. In his autobiography, (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Frank Woodworth Pin, Garden City N. Y., 1916, p.23), Franklin laughed about trying to sell the poem on the streets of Boston and reflected that he “escaped being a poet, most probably a very bad one.”
Benjamin Franklin is one of my heroes. If Blackbeard caught his imagination, I wanted to find out more about this pirate, especially since I know his hide-out, Ocracoke, well and his character fit my story.
His choice of Ocracoke as a hide-out shows his intelligence because of its surrounding shoals and its fresh water. The shifting shoals surrounding the Outer Banks made navigation difficult, enabling him to elude the authorities and takeover ships, whose crews were unfamiliar with the channels, by running them aground or sinking them in the strong currents. Blackbeard needed fresh water readily available at Silver Lake, which eliminated his need to go inland. Silver Lake is navigable directly from Pamlico Sound, not far from the Atlantic Ocean, via Ocracoke Inlet.
His real name wasn’t Edward Teach (which has several spellings). The name was a pseudonym he used, presumably to protect his family back in Bristol, England. No one knew his real name. The year of his birth, 1680, is merely an estimate since documentation of his birth is nonexistent. His family couldn’t have been poor since Blackbeard was apparently articulate and literate. He corresponded with governors and merchants, entertained Tobias Knight, who held the positions of North Carolina’s Secretary of the Colony, Collector of Customs and Chief Justice. Blackbeard kept captain’s journals, which no longer exist. He communicated and managed his uneducated crew, proving he dealt equally well in the company of the rich and the poor. His skills in navigation were evident through his exploits. As a captain, he had the foresight to keep a physician on board to treat his crew.
Blackbeard served his apprenticeship as a privateer, monarch-sanctioned pirating of Spanish enemy ships in the War of the Spanish Succession, more commonly known as Queen Anne’s War. Through privateers, Spain helped to finance England’s war costs. The English monarchy took about one ninth of the bounty from privateers while the privateers eliminated Spanish ships. Privateering was a win-win situation for England, but after the war, the crown reversed its policy, no longer sanctioning privateers, and those who kept up the practice became outlaw pirates. Most headquartered in Free Town, in what is now Nassau.
The pirate life in the Caribbean appealed to many young men, consisting of rum, music and women (and resulting in STDs, which I will return to shortly). During these enjoyable years, he developed the fear-based persona of Blackbeard, much like today’s PR experts creating brand names, calculated to boost his reputation. This persona enabled him to capture ships without loss of life, manage a crew that multiplied to over three hundred spread among three ships, and in the end, cost him his life.
He invented, what we now call, a grenade, but one that mostly produced smoke, allowing him to board ships while their crews were blinded, almost like a magician. Enhancing his persona, he grew his beard long, sometimes tying candles or threading fuses through it and lighting them. He looked crazy.
His blockade of Charleston’s harbor and hostage-taking forced the monarchy’s government to capitulate to his demands, which were medicines to treat his sickly crew and those infected by STDs. This single incident boosted his reputation so much, the authorities, especially the Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, put him on the precursor of American’s Most Wanted list.
Blackbeard knew his days were numbered. He sank his flagship and man of war, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, in Beaufort Inlet (the wreck has been discovered), discharging the crew and cutting his responsibilities by one third. He kept The Adventure, a smaller and more easily maneuvered ship for sailing on Pamlico Sound. Settling in Bath N. C., he obtained a pardon for his pirating, which the English Crown had extended several times but Blackbeard had failed to garner. He took his fourteenth wife (he took marriage vows casually), supposedly settled down and became friendly with people in power.
Spotswood would buy none of Blackbeard’s new façade. In an act later protested by North Carolina’s Governor Eden, Spotswood sent two ships to Ocracoke, a location outside of his jurisdiction, to kill an unsuspecting and pardoned Blackbeard. Before the fight, Blackbeard was attributed as having said, “Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarter or take any from you.” Blackbeard died in the fight, suffering from five pistol shots at close range and over twenty knife cuts, two of which were fatal. His severed head hung in Hampton, VA harbor, now Hampton Roads, as a warning to those defying Spotswood’s authority and as proof for the reward given to his henchmen. Ironically, the crown later pardoned one of Blackbeard’s condemned men.
For more information about Blackbeard, read Blackbeard The Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times by Robert E. Lee, Dean and Professor of Law Emeritus, Wake Forest University, John F. Blair, publisher, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1974.