THE STORY OF BLACKBEARD

Guy Channing looks into the story of notorious pirate Edward Teach who, as Blackbeard, struck terror into the hearts of a nation, but asks was he all that he seemed and is popular culture more to blame for his place in history than his reputation?

BRISTOL-born Edward Teach rose from humble beginnings to become the most notorious pirate in modern history.

How he made the transition remains a mystery, as his record as a pirate is in all honesty nothing to shout about.

It appears from popular records that Teach began his career as a privateer, a form of legalised pirate, during Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) between England and France.

This brief taste of legalised mischief seems to have offered the young Teach a chance to better himself. He travelled to New Providence in the Bahamas where he signed on to serve pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold some time around 1716.

He was given command of a sloop, and after showing an almost total disregard for his own safety Teach was put in command of his own ship, a captured French slaver, which he re-named The Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Piracy, even back in the 1700s when the life expectancy of an active pirate was often measured in months, still held a promise of glamour and adventure.

It’s the very reason why the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been so stunningly successful and the characters like Ian McShane’s portrayal of Blackbeard so timeless.

The truth however is very different. To the average pirate, and there were many, the loot was often commercial goods, timber, indigo and sugar.

The profits were small, and by the very nature of the savagery that some pirates employed to collect their gains, the risks were terribly high.

The tales of drunkenness and debauchery associated with the pirate life were often far too real. But drink and fast living were inadequate compensations against a savage broadside or a short drop on a rope.

Teach, or Blackbeard, as he came to be known, was a beast of a man. Tall, broad-shouldered and with a thick dark beard reaching up to his eyes, he was an imposing figure.

Dressed for battle with his pistols in a cross belt and cutlass in hand he took to wearing lit matches under his hat brim which fizzled and smoked as he fought.

All in all he must have cut an intimidating figure, but it was his reputation as a soulless killer that was the most terrifying of all. His infamy spread along the east coast of America, his usual hunting grounds.

In reality he seems to have treated all his captives well, relying on his terrible threats rather than real violence to force captains to hand over their ships.

Blackbeard soon became public enemy number one. In fact for a while he lived a fairly normal domestic life in Bath Town, North Carolina, where he built a house. He also ‘traded’ with the local authorities .

His booty was usually commercial goods, there being few examples of him securing any real treasure. The gold and rubies associated with the high life of piracy evaded him.

On one notable occasion he laid siege to Charlestown, holding the citizens and the town ransom. Time, however, was running out. He had taken a King’s amnesty, but Teach reneged on this promise and went back to sea.

His own legend began to work against him. At times Blackbeard was happy to portray himself as a madman. Tales of him whoring out his own wife and shooting his own crew were rife. Israel Hands – his coxswain – he shot, not as an act of unprovoked spite, but to protect his reputation and to spread fear among his crew.

In 1718 an expedition was launched to finally bring Blackbeard to justice. Two sloops were dispatched under the command of Lt Robert Maynard to hunt him down.

One morning they found Blackbeard’s ship, Adventure, moored on the inland side of Orocoke Island. Blackbeard hailed Maynard, demanding to know who they were.

On finding out it was the law he raised a glass, toasted the King’s men, then vowed to give no quarter. After a crushing broadside the King’s men stormed aboard Adventure.

In the fighting, men hacked each other with cutlass and axe as others fired pistols and muskets at pointblank range.

Maynard eventually singled Blackbeard out. As their duel swung across the deck Maynard’s sword was broken. Blackbeard lunged with a killing stroke but was himself hacked though the neck by one of Maynard’s crew before he was rushed and killed by a group of men.

When Maynard examined the dead pirate’s body he discovered more than 20 sword cuts and five gunshot wounds.

Blackbeard was dead. An era was dead too.

Piracy would rumble along for many years as a thorn in the side of many seafaring nations, but the days when law-abiding mariners took fear in the night were over.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.