Blackbeard1! Ignoring the fictional pirates like Long John Silver, Captain Hook and Jack Sparrow, this man probably holds the dubious honour of being the most infamous pirate of all time. He has had movies made about his life (eg, Blackbeard the Pirate) and numerous books have been written about him, yet he cultivated most of his notoriety himself during his own lifetime.
Early Life and Fall into Piracy
Edward Teach was born some time around 1680 in Bristol, England. Like many youths from a port city, he likely joined the navy and served during the War of the Spanish Succession2 in 1701 to prevent Spain and France from expanding their colonies. When the war ended in 1714, many ex-sailors turned to piracy to provide an income. The first report of Blackbeard as a pirate came when he became a crew member on the pirate Benjamin Hornigold's ship. Teach obviously excelled as a pirate, because in 1716 Hornigold supplied him with his own command. The pair patrolled the Caribbean for a year until in early 1717, near St Vincent, they captured a French ship, the Concord. Teach took the ship for himself and renamed it Queen Anne's Revenge. Soon after this, the governor of the Bahamas was replaced by a man named Woodes Rogers, who pardoned and then commissioned Hornigold as a privateer. The change obviously did not suit Teach and the pair went their separate ways, with Hornigold leaving to pursue the pirates Charles Vane and Major Stede Bonnet.
Teach fitted out the Queen Anne's Revenge with 40 cannons, making it a powerful warship. Thus when he came across HMS Scarborough, a British Man of War, instead of fleeing Teach gave battle. After fighting for some hours, the captain of the British ship realised he was losing and began to retreat. Instead of pressing the attack, however, Teach let the ship go. On the surface this appeared an act of mercy, but it was actually a much shrewder ploy. As the saying goes, 'dead men tell no tales', and soon afterwards the story was spreading of the pirate who could fight the Royal Navy. Perhaps it was about this time that his famous image started to circulate. Teach received his Blackbeard moniker due to his large black beard and long hair. It is thought that he plaited strips of cannon fuse into the hair, which he lit before a battle so that it would smoke and create a fearsome persona. This, coupled with the large number of loaded pistols he carried, created the image of a powerful, violent man. This devil image worked in his favour, as opposing crew would sometimes surrender on the sight of him.
Captain of the Fleet
In late 1717 or early 1718 Blackbeard met the pirate Major Stede Bonnet. They joined forces but Blackbeard soon realised that Bonnet was a poor sailor. He convinced — probably forced — Bonnet to relinquish the command of his ship the Revenge to one of Blackbeard's lieutenants and to join the crew of Queen Anne's Revenge. The two ships soon captured another and Blackbeard appointed another of his lieutenants, Israel Hands3, to captain this ship, now called the Adventure. The new fleet sailed to Charleston, South Carolina where they stopped and looted every ship leaving the harbour. This created a siege within the harbour walls that was not lifted until a ransom chest of medical supplies was given to Teach. After this, Blackbeard announced his intention to retire from piracy and to seek a pardon. He ran the Queens Anne's Revenge aground and told Bonnet he had command of his old ship the Revenge again, and that he should sail to Bath in North Carolina to gain his own pardon. When Bonnet left, Blackbeard and Israel Hands began to transfer all the loot from the Anne to the Adventure. By the time Bonnet returned with his pardon, he discovered 25 marooned sailors4 and the abandoned Anne. Meanwhile Teach and Hands had sailed off with the loot and the Adventure. Bonnet was, not surprisingly, furious and vowed revenge on Blackbeard for this treachery5.
A Short Retirement, Ocracoke and the End
Blackbeard planned to use the loot for his retirement and also managed to secure a pardon from Charles Eden, the governor of Bath, North Carolina. He settled into Bath town for a while, even getting married officially for the first time6. However, by mid-1718 he was bored of the land life and returned to piracy. In September 1718 Blackbeard spotted the pirate Charles Vane near Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. The meeting of the two pirates and their crews turned into a large, probably rum-fuelled celebration. This celebration went on for a few days and it began to cause rumours. These rumours reached Alexander Spotswood, the Governor of Virginia, who decided something had to be done. He assembled the two Royal Navy vessels HMS Pearl and HMS Lyme and sent them after Teach. The captains7 of the two ships told Spotswood that the ships would not be able to navigate the shallow waters near Ocracoke Island, and so Spotswood personally financed the hiring of two small sailing sloops, the Ranger and the Jane. The two Royal Navy captains took command of these two little ships and set off for Ocracoke.
The captains arrived late in the day on 21 November, 1718 and began the engagement the next morning8. Unfortunately for Maynard and Brand, the two sloops possessed no cannons and Blackbeard used a broadside of his guns to blast Brand's vessel the Ranger out of the battle very early on. Meanwhile Maynard ordered his men below the decks on the Jane and as it came up alongside the Adventure. Teach boarded her, thinking most of the crew had been slaughtered during the approaches. Instead he'd blundered into a trap which just then was sprung: the Jane's crew burst onto the deck and a vicious battle ensued. As it so often happens in the movies, a personal duel between Maynard and Teach began. Initially Teach had the upper hand and severed Maynard's finger with a cutlass blow, but Maynard retired slightly and was able to get off a pistol shot. The bullet hit Teach but it didn't slow his attack. However, by this stage in the fight the Jane's crew had gained the upper hand and they turned on Teach. It is thought that by the time Blackbeard finally fell, he'd received no fewer than five gunshot wounds and at least 20 sword cuts. The final act came when Maynard severed Teach's head and hung it up amid the Jane's rigging, showing all who saw it that the great pirate was dead.
Although he wasn't the richest or even the most successful pirate, Blackbeard created an enduring image that has long outlived him. He has been preserved in history as the typical, vicious, 'evil' pirate, even though compared to many pirates of his day he was not sadistic. Edward Teach wouldn't kill the defenceless or those who had surrendered to him, and it is probable that he created his fearsome appearance and reputation just to make his robberies that little bit easier. In the end you have to grudgingly admire the rogue for being so much larger than life; after all no other 'real' pirate has had a Disney family movie made about them!