Oct

21

Blackbeard the PirateWhile spending some time in the Outer Banks of North Carolina I had a chance to read "Blackbeard the Pirate" by Robert Lee, published 1974. Blackbeard often sailed in this area and met his bloody end in Ocacoke inlet at the southern end of the Outer Banks. Born as Edward Teach, he was from Bristol, England, and perhaps from an educated family. He quickly went to sea on an "expedition" to the West Indies. The author argues that at this time in history most sea adventures were mainly plunder activities, which lasted for several years and were often hugely profitable. For example a century earlier, Francis Drake's famous three-year expedition earned 1.5m pounds. In Blackbeard's time, around the turn of the 18th century, ventures would routinely bring back 200,000-800,000 pounds. This alone would be strong incentive to go to sea to seek fortune. In addition, England was constantly at war with either Spain or France and often employed privateers to disrupt enemy shipping. This distinction gave private ships a license to plunder at will enemy ships abroad. Pirates would do the same, though without license, so technically illegal.

The Bahamas at that time was under the authority of the England, but had no rule of law to speak of other than that of the pirate and privateers. They had a semi-democratic system of government, though most disputes were settled by one of the captains, at the tip of a sword. The formed a loose Alliance and called themselves the Brethren of the Coast. While at sea, the Brethren would never attack one another. Outsiders like Spanish or French trading ships were fair game. On land the pirates broke few laws other than drunkenness and small arguments. Blackbeard apprenticed here under another captain and showed all the core traits for a successful pirate. Highest among these was an excellent knowledge of the sea, navigation, and naval combat. He was also ruthless, violent and aggressive in his pursuit of "prizes." After several years, Blackbeard took over one of the captured sloops and command of a crew of 50 men.

Blackbeard cultivated his reputation and was feared across the sea. Many under attack would surrender before shots were ever fired. He was tall, did indeed have a long black beard, carried two pistols and a cutlass, the pirate sword of the day. He would, oddly, burn rolls of hemp strung from his hair to add to the image. Blackbeard enjoyed a decade of successful plundering during the early 1700s. One of his boldest acts was a blockade of the city of Charleston, which he held for ransom. At that time he had four ships under his command. It goes to show how defenseless and lawless the early colonies were. No one was killed in this blockade, and he collected only a small ransom of medical supplies, which apparently were highly valued at the time.

Blackbeard's FlagOften when ships would approach at sea they would fly false colors to confuse the other ship. Most ships carried at least six flags. So it was a dance as they would approach, each knowing the other was trying to deceive and each changing flags as they got closer. Usually it was only within shouting distance that they could identify the other party and know his intentions. For Blackbeard it was an ultimatum: surrender and he would grant quarter; resist and all would be killed.

On land, many of the local economies were based around the pirate trade. Brokers thrived by trading the riches pirates had obtained, often bought at a huge discount. The taverns, brothels and inns catered to pirates. Piracy was accepted as a business activity of the time by the locals, though still not legal. Blackbeard, when on land, was very popular with the fair sex. He was a softy with women and would many times marry as he left port, thought maybe never see his new wife again. He was married sixteen times. Often when a war would end in Europe, the Crown would offer clemency to existing pirates, if they swore an oath to stop their ways.

Blackbeard is believed to have gone into semi-retirement around this time in 1716, near the town of Bath in North Carolina. Though he still took small prizes in his local waters, his major ventures into the West Indies came to an end. However, after several years even these small conquests were noticed by authorities. As a result the governing authority of Virginia sailed south and came into battle with Blackbeard in Ocracoke inlet. After a bloody day, Blackbeard was killed, taking five bullets and dozens of sword wounds. Blackbeard died as he had lived. Virginia took 2200 pounds from his ship. But his real treasure, many times greater, was believed to be buried elsewhere, and is searched for to this day. His reputation and place in history were welled earned. He is deservedly the most famous and successful pirate of his time.

Alan Millhone writes:

In 1985 my late father took my younger brother and me to Normandy to see all the landing points of the D-Day Invasion that our father was a part of in the Signal Corps. One day we took a catamaran from France to Jersey. On the approach, our boat guide told us the fortress we saw ahead at the tip of Jersey was once inhabited by Blackbeard and later by Sir Walter Raleigh as the island's governor. Both men literally lost their heads in their later days.


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