Blackbeard's Final Battle
Over the past 3,000 years, pirates have plundered their way across the seven seas. The stories of these outlaws have often captivated the public’s imagination, but out of all the pirates known to history, Blackbeard remains the most notorious of all.
Little is known about the early life of Blackbeard. His real name was most likely Edward Thatch and he is believed to be from the English port of Bristol. While questions remain about his origins, there is no question that during the early-eighteenth century, Blackbeard and other pirates operating out of a fortified base in Nassau, Bahamas, struck fear in the minds of statesmen from the Americas to Europe. In an issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates, writes that in late 1717, Blackbeard and his associates “had disrupted the trans-Atlantic commerce of three empires and even had the warships of the Royal Navy on the run.” While the aristocrats who controlled the British, French, and Spanish colonial empires viewed men like Blackbeard as dangerous outlaws, many ordinary people in Britain and British America saw the pirates as “Robin Hood figures,” fighting against a corrupt and increasingly tyrannical ruling class.
A portrait depicting Blackbeard the pirate. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Blackbeard’s career of plundering the shipping lanes off North America and throughout the Caribbean most likely lasted around five years. During that time, he cultivated a terrifying image of himself in battle. After Blackbeard’s death, a mysterious volume titled, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates was published pseudonymously in 1724. According to this work, Blackbeard wore a silk sling over his shoulders on which were “three braces of pistols, hanging in holsters like bandoliers.” He is also said to have tied lit fuses under his hat, dangling these down the sides of his face to surround it with a halo of smoke and fire. This tactic supposedly made him “look more frightful” than “a fury from Hell.” Woodward notes that parts of the General History “are uncannily accurate,” and that others “have been shown to be complete fabrications.” With that being said, the volume has led scholars to verifiable evidence, but has also caused frustrations by leading to dead ends. Regardless, Woodward writes that the General History has “almost single-handedly informed all the accounts that have come since.”
Despite Blackbeard’s infamous reputation, he was not the monster that Imperial authorities and allied newspapers tried to portray him as. According to Woodward, “In the dozens of eyewitness accounts of his victims, there is not a single instance in which he killed anyone prior to his final, fatal battle with the Royal Navy.” Blackbeard lived a dangerous life and met a violent end, but overall, it’s clear that he was quite judicious in his use of force.
In June 1718, Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the sloop Adventure were shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina. With his fleet in shambles, Blackbeard sent another vessel away before marooning dozens of his remaining crew on a large sand bank. He then set off for the tiny hamlet of Bath in the remaining sloop with his closest crewmen.
An illustration of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
At the time of Blackbeard’s arrival, Bath was just over ten years old and had only a hundred residents. Woodward notes that although small, the young frontier settlement was “in effect, the capital of North Carolina, and counted Gov. Charles Eden among its residents.” Blackbeard met with Eden and the two struck up a mutually beneficial agreement. Just six years earlier, Indians had nearly wiped Bath and the rest of the colony off the map. Blackbeard and his men were armed combat veterans and offered to help defend the settlement against the Indians or anyone else. They also had money and as Woodward writes, Blackbeard’s crew had “the means and inclination to bring in more, so long as Governor Eden refrained from asking too many questions about where it came from.” Eden accepted these benefits and granted Blackbeard and his men the pardon that they wanted.
Blackbeard and several of his men made the most of their new sanctuary. Some built homes and Blackbeard even married a local girl. While the newcomers certainly settled in Bath, they were still pirates at heart. Woodward makes it clear that Blackbeard’s crew was “intent on slipping down the creek and into the open sea to prey on vessels passing up and down the Eastern Seaboard or to and from Chesapeake Bay.” Later court testimony reveals that the pirates set up a camp on Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks. It was here that they could sort their plunder and repack it for transshipment and sale back in Bath.
On the morning of August 24, 1718, Blackbeard and his men captured the Rose Emelye and Toison d’Or. The pirates discovered valuable cargo on the Rose Emelye and transferred the crew to the Toison d’Or, ordering the Frenchmen to make for France without delay or Blackbeard would burn their ship. The Rose Emelye was brought back to Ocracoke Island and unloaded. Blackbeard presented some of the plunder as presents for Bath authorities.
Blackbeard depicted in an engraving by Benjamin Cole. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Rose Emelye incident was the final straw for the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood. He had been keeping tabs on Blackbeard for months and merchants had been bombarding him with complaints about Thatch. Spotswood believed that he had “to put a stop to the further progress of the robberies.” He didn’t have the authority to send an expedition into another colony, but that didn’t stop him from contacting two Royal Navy captains to wipe out the fearsome pirate.
The naval captains weren’t sure whether Blackbeard would be in Bath or on Ocracoke Island, so they launched a two-pronged invasion of their southern neighbor. One group was sent overland to Bath. Two small sloops transported another force of some 60 men under Lieutenant Robert Maynard to Oracoke, where Blackbeard was found anchored.
On the morning of February 22, 1718, Maynard’s force attacked. Woodward writes, “Blackbeard’s crew of 20 had spent the night drinking and might have been surprised at anchor, had one of Maynard’s sloops not run aground coming into the anchorage.” When the sailors finally got their vessel free, Blackbeard’s sloop greeted them with a broadside that pummeled their ranks. The pirates tried to sail for open water, but a musket ball severed a halyard on their boat, which caused a sail to drop and a critical loss in speed. Lt. Maynard was on the second sloop and caught up to Blackbeard. The pirates pummeled his craft with a broadside of grapeshot and a salvo of hand grenades. In a matter of seconds, 21 members of Maynard’s crew were killed or wounded. Blackbeard believed he had won the battle and ordered his vessel to come alongside Maynard’s sloop. The infamous pirate was the first to step aboard the enemy’s craft and in a flash, it was clear that the battle wasn’t over.
Maynard and a dozen uninjured sailors hid themselves in a hold. When the two vessels were lashed together, they burst out of hiding and engaged the pirates in hand-to-hand combat. Blackbeard and Maynard clashed with swords during the fierce struggle, but in the end, the pirates were overwhelmed. According to Maynard, Blackbeard fell to the deck “with five shot in him, and 20 dismal cuts in several parts of his body,” thus marking the end of the most legendary pirate in history. The lieutenant returned to Virginia with 14 prisoners and the grim trophy of Blackbeard’s severed head hanging from his bowsprit.
Blackbeard’s severed head hanging from Maynard’s bowsprit. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Blackbeard’s body was thrown into Pamlico Sound. His head was given to Governor Spotswood, who had it displayed on a tall pole in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The site is now known as Blackbeard Point. While Blackbeard met a brutal end, history has certainly never forgotten him. Woodward put it best when he wrote, “…the pirate has lived on, more famous in death than ever he was in life.”
History.com: Blackbeard killed off North Carolina.
Smithsonianmag.com: The Last Days of Blackbeard.
Queen Anne’s Revenge Project: Blackbeard: History of the Dreaded Pirate.