On a sunny winter day some three centuries ago, British warships fired their cannons in celebration as Lieutenant Robert Maynard sailed up the James River upon his return to Virginia. Any questions as to the success of his covert mission to subdue one of history’s most notorious pirates were answered at the sight of the pungent trophy dangling from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship—the severed, decomposing head of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
It was only months earlier that Blackbeard had vowed to abandon his life as a sea bandit. Just weeks after striking fear throughout the American colonies by blockading Charleston, South Carolina, with his four-ship flotilla in May 1718, the pirate traveled up the Atlantic coastline to the North Carolina capital of Bath and pledged to give up his plunderous ways while appealing to Governor Charles Eden for a King’s Pardon.
No sooner had Eden granted the royal pardon than Blackbeard returned to his high seas treachery. Near Bermuda in August 1718, the pirate and his crew captured two French ships laden with cocoa and sugar. Returning to the North Carolina capital, Blackbeard claimed to have found one of the vessels abandoned at sea and convinced Eden to declare it a wreck, effectively giving the pirate rights to its contents.
The raid against Blackbeard lacked legal authority.
In the Virginia capital of Williamsburg less than 200 miles to the north, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood cast a wary eye at his neighboring colony, which he viewed as an unsophisticated backwater with a weak governor. Virginia’s top political official harbored a deep hatred of pirates, and he feared that Blackbeard and his fellow buccaneers would use North Carolina as a safe haven to terrorize Virginian shipping interests and threaten its lucrative tobacco trade.
“Virginia was a much more established colony with a much larger economy and population. It had much more to lose to pirates than North Carolina,” says Eric Jay Dolin, author of Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates. If Eden truly believed that Blackbeard had sworn off piracy, Spotswood was under no such illusion.
Although he lacked the legal authority, Spotswood decided to launch a raid that breached North Carolina’s sovereignty to root out the pirate’s base on Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks. “Many Virginians viewed North Carolina with condescension and Blackbeard with great fear, which made it an easy calculation for Spotswood to launch a raid and not worry about the repercussions,” Dolin says.
In addition to an overland expedition, Spotswood dispatched a British naval force under Maynard’s command. At his own expense, the Virginian colonial leader hired two shallow-draft vessels, the Ranger and the Jane, that could navigate the shallow waters of the Outer Banks but were incapable of carrying cannons, which meant the British sailors would have to rely on their personal weapons. Believing Eden could be in Blackbeard’s pocket, Spotswood did not alert the North Carolina governor, and he even kept the mission secret from his own colony’s assembly.
Blackbeard fell victim to a trap.
After anchoring off the southern tip of Ocracoke Island the night before, Maynard ordered his two ships to advance on Blackbeard on the morning of November 22, 1718. The Virginian expedition quickly lost the element of surprise, however, when both the Ranger and the Jane ran aground. Blackbeard attempted to make a run for it out of the channel, but the British managed to extricate the Jane and pull within shouting distance of the pirates. “At our first salutation,” Maynard recounted, Blackbeard “drank damnation to me and my men, whom he styled sniveling puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take quarter.”
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With an advantage in firepower, the pirate ship unleashed a broadside from its cannons that killed the commander of the Ranger and scattered the men on the Jane. Demonstrating quick thinking, Maynard set a trap for the pirates. He ordered all his men except for the pilot and midshipman below deck.
Seeing the deck of the Jane clear of most of its men, Blackbeard brought his ship alongside and led his men over the rails with a rope in hand to lash the vessels together. As soon as the pirates’ feet hit the deck, the pilot signaled Maynard, who rushed from below with a dozen men. “Blackbeard had quite a shock and must have been thrown off balance a bit with the number of sailors who came up ready to pounce,” Dolin says. “We have no idea whether Blackbeard was a great swordsman or not, but we know the British sailors were trained in hand-to-hand combat.”
Six minutes of brutal fighting ensued as swords clashed, fists flew and guns fired before the British sailors subdued the pirates. Blackbeard sustained a terrible pummeling before finally succumbing. “He fell with five shot in him and twenty dismal cuts in several parts of his body,” Maynard recounted.DEA Picture Library/Getty Images
In death, the legend of Blackbeard was born.
Blackbeard may have died, but his legend quickly gained a life of its own. “Blackbeard was neither a particularly successful pirate in terms of treasure plundered, nor was he the fierce rogue he is made out to be,” Dolin says. “During his short turn on history's stage, less than two years’ time, he rarely used violence. Yet, he is often portrayed as a ruthless, even murderous character who terrorized his foes.”
Dolin says it was Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates that “transformed Blackbeard into a larger-than-life character” and the archetypal pirate. Johnson employed full use of his literary license in portraying Blackbeard as a bloodthirsty warrior who entwined strands of his fulsome beard in black ribbons. In Johnson’s account Blackbeard would enter battle with “stuck lighted matches under his hat, which, appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a Fury from Hell to look more frightful.”
Dolin notes that no contemporary accounts describe the pirate setting his facial hair ablaze. “Quite apart from the fact that this seems to be a particularly dangerous way of going into battle, even for a pirate who was intent on instilling fear in his victims, one would think that sailors who were captured by or who fought Blackbeard might have, at the very least, noted flames shooting out from under his hat.”
Even Blackbeard’s death quickly became mythologized. Legend grew that after the British sailors decapitated Blackbeard and tied his head to the bowsprit, they dumped his headless body into Pamlico Sound where it took several laps around the Jane before finally disappearing from sight.