WILLIAMSBURG — Gather ’round while we spin a yarn about one of the piratical sort. With guns, ships, pillaging, and a blazing beard, its a tale of bounty and legend. Who was the man named for his darkened mane and made weary men tremble at the thought of his exploits?
Why, he was none other than that of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
Setting the Scene
In 1718, Alexander Spotswood held the seat in Williamsburg as the Virginia colony’s governor; a rather unpopular one at that. That May, the eight members of the Governor’s Council declined Spotswood’s invitation to attend the annual celebration of King George I’s birthday.
Instead, the council threw their own party in the chambers of the House of Burgesses, inviting the town’s residents to participate in the festivities.
Being left alone at his own party, Spotswood knew he needed something to garner the favor of Virginians. Why not focus on a perceived threat to the safety and security of the colonists? Why not go after the pirates?
The Golden Age of Piracy
The time period between 1680 and 1725 is known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.” While us modern folks think of the swashbuckling, fearless scoundrels that have graced the silver screen, the romanticism that many associate with this time is more fiction than fact.
One of the earliest documented acts of piracy associated with the Historic Triangle took place in 1693 when pirates entered the James River, were captured, and their plunder seized. These pillaged goods were used towards founding the College of William & Mary.
Pirates brought the goods they took from merchant vessels to colonists at discounted prices; something very much appreciated by the average person, but not so much the plantation owners and wealthy merchants who were the target of piratical activities.
After the embarrassment of the May 1718 celebration, Spotswood thought he would garner favor of these wealthy Virginians by targeting pirates. To the House of Burgesses, the governor decreed: “[S]peedy and Effectual measures for breaking up that Knott of Robbers.”
The particular pirate that drew the ire of Spotswood? Blackbeard.
Who Was Blackbeard?
Sometime around 1680 in what is believed to be Bristol, England, Edward Teach (also noted in historical documents with the last names, “Thatch,” “Thach,” and “Drummond”) came into this world.
He did not start out as the terrifying menace that legend would lend him to be, Teach was a privateer in Queen Anne’s Navy during the War of Spanish Succession. However, under the careful tutelage of Captain Benjamin Hornigold around 1716, Teach turned to piracy.
In November 1717, Hornigold successfully captured a French slave vessel and turned its helm over to Teach, who renamed the vessel the now infamous moniker, “Queen Anne’s Revenge.”
Teach knew he needed to embody a persona of fear and thus invented “Blackbeard.” He plaited braids into his long, scraggly black beard and tied them off with red ribbons. He wore a crimson coat with swords brandishing at the hips. He filled his pockets and belts with knives and pistols. The looked was capped off by hemp fuses Teach tied beneath his captain’s cap and would light when facing the enemy.
He had the look of a madman with smoke billowing around his face as he wildly took on those who stood in the way of his bounty.
The Stuff of Legend
By November 1718, Blackbeard’s blockades and pillaging were famed and feared along the eastern seaboard. While the pirate had sought a pardon and asylum in North Carolina under the guise of no longer engaging in illegal activity, though this was not to last.
Governor Alexander Spotswood personally funded two fast sloops to pursue the pirate and ragtag band of marauders. On Nov. 17, the ships were dispatched from Kecoughtan en route to Ocracoke Island in North Carolina; what was thought to be Blackbeard’s base of operations.
While one of the ships was rendered disabled during the voyage, the lone ship, “Ranger,” was still left sailing with a zealous Lieutenant Richard Maynard commanding.
The sloop made its way into Ocracoke Inlet on the eve of November 21. Maynard assumed that the pirate’s ship, “Adventure,” outgunned “Ranger” and thus careful strategy would needed to be employed to seize the day.
At daybreak, Maynard ordered the Union Jack raised on the mast of “Ranger.” In response, the terrifying flag of Blackbeard, depicting a horned skeleton piercing a red heart was hoisted on “Adventure.”
Thus began one of the more legendary naval battles of the day.
Check back to Oddities & Curiosities next week for Blackbeard’s Head (Part 2)!