Blackbeard’s Ghost: Fact, Fiction, or Otherwise

Blackbeard's GhostBeneath the waters off Ocracoke Island the restless soul of Blackbeard searches in vain for a final resting place. A spectral presence can be seen, it is said, searching the Pamlico Sound at Teach’s Hole, just south of Ocracoke Village.  So goes the story of Blackbeard’s Ghost, combing the waters, no doubt, for his head that Lieutenant Robert Maynard took with him when he returned in victory to Virginia.

Blackbeard’s battle with Maynard took place in November of 1718, and if the pirate’s fame has grown, the facts of his life remain somewhat muddled.

We’re not even sure of his real name; his first name was Edward, that much seems certain. His surname is generally listed as Teach, but that seems to be an educated guess that scholars have agreed upon.  It could also be Thach, Thatch, Titche or anything that comes close… if that was his last name. His place of birth? Again, nothing definitive, but it is generally placed at Bristol, England around 1680.

There are some things we do know, and that’s where it gets interesting.

There can be little doubt that Blackbeard could read and write. If that was the case, and there is considerable evidence to support that, he probably came from a fairly well-to-do family. Not necessarily nobility, but certainly a family that had the means to hire teachers or tutors.

He probably did fight for England at one time. The brutal Queen Anne’s War at the beginning of the 18th century pitted the French against the British for control of the Eastern seaboard of what is now the United States. He was most likely a privateer—a pirate with a letter of marque allowing him to attack and seize the ships and cargo of a hostile nation.

Queen Anne’s War stopped in 1714—Blackbeard did not.

Sometime around 1716 Blackbeard teamed up with  Captain Benjamin Hornigold, a famous—or infamous—pirate who plied his trade in the Caribbean. For years it was assumed that Blackbeard worked under Hornigold and that remains a very real possibility. However, modern research has raised some questions with some indications the two of them worked cooperatively. Under any circumstances, it’s clear they sailed together.

In 1716, Hornigold accepted a pardon for his piracy from the governor of Jamaica and gave up his profession. One of his ships joined with Blackbeard, giving him two ships under his command.

The ships were relatively small, but all accounts of Blackbeard’s strategies include notes of how aggressive he was. In November of 1717 his aggression paid off when he seized the French slave ship, La Concorde.

The story of the Concorde is an interesting side note to Blackbeard’s legacy.

Built in 1710 by the British as a merchant ship, the French captured it a year later and used it very successfully for privateering operations, outfitting it with 26 canon. When Queen Anne’s War ended, La Concorde was repurposed as a slave ship, many of the 26 guns of its privateering day, left ashore so it could carry more cargo.

When it left Nantes, France in March it was carrying 16 canon and a crew of 75. After picking up 455 slaves as cargo in Guinea, the ship headed for the Caribbean.

It must have been a difficult journey. Records indicate 16 of the ship’s company died and scurvy was widespread throughout the crew, making the ship easy pickings for Blackbeard and his two small ships.

Blackbeard hauled the canon off the smaller ship and on to La Concorde, gave the small sloop to the French crew and landed the slaves at Bequia, a small island in the Winward Islands.

Armed with between 25-30 canon, the name was changed to Queen Anne’s Revenge, and Blackbeard and was now in possession of one of the most powerful ships in the Americas.

He sailed up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, taking any shipping he could find. Bold, and perhaps forward thinking, he did things others had never tried.

Perhaps his boldest idea was blockading the port of Charleston, SC in May of 1718.

After taking a number of ships headed to port and going ashore and kidnapping some prominent citizens, the city agreed to pay his ransom which was some medical supplies. There is no clear reason why that was the price he set.

Blackbeard had a reputation for being, well…crazy. When going into battle or boarding a ship he would stick burning candles and fireworks in his beard, and that didn’t include the six pistols and numerous knives and swords. Already a large man, the effect on adversaries was profound.

Interestingly though, there is no record that in his boarding ships he actually killed anyone. The popular explanation is that by creating a terrifying presence, he would not need to kill passengers and crew, an explanation consistent with the behavior of pirates of that time in general.

Pirates were interested in the contents of a ship and if passengers were wealthy, ransom. The more intact the ship, the more value it had and the less chance of damage to the cargo. If the crew of a ship felt they would die if they surrendered, they would fight much harder and might even sink the ship themselves. However, if they felt there was a good chance they would survive and maybe even be sent on their way, fighting to the death made no sense.

After two years of pillaging the shopping lanes of the Americas, Blackbeard decided to change his ways. American colonial officials, with the blessing of the British, were issuing blanket pardons to any pirate who agreed to give up his life of piracy. He scuttled Queen Anne’s Revenge off Shackleford Banks and in June of 1718, applied for a pardon from Governor Eden of North Carolina, settling down to the life of a country squire in Bath.

His change of lifestyle was short-lived. By Fall of 1718 he was back on the water again, attacking ships as they passed the Outer Banks.

North Carolina officials refused to take action, but Virginia Governor Spotswood ordered Lieutenant Maynard to take his ships to the coast of North Carolina and kill or capture Blackbeard. On November 22, Maynard fulfilled his mission, personally killing the pirate after a horrific fight. He then mounted his head on his bowsprit and sailed for Hampton Roads.

There is some speculation about what level of official collusion existed between North Carolina officials and Blackbeard. One of the poorest of the 13 colonies, the heavily discounted prices Blackbeard was selling his cargo benefitted the colony, as did the duties and taxes he paid to land his ill-gotten gains. Eden had to be aware of that; whether he actively was a party to what was happening is unclear.

What is clear is that the Tobias Knight, Secretary of the Colony, was deeply involved. A letter from Knight to Blackbeard warning him of danger was found on the pirate and captured members of Blackbeard’s crew testified in Virginia that Knight and Blackbeard had an arrangement. Perhaps most damning, plunder taken from ships was found on Knight’s property.

No evidence, however, was ever presented directly tying the governor to Knight’s involvement. And in a final note, Knight, standing trial for conspiracy to commit piracy was found innocent of all charges by his North Carolina peers.

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