Biography of Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach, Pirate

Assassination of English pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard

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Edward Teach (c. 1683–November 22, 1718), whose surname was spelled Thache and is better known as "Blackbeard," was the most feared pirate of his day and perhaps the figure most often associated with the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean—or piracy in general, for that matter.

Fast Facts: Edward 'Blackbeard' Thache

  • Known For: English privateer and pirate "Blackbeard"
  • Born: c.1683 in Gloustershire, England
  • Parents: Captain Edward Thache, Sr. (1659–1706) and his first wife Elizabeth Thache (d. 1699)
  • Died: November 22, 1718 off Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
  • Spouse(s): At least one in Jamaica, who died before 1721; he may have married a local girl in Bath, North Carolina in 1718
  • Children: Elizabeth, who married Dr. Henry Barham in 1720

Blackbeard was a skilled pirate and businessman, who knew how to recruit and keep men, intimidate his enemies, and use his fearsome reputation to his best advantage. Blackbeard preferred to avoid fighting if he could, but he and his men were deadly fighters when they needed to be. He was killed on November 22, 1718, by English sailors and soldiers sent to find him.

Early Life

Blackbeard was born Edward Thache Jr. (pronounced "Teach" and alternately spelled Teach, Thatch, Theach, or Thach) in about 1683, in Gloucestershire, England up the Severn River from the port city of Bristol. He was one of at least two children of Captain Edward Thache, Sr. (1659–1706) and his first wife Elizabeth Thache (d. 1699). Edward Sr. was a mariner who moved the family to a plantation in Jamaica, where the Thaches lived as a respectable family living not far from Port Royal in the old city of Spanish Town, also known as St. Jago de la Vega.

In 1699, Edward Sr.'s first wife Elizabeth died. He remarried six months later to Lucretia Ethell Axtell. They had three children, Cox (1700–1737), Rachel (born 1704), and Thomas (1705–1748). After his father died in 1706, Edward Jr. ("Blackbeard") turned over his inheritance from his father to his stepmother. 

Edward Jr. ("Blackbeard") was a mariner based in Kingston, Jamaica, and was married to a woman who probably died before 1721—records were not kept in Kingston until then. The couple had at least one surviving daughter, named Elizabeth, who married Dr. Henry Barham in 1720. Blackbeard's sister, also named Elizabeth, married a man named John Valiscure, in Jamaica, in 1707.

The Life of a Pirate

The main source used for Thache's biography is "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates," a book published in May 1724 by Nathaniel Mist (a.k.a. Captain Charles Johnson). It was an overnight success and a second edition was published a few months later, and a third in 1725 and expanded fourth in 1726—many of the details in the latest edition were embroidered to be more salacious and sensational.

Mist, who was a former sailor, printer, and journalist in London, based his tales on trial records, newspaper reports, and personal contact with retired pirates. Mist described Blackbeard as outrageous and scary, but many of his tales were overblown. Since then, historical, genealogical and archaeological studies have pared back to the events that are likely to have happened.

Edward Thache Jr. was a mariner by trade who served on a Royal Navy vessel, the HMS Windsor, as early as 1706. He became a privateer under the English flag at the end of Queen Anne's War (1702–1713), a common gateway to piracy.

Association With Hornigold

Thache joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, at that time one of the most feared pirates of the Caribbean. Their earliest joint venture was after July 3, 1715, when a hurricane on the coast of Florida wrecked 11 ships, an entire flotilla of Spanish treasure galleons, dumping that treasure along the coastline. The entire community had been fishing the wrecks and raiding the Spanish salvage workers when the governor of Jamaica commissioned Thache and Hornigold to recover it for them.

Hornigold saw great potential in Teach and soon promoted him to his own command. With Hornigold in command of one ship and Teach in command of another, they could capture or corner more victims, and from 1716 to 1717 they were greatly feared by local merchants and sailors. Hornigold retired from piracy and accepted the King's pardon in early 1717.

Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet

Stede Bonnet was a most unlikely pirate: he was a gentleman from Barbados with a large estate and family who decided he would rather be a pirate captain. He ordered a ship built, the Revenge, and fitted her out as if he were going to be a pirate hunter, but the minute he was out of port he hoisted the black flag and began looking for prizes. Bonnet did not know one end of a ship from the other and was a terrible captain.

After a major engagement with a superior ship, the Revenge was in bad shape when they limped into Nassau sometime between August and October 1717. Bonnet was wounded, and the pirates on board begged Blackbeard, who was also in port there, to take command. The Revenge was a fine ship, and Blackbeard agreed. The eccentric Bonnet stayed on board, reading his books and walking the deck in his dressing-gown.

Blackbeard on His Own

Blackbeard, now in charge of two good ships, continued to prowl the waters of the Caribbean and North America. On November 17, 1717, he captured La Concorde, a large French slaving ship. He kept the ship, mounting 40 guns on it and naming it Queen Anne's Revenge. The Queen Anne's Revenge became his flagship, and before long he had a fleet of three ships and 150 pirates. Soon the name of Blackbeard was feared on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean.

Blackbeard was much more intelligent than your average pirate. He preferred to avoid fighting if he could, and so cultivated a very fearsome reputation. He wore his hair long and had a long black beard. He was tall and broad-shouldered. During the battle, he put lengths of a slow-burning fuse in his beard and hair. This would sputter and smoke, giving him an altogether demonic look.

He also dressed the part, wearing a fur cap or wide hat, high leather boots, and a long black coat. He also wore a modified sling with six pistols into combat. No one who ever saw him in action forgot it, and soon Blackbeard had an air of supernatural terror about him.

Blackbeard in Action

Blackbeard used fear and intimidation to cause his enemies to surrender without a fight. This was in his best interests, as the victimized ships could be utilized, valuable plunder was not lost and useful men such as carpenters or doctors could be made to join the pirate crew. Generally, if any ship they attacked surrendered peacefully, Blackbeard would loot it and let it go on its way, or put the men aboard some other ship if he decided to keep or sink his victim. There were exceptions, of course: English merchant ships were sometimes treated harshly, as was any ship from Boston, where some pirates had recently been hung.

Blackbeard had a distinctive flag. It featured a white, horned skeleton on a black background. The skeleton is holding a spear, pointing at a red heart. There are red "blood drops" near the heart. The skeleton is holding a glass, making a toast to the devil. The skeleton obviously stands for death for enemy crews who put up a fight. The speared heart meant that no quarter would be asked or given. Blackbeard's flag was designed to intimidate opposing ship crews into surrendering without a fight, and it probably did.

Raiding the Spanish

In the late part of 1717 and early part of 1718, Blackbeard and Bonnet went south to raid Spanish ships off Mexico and Central America. Reports from the time indicate that the Spanish were aware of "the Great Devil" off the coast of Veracruz who was terrorizing their shipping lanes. They did well in the region, and by spring of 1718, he had several ships and close to 700 men when they arrived in Nassau to split up the plunder.

Blackbeard realized he could use his reputation to greater gain. In April 1718, he sailed north to Charleston, then a thriving English colony. He set up right outside Charleston harbor, capturing any ships that tried to enter or leave. He took many of the passengers aboard these ships prisoner. The population, realizing that none other than Blackbeard himself was off their shores, was terrified. He sent messengers to the town, demanding a ransom for his prisoners: a well-stocked chest of medicine, as good as gold to a pirate at the time. The people of Charleston happily sent it and Blackbeard left after about a week.

Breaking up the Company

Near the middle of 1718, Blackbeard decided he needed a break from piracy. He devised a plan to get away with as much of his loot as possible. On June 13th, he grounded the Queen Anne's Revenge and one of his sloops off the coast of North Carolina. He left the Revenge there, and transferred all of the loot to the fourth and last ship of his fleet, marooning most of his men on an island that was visible from the mainland.

Stede Bonnet, who had gone to unsuccessfully seek a pardon, returned to find that Blackbeard had absconded with all the loot. Bonnet rescued the marooned men and set off in search of Blackbeard, but never found him.

A Pardon and Marriage

Blackbeard and some 20 other pirates then went to see Charles Eden, the governor of North Carolina, where they accepted the King's Pardon. In secret, however, Blackbeard and the crooked governor had made a deal. These two men realized that working together, they could steal far more than they could alone. Eden agreed to officially license Blackbeard's remaining vessel, the Adventure, as a war prize. Blackbeard and his men lived in a nearby inlet on Ocracoke Island, from which they occasionally sallied forth to attack passing ships.

In the town of Bath, local lore is said to have married a young woman there and had several children. He and his shipmates provided the town with cash, black market goods, and manpower. On one occasion, the pirates took the French merchant ship the Rose Emelye loaded with cocoa and sugar: they sailed it to North Carolina, claimed they had found it afloat and abandoned, and shared the spoils with the governor and his top advisers. It was a crooked partnership that looked to enrich both men.

Blackbeard and Vane

In October 1718, Charles Vane, leader of those pirates who had rejected Governor Woodes Rogers' offer of a royal pardon, sailed north in search of Blackbeard, who he found on Ocracoke Island. Vane hoped to convince the legendary pirate to join him and reclaim the Caribbean as a lawless pirate kingdom. Blackbeard, who had a good thing going, politely declined. Vane did not take it personally and Vane, Blackbeard, and their crews spent a rum-soaked week on the shores of Ocracoke.

Local merchants soon grew infuriated with a pirate operating nearby but were powerless to stop it. With no other recourse, they complained to Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia. Spotswood, who had no love for Eden, agreed to help. There were two British warships currently in Virginia: he hired 57 men off of them and put them under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard. He also provided two light sloops, the Ranger and the Jane, to carry the soldiers into the treacherous inlets of North Carolina. In November, Maynard and his men set out to look for Blackbeard.

Blackbeard's Final Battle

On November 22, 1718, Maynard and his men found Blackbeard. The pirate was anchored in Ocracoke Inlet and, fortunately for the marines, many of Blackbeard's men were ashore including Israel Hands, Blackbeard's second-in-command. As the two ships approached the Adventure, Blackbeard opened fire, killing several soldiers and forcing the Ranger to drop out of the fight.

The Jane closed with the Adventure and the crews fought hand-to-hand. Maynard himself managed to wound Blackbeard twice with pistols, but the mighty pirate fought on, his cutlass in his hand. Just as Blackbeard was about to kill Maynard, a soldier rushed in and cut the pirate across the neck. The next blow took off Blackbeard's head. Maynard later reported that Blackbeard had been shot no fewer than five times and had received at least 20 serious sword cuts. Their leader gone, the surviving pirates surrendered. About 10 pirates and 10 soldiers died: accounts vary slightly. Maynard returned victorious to Virginia with Blackbeard's head displayed on the bowsprit of his sloop.

Legacy

Blackbeard had been seen as an almost supernatural force, and his death was a great boost to the morale of those areas affected by piracy. Maynard was hailed as a hero and would forever after be known as the man who had killed Blackbeard, even if he didn't do it himself.

Blackbeard's fame lingered long after he was gone. Men who had sailed with him automatically found positions of honor and authority on any other pirate vessel they joined. His legend grew with every retelling: according to some stories, his headless body swam around Maynard's ship several times after it was thrown into the water following the last battle!

Blackbeard was very good at being a pirate captain. He had the right mix of ruthlessness, cleverness, and charisma to be able to amass a mighty fleet and use it to his best advantage. Also, better than any other pirates of his time, he knew how to cultivate and use his image to maximum effect. During his time as a pirate captain, about a year and a half, Blackbeard terrorized the shipping lanes between the Americas and Europe, but there is no evidence that he ever killed anyone until his final battle.

All told, Blackbeard had little lasting economic impact. He captured dozens of ships, it's true, and his presence greatly affected transatlantic commerce for a time, but by 1725 or so the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" was over as nations and merchants worked together to combat it. Blackbeard's victims, the merchants and sailors, would bounce back and continue their business.

In Fiction and Archaeology

Blackbeard's cultural impact, however, is tremendous. He still stands as the quintessential pirate, the fearsome, cruel specter of nightmares. Some of his contemporaries were better pirates than he was—"Black Bart" Roberts took many more ships—but none had his personality and image, and many of them are all but forgotten today.

Blackbeard has been the subject of several movies, plays and books, and there is a museum about him and other pirates in North Carolina. There is even a character named Israel Hands after Blackbeard's second-in-command in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Despite little solid evidence, legends persist of Blackbeard's buried treasure, and people still search for it.

The wreck of the Queen Anne's Revenge was discovered in 1996 and has turned out to be a treasure trove of information and articles. The final report was published in 2018 as "Blackbeard's Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne's Revenge." Among the findings reported by archaeologists Mark Wilde-Ramsing and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton, are the wreck's nearly certain identification as the QAR, based on the location and the presence of 45 classes of late 17th and early 18th century artifacts, including the ships bell cast with a date of 1705, and a Swedish-made cannon with a date of manufacture of 1713. Evidence also indicates that Blackbeard dealt in slaves, who were kept as menial laboaers and perhaps elevated to crew status. Many of the more interesting relics found there are on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in nearby Beaufort.

Sources

  • Brooks, Baylus C. ""Born in Jamaica, of Very Creditable Parents" or "a Bristol Man Born"? Excavating the Real Edward Thache, 'Blackbeard the Pirate'." The North Carolina Historical Review 92.3 (2015): 235-77.
  • Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996.
  • Johnson, Captain Charles [pseudonym of Nathaniel Mist]. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
  • Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2009
  • Wilde-Ramsing, Mark U., and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton. "Blackbeard's Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne's Revenge." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
  • Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books, 2008.