Capture of the Pirate Blackbeard, 1718 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920, oil on canvas / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. I. Ross

Proceedings Magazine 100:9

In the second decade of the 18th century, a man of extraordinary violence and brutality terrorized the colonies of Carolina and Virginia. Born in the English port of Bristol, reputedly the son of dissolute parents whose grogshop specialized in knockout drops for sailors, Edward Teach was 40 before he commanded his own pirate ship. Before his death, two years later, he had become the murderous “Blackbeard,” corruptor of high colonial officials, and scourge of the eastern seaboard.

Only a few days before, Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy had been ordered to find and kill “Blackbeard.” Finding him had not been difficult, but it must have occured to Maynard that killing this half-mad monster would not be easy.

Young Teach went to sea at the time of Queen Anne’s War, when scores of privateers were licensed to prey on Spanish merchant ships in all the Seven Seas. It was a big money-making opportunity and, when the war ended in 1713, a number of privateer captains kept on hunting down merchant ships—of any nationality. These pirates hung on the fringes of the great trade routes, snatching at rich cargoes. To reach out to the sea routes of the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, the Bahamas were a perfect lurking place, with hundreds of uninhabited, unexplored islands, and bays that provided concealed anchorages.

Operations from the Bahamas became well-organized. The pirates had spies in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, who got information on what cargoes were loading, when they would sail, and their routes. They bribed port officials and had a hold on Manhattan like that of the bootlegger gangs on Chicago in the 1920s. Reputable merchants became receivers of stolen goods and some famous fortunes were founded in “the trade.”

It was in this “trade” that Teach found himself serving under one of the toughest scoundrels in England, Captain Hornigold. But Teach, far above the average in size and physical strength, and one who loved to pick a fight, was no man to serve another. When, one day, Hornigold captured a big French Guinea trader and put Teach aboard with a crew so that the two ships might operate together, Teach curtly informed the crew that from now on the ship was his.

He proceeded to make this vessel a formidable fighting machine, arming her with 40 guns, mostly carronades—short cannon of large caliber. Their range was only a few hundred yards, but within that distance they could smash anything in front of them, either with solid shot or with scattering grapeshot.

Sailing out from a base in the Bahamas, Teach went hunting southward. His first exploit made him famous.

At St. Vincent, in the Windward Islands, was a British naval station, thought to make the neighborhood safe from pirates. Yet, within sight of the port, Teach captured the Great Allen with a valuable cargo, marooned the crew, and burned the vessel.

HMS Scarborough / Wikimedia Commons

Out from the station came the warship Scarborough. Teach stood his ground, fought the King’s ship broadside to broadside, in the end chasing her into the harbor. The news spread quickly to every port on the Atlantic.

Soon more stories came in: Teach was taking prizes all the way from the Carolinas to the Bay of Honduras. A vessel would bring into port a handful of starved, wild-eyed sailors rescued from some waterless, sun-baked sandbank where they had been marooned. They told how their vessel had been overhauled and grappled by a great ship armed like a man-of-war and flying the black flag. The leader, they said, was a gigantic man whose thick, black beard grew up to his eyes. He could fell a man with his cutlass, then toss the body overboard with one hand.

“Blackbeard” became the chief topic of conversation in taverns up and down the coast.

It was said that he had his own way of burying treasure. Taking a chest ashore in a small boat with one of the crew, he would stand over the sailor while the latter dug a deep hole, and placed the chest in it. When the sailor had the hole half-refilled, Teach would knock him over the head, dump him in, and fill up the hole.

“None but the devil and I know where it is,” he would boast, “and the longest lived will take all.”

Teach became a legend in his own lifetime. Today it is hard to separate the facts from the legend. It is known that in two years he captured 20 ships. There may have been many more.

One of his most daring exploits was his terrorization of the port of Charleston. He hovered off the bar and captured two ships bound for London, one of which carried prominent passengers. Sending word that he was holding these passengers as hostages, he sailed his ship right into the harbor, anchored, and sent a boat ashore to demand that his medicine chest be filled.

The townsmen boiled with indignation, but in the end the pirates were given $2,000 worth of drugs. Then Teach sent the captives ashore—minus their clothes.

Moving up the coast to North Carolina, Blackbeard showed what profitable dealings there can be between a gangster and a corrupt politician. He and Charles Eden, Governor of North Carolina, entered into an arrangement whereby Teach pretended to renounce piracy and in return received the King’s pardon from Eden. The Governor also gave him legal title to his ship, allowing him to anchor at Ocracoke Inlet and make his headquarters ashore.

At first some of the planters of the neighborhood were willing to be Teach’s guests, enticed by his lavish hospitality and his free gifts of rum and sugar. They soon regretted it. He made himself free with their houses, insulted their women, and made requisitions of all kinds upon them.

It was an intolerable situation, but Teach had his armed followers at his back, and continued under the Governor’s protection.

At last the planters sent a delegation to Governor Spottiswoode of Virginia, imploring him to send an expedition to liquidate Teach. Spottiswoode hesitated—he had no legal right to send a military force into another colony—but in the end agreed. To push home the attack Spottiswoode selected Robert Maynard, first lieutenant on a man-of-war in the Royal Navy.

In November, 1718, the Governor summoned Maynard from his ship, the Pearl, which then lay off the mouth of the James River. When the two spread out the charts of Ocracoke Inlet, the peculiar difficulty of the expedition was at once apparent. Ocracoke Inlet is a narrow gap in the 100-mile-long sand bar that lies 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina, enclosing the broad reaches of Pamlico Sound. The channel is intricate, winding through a labyrinth of constantly shifting bars. If Maynard took the Pearl through the inlet, the chances were that he would go aground.

Maynard suggested that instead of taking the Pearl, he ship his crew in two sloops, small sailing vessels of shallow draught which could be propelled by oars if necessary. They could carry 30 men each, probably enough to outnumber the pirates.

But the sloops didn’t carry cannon. What chance would small arms have against the pirate’s heavy guns, asked the Governor.

The issue, Maynard replied, would be decided neither by small arms nor by cannon, but with bare cutlasses on deck.

And how would he get to the pirate’s deck without being blown out of the water?

Maynard replied that, if the expedition were kept secret, the sloops might approach unsuspected, come to close quarters before the pirate’s guns were run out. Or the approach might be made in fog or darkness.

Ocrocoke Inlet / Wikimedia Commons

On 21 November just before twilight, the sloops dropped anchor outside Ocracoke Inlet. Maynard swept the long sand bar with his glass. There, beyond the gap, were tall masts and the delicate tracery of rigging. Blackbeard’s ship. But the tide was ebbing. The attack would have to be postponed until next day.

The sun rose the next morning on a rising tide and a fair breeze. As the light grew stronger all eyes strained landward. The pirate hadn’t moved. Maynard weighed anchor and the two sloops moved in. Now they could see the hull of Blackbeard’s ship, and realized that there was no chance of a surprise attack—the side of the vessel bristled with rows of short, ugly guns ready for action. Blackbeard had been warned.

Anchoring out of range, Maynard put a small boat in the water with orders to move in cautiously and take soundings. But before it had gone far a shot came skipping over the waves. Maynard recalled his boat.

Then Blackbeard took the initiative. The pirate crew swarmed into the rigging, the white sails dropped from the yards and bellied out in the breeze. The great ship soon gathered way and, with accelerating speed, was moving down on the little sloops.

Maynard hadn’t lost a moment in weighing anchor. Like a featherweight boxing a heavyweight, he had to dance out of reach of those carronades.

Then luck turned in favor of the featherweight. Maynard saw the great ship suddenly stop, the masts and rigging shiver and tremble. The pirate was aground on a hidden sand bar.

Maynard was faced with a momentous decision. Now he could maneuver his sloops so as to approach the pirate from bow or stern, so that no guns could be brought to bear; but the tide was still rising and before long would float the pirate ship. If Blackbeard could swing broadside he would bring the carronades to beat.

Maynard’s decision was prompt; he would move in and attack!

But now the breeze was failing. Propelled only by the oars, the sloops seemed to crawl. It was agonizing to watch the tide creeping up on the sand bards. How soon would it free the big ship?

The distance was lessening. Maynard’s men could see the pirates clustering at the rail. A figure taller than the rest leaped up on the rail, raised a megaphone and bellowed: “Damn you for villains. Come aboard!”

Maynard told his men to loosen their cutlasses in their sheaths.

Then it happened. The pirate ship moved slightly. With the faint puffs of the dying breeze it began to swing broadside on. There might still be time to turn and run. But Maynard shouted to the men to speed up their stroke.

The big ship swung faster, and it was clear now that Maynard would lose the race. When the sloops were still a hundred yards off, Blackbeard had brought his guns to bear. Flame and smoke stabbed out from the side of his ship.

Maynard was still erect, unharmed, but his deck was a grievous sight. It seemed to him that half his men must be dead or wounded. He ordered the survivors back to the oars and once more drove slowly toward the pirate. His craft was alone. The other sloop drifted broadside, apparently disabled.

No sound came from the pirate ship now; no one was visible at its rail. Steadily the distance lessened until the ship towered like a wall above Maynard’s head. He ordered the ladder raised into position for boarding.Suddenly a bottle appeared in the air, struck the deck of the sloop and exploded with a shattering roar. Then another and another. They were Blackbeard’s grenades, made of rum bottles stuffed with powder and jugs of lead, with a quick match for a detonator.

The deck of the sloop was blotted out in a choking cloud of smoke. From above, Maynard heard a bellow: “They are knocked on the head. Board them.”

Forward he heard heavy thumps as man after man landed on his deck. He counted 14, but could see nothing through the smoke.

Maynard started forward on the deck now slippery with blood, cutlass in one hand, pistol in the other. He ordered his men to follow. Twelve were able to do so.

The smoke began to lift and Maynard saw his opponent, not ten feet away. Half-hidden in the smoke, he seemed of more than human size. Above his black beard his eyes were red-rimmed and small. Over his shoulder was a cord from which hung six pistols. Another was in his left hand. In his right was an oversized cutlass.

Maynard and the pirate fired simultaneously. Blackbeard missed. Maynard was sure that his ball had taken effect, but his enemy gave no sign of it. He leaped forward, raising his cutlass. Maynard parried, staggered back under thetremendous blow. He was unhurt, but his cutlass blade was broke in half.

Maynard sprang aside, bur the pirate was after him with cutlass lifted for another blow. As it started to descend one of Maynard’s men slashed at Blackbeard’s neck. Blood jetted out.

The pirate’s blow was deflected but it nearly severed Maynard’s fingers. A shot fired from behind Maynard struck Blackbeard in the body. Still he gave no sign of weakness.

All were now engaged, 12 against 14, at too close quarters for shooting. There was only the clash of metal on metal. For minutes the battle hung even.

Then, at last, like a giant tree, Blackbeard toppled to the deck. The surviving pirate leaped overboard, calling for quarter. It was granted. They were hauled on board and put in irons.

Israel Hands survived a favorite practical joke of Blackbeard’s; chatting away amiably one moment with a victim, the capricious pirate would suddenly fire his pistols cross-handed under the table.

During the fight the sloop and the ship, with some of the pirates still on board, had drifted apart. The second sloop had now repaired its damage and come up and seized the pirate ship.

In Blackbeard’s body Maynard’s men counted five pistolballs and 20 cutlass wounds. They cut his head off and tied it to the bowsprit of one of the loops. Of the 16 surviving prisoners, 14 were hanged. One of them, Samuel Odell, was able to prove that he had been forced to join the crew and, just before the execution, a ship arrived, bringing the King’s pardon for Israel Hands.

Hands had been ashore during the fight recovering from wounds sustained when the unpredictable Blackbeard, chatting with Hands, had blown out a candle in mid-word and, in the ensuing blackness fired cross-handed under the table.

As the news of Blackbeard’s death traveled up and down the coast, there was a wave of rejoicing. Young Ben Franklin wrote a poem on the occasion.

As the years went by, Blackbeard’s fame continued to grow. Songs, stories, and plays were written about him. The interest has never died. Hundreds have searched up and down the coast for his treasure chests. The name Blackbeard is familiar to every schoolboy in the land.

But the name of Robert Maynard has been forgotten.