Monday, November 23, 2009

Edward Teach: a.k.a. Blackbeard the Pirate

Blackbeard is often regarded as the archetypal image of the seafaring pirate. He often fought, or simply has been shown, wearing a big feathered tricorn, and having multiple swords, knives, and pistols at his disposal. It was reported that, during battle, he wore lit matches woven into his enormous black beard to intimidate his enemies.

He would plunder merchant ships, forcing them to allow his crew to board their ship. The pirates would then seize all of the valuables, food, liquor, and weapons. Despite his ferocious reputation, there are no verified accounts of him actually killing anyone. He deliberately cultivated his barbaric reputation, and so could prevail by terror alone. It was far more profitable to plunder without a fight at all.

Blackbeard's chief claim to fame is his blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. In approximately late May 1718, Blackbeard entered the mouth of Charleston harbour with the Queen Anne's Revenge and three lighter vessels. He plundered five merchant freighters attempting to enter or leave the port. No other vessels could transit the harbour for fear of encountering the pirate squadron.

Aboard one of the ships that Blackbeard captured in the harbor mouth was a group of prominent Charleston citizens, including Samuel Wragg. Blackbeard held these hostages for ransom, making an unusual demand: a chest of medicine. He sent a deputation ashore to negotiate this ransom.

Due partly to his envoys' preference for carousing rather than bargaining, the ransom took some days to be delivered, and Blackbeard evidently came close to murdering his prisoners. Eventually, the medicines were turned over, and Blackbeard released the hostages, without their clothing, but otherwise unharmed. Blackbeard's whole squadron then escaped northward.
Having accepted a pardon, Teach had apparently retired from piracy. Nevertheless, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia became concerned that the notorious freebooter lived nearby. Spotswood decided to eliminate Blackbeard, even though he lived outside of Spotswood's jurisdiction, and offered a reward for his head.

When they came upon Blackbeard's Adventure, they were hit with a devastating broadside attack. Midshipman Hyde, captain of the smaller Jane, was killed along with six other men. Ten men were also wounded in the surprise attack. The sloop fell astern and was little help in the following action. Maynard continued his pursuit in Ranger, managing to blast the Adventure's rigging, forcing it ashore. Maynard ordered many of his crew into the holds and readied to be boarded. As his ship approached, Blackbeard saw the mostly empty decks, assumed it was safe to board, and did so with ten men. Blackbeard's assault was preceded by several grenades made by filling rum bottles with gunpowder. Broken glass swept the deck and gunpowder smoke obscured Maynard's view of Blackbeard's boarders.

Despite the best efforts of the pirates (including a desperate plan to blow up the Adventure), Teach was killed, and the battle ended. Teach was reportedly shot five times and stabbed more than twenty times before he died and was decapitated. Legends about his death immediately sprang up, including the oft-repeated claim that Teach's headless body, after being thrown overboard, swam between 2 and 7 times around the Adventure before sinking.

Teach's head was placed as a trophy on the bowsprit of the ship (it was also required by Maynard to claim his prize when he returned home). Despite the sheer terror of the battle with the pirates and the wounds that the crew received, Maynard received only a meagre prize of £100 from Spotswood.


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