He was said to embody the devil himself - extraordinarily tall with a wild black beard and hair tied up with lit fuses. His eyes, like embers, burned with a demonic glow and even the fiercest of men cowered at the sight of his flag. History paints Blackbeard as one of the most feared pirates of the seven seas, but did you know there’s no evidence that he actually killed anyone? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. In this episode, we’ll take a deep dive into the surprising rise and fall of the infamous pirate Blackbeard and reveal some glaring misconceptions about his story.
Now I have to warn you that much of what we know about Blackbeard is shrouded in mystery and assumptions based on very little fact. Pirates didn’t exactly keep detailed records so most of our knowledge of Blackbeard comes from accounts from his victims in legal proceedings and a book called “A General History of the Pyrates” that was published 6 years after his death by a “Captain Charles Johnson” a pen name for a still unknown to this day author. Although many believe Johnson to be Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe… there are other competing theories as well. Anyway, whoever he was, Johnson took a lot of creative license in his portrayal of Blackbeard so experts take A General History of Pyrates with a grain of salt. I’ve done my best to gather actual truth for this episode, so, here we go.
Edward Teach was born in Bristol, England around 1680. Like most details of his life, there is even some debate as to the actual spelling and pronunciation of his last name. For much of history, names were never really written down and when they were, the spelling varied considerably depending on who was doing the writing. They just sort of wrote it how they heard it.
Sometimes Blackbeard’s name is written and pronounced “Teach” like T-E-A-C-H and other times it’s written and pronounced “Thatch” like T-H-A-T-C-H, like a thatch roof. I’m going to go against some of the leading experts here who pronounce it “Thatch” and say “Teach,” and I’ll tell you why. There is a well known river in England that runs through London. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, it’s called the Thames River. “Tims” but it’s spelled T-H-A-M-E-S like “thames.” Thames and Tims reminds me a lot of Thatch and Teach. So I’m hazarding a guess that the name was spelled like Thatch but pronounced like Teach.
So anyway, Edward Teach was born in England. There is evidence to suggest that he was an educated man. He could read and write, he had some knowledge of math. When he was just entering adulthood, England was embroiled in Queen Anne’s War, fighting France for control of North America. There was also a Spanish war going on at the same time. So lot’s of war.
England needed a super impressive navy, they had tons of ships and tons of sailors. Teach became a privateer for the queen which is essentially a legal, government regulated pirate. But privateers were sort of a wartime thing. All is fair in love and war right? You can raid and pillage enemy ships during a war, not so much after the peace treaty was signed. So when the war ended in 1713, England was like “Okay, everybody go home, we’re all good now, thanks.” and privateering wasn’t really a thing anymore.
But now there are all these men (and women) with a very particular set of skills who have just taken part in this very exhilarating adventurous lifestyle of a privateer and now they're unemployed, so to speak. So this gave rise to what’s known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.” Where these former privateers just sort of kept doing their thing except now it wasn’t necessarily legal or sanctioned by the government. They’ve essentially gone rogue.
At this time in history, most trade is taking place in the Caribbean. You’ve got these Caribbean islands teeming with riches. And I don’t mean like gold and silver, I mean sugar and cotton and tobacco. When most people think of pirate treasure they think of a treasure chest full of gold. Honestly that is a misconception. Not to say they would pass up gold if they came across it but most pirate treasure was actually trade goods, commodities. Sugar was huge. They called it “white gold.” So it’s really not surprising Blackbeard’s supposed treasure has never been found. Sugar doesn’t exactly keep like gold.
Anyway, because of all this trade in the Caribbean, Nassau in the Bahamas became essentially the pirate capital and Blackbeard, freshly ousted from his privateering gig, goes there to join them. It’s in Nassau that he finds Captain Benjamin Hornigold who is already an established pirate with a ship and a crew and Blackbeard joins them.
Hornigold has some faults as a captain though. He’s not particularly good at keeping his crew happy. This is, however, a strength for Blackbeard. He prioritizes the happiness of the crew, stealing liquor for them when morale is low. He quickly rises through the ranks and he has all these crew members becoming super loyal to him. He’s really a natural born leader. Now, make no mistake here though. He’s not doing this for the good of the crew. Everything Blackbeard does is looking out for his own best interests. He’s a pirate, after all, not a philanthropist. But he knows an unhappy crew is a potentially mutinous crew. He isn’t stupid.
So it gets to a point where the student has outlearned the master and the summer of 1717 Blackbeard decides he wants to go out on his own and do his own thing. He goes to Nassau which is of course the pirate capital of the Caribbean and he sees this busted up ship docked there, waiting for repairs. So he goes up to the ship to figure out what its deal is, because he needs a ship and there’s a man onboard named Stede Bonnet.
And Stede Bonnet cracks me up. This character, I swear. So Stede Bonnet is not a pirate. He’s a gentleman. He’s the heir to a sugar plantation in Barbados. But he wants to be a pirate so he bought boat, has no idea what he’s doing, wrecked the boat and is waiting to have it repaired in Nassau. So he’s essentially a rich kid wanna be pirate. And I feel like I’m so familiar with this character, growing up where I did. I knew a few Stede Bonnets and I find it very comical.
So Blackbeard is like, “What’s up with this ship?” and Stede is like “I bought it cause I wanna be a pirate but I have no idea what I’m doing.” And then Blackbeard must have said something like “Well I’m a legit pirate but I need a ship. Let’s partner up.”
So Blackbeard and his crew take over the ship. Stede comes with them of course but he’s just sort of puttering around in his cabin reading books. But it’s his ship so he gets to be part of it. He’s getting the pirate experience that he wanted.
Now that Blackbeard has his own ship and his own crew he sets out to start pillaging and whatnot. But he does something a little different than the other pirates. Instead of hitting up all these tiny islands in the Caribbean, he goes to the east coast of what is now the United States but was at the time the 13 British colonies because, remember this is pre-Revolutionary War. And he’s doing his pirate stuff near these big port cities from South Carolina all the way up to New Jersey.
And the difference between these port cities and the little disconnected islands of the Caribbean is that they are centers of communication. Their newspapers start reporting on Blackbeard and the news spreads, he goes the 18th century version of “viral” so to speak.
And it helps that he is this terrifying spectacle. You see, Blackbeard was all about intimidation. There are no factual reports that he ever killed anyone. He’d roll up on a ship, hoist his distinctive flag which showed a demon skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear (you can see a picture of this on my instagram @historyfixpodcast if you’ve never seen it) and the captain and crew of the ship would pretty much just surrender immediately.
Blackbeard would board their ship looking terrifying with his wild black hair supposedly lit with fuses, which, I honestly don’t know how true that is. I mean that might have happened like one time and people ran with it but, I’ve lived my whole life on the Outer Banks of North Carolina which was Blackbeard’s main zone of operation. It’s so windy here. All the time. It’s always windy. That’s why the Wright Brothers brought their glider here, to this super random remote sandbar, because of the wind. I don’t see this lighting fuses inches from his hair and face thing going over so well. But that’s part of his image for whatever reason.
He’d take the ship and whatever valuables were on it including the clothing of the crew and any passengers and then send them to shore. He didn’t kill them or even hurt them for the most part. He just looked scary enough that they immediately gave up.
And this news is spreading because he’s doing it near these centers of communication and he’s also letting his victims live to tell the tale. So his reputation, his infamy is growing and growing. Blackbeard is trending hard in 1717.
He’s also getting a bunch of ships and new crewmen. He gets to a point where he has 250 men in his crew. Up to half them are formerly enslaved Africans who have escaped to become pirates because, you see, Blackbeard and most pirates accepted Black people as equals and welcomed them into their crew.
Word got out among enslaved people that pirates would treat them like actual humans and offer them better lives than they currently had and they actually started to hope that their colony, their plantation, would be attacked by pirates so that they could, potentially be rescued from slavery. So that really speaks to the depravity of slavery and how poorly these people were being treated by their enslavers that they wished to be attacked by pirates in order to escape that life.
At some point Stede Bonnet gets his own ship so he must have been picking up some pirate skills after all. So Stede is a Captain and Blackbeard is the Commodore. He’s still the boss man.
So now we come to what is probably Blackbeard’s greatest triumph and that is the capture of a French slave ship called “La Concorde” east of the island of Martinique. This ship was transporting 450 enslaved Africans to the colonies so it was super heavy and weighted down and slow. Also, the crew was super sick with scurvy and dysentery. It is said that only 23 men were healthy enough to function at the time that Blackbeard’s fleet approached. So La Concorde immediately surrenders, they know they don’t stand a chance against Blackbeard.
Blackbeard takes the ship and some of the enslaved Africans join his crew. He actually gives the captain a small ship and most of the enslaved people and just let’s him go. He just wanted ship really because this thing is massive and super impressive as far ships go.
He renames it the “Queen Anne’s Revenge” which is a total jab at the current King George. He rigs it up with 40 guns and he goes on his way.
In December 1717, Blackbeard receives word that the King has signed a proclamation to end piracy. He says that all pirates who surrender will be pardoned. They get to keep any loot they’ve stolen up to a certain date, but then they have to retire from piracy. But what’s interesting to me about this proclamation is that the “certain date” he sets is in the future. He basically goes “You guys have until January 5th to steal whatever you want and get away with it” If you steal it after January 5th, you won’t be pardoned for it though so… yeah.”
So Blackbeard sees this a pretty great opportunity and starts looking for a final score to retire on. He sets up a blockade at Charleston, South Carolina and captures a passenger ship called the Crowly. This ship has a bunch of prominent Charlestonians on board. People that would be missed if something happened to them and Blackbeard holds them hostage and sends a list of demands to South Carolina’s governor Johnson. He tells Johnson to send a chest of medical supplies because, you see, at this time many of Blackbeard’s crew are sick. He tells Johnson if he doesn’t get the medicine he will behead the captives and send Johnson their heads.
So this is wild to me. He’s threatening to chop off the heads of well known, prominent South Carolina citizens and send them to the governor. He could’ve asked for anything. Gold, more ships, whatever. He asks for a chest of medicine to help his sick men. He really took care of his own yall. It’s crazy. But, whatever, Johnson sends the medicine, the hostages are released and sent to shore, and Blackbeard and his fleet sail north.
But at this point, Blackbeard is like “Hmm… did I just take it too far? That might have been a bit much.” He realizes his crimes are more than enough to be hanged despite his plans to get that pardon from King George, he’s just sort of in over his head here. He has this massive crew and fleet of ships and it’s really just a liability at this point. They can’t possibly come into any of the ports. They just attract way too much attention now.
So Blackbeard realizes he needs to downsize considerably. As they sail near Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina he orders the crew to run his beloved ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground in the shallow water. He wrecks it on purpose. This is all part of his master plan.
Then he convinces Stede Bonnet to go ashore first to try to get a pardon from North Carolina’s governor, Eden. And while Stede is gone, Blackbeard turns on him, takes his ship, and maroons all of the crew that was loyal to Stede on an island. Stede Bonnet eventually gets hanged for piracy he really just, it did not end well for him. But, I don’t know, did anyone really expect it to?
So now it’s just Blackbeard and some of his most trusted crew members just like 40 or 50 men. He has succeeded in breaking up this massive crew, this pirate empire that he built and now he is much less obvious and he can sort of sneak around and roll up to ports without attracting so much attention.
But he still wants that pardon. So he goes to Governor Eden who grants him the pardon as long as he agrees to settle down in Bath, North Carolina with his crew and become respectable citizens. But you see, they don’t really hold up their end of the bargain. They would still go out to sea every now and then and come back with this mysterious treasure that they would sell to the governor. And governor Eden just sort of turned a blind eye because they were bringing wealth into the colony so he was benefiting from this. It was honestly like a mafia situation like organized crime, almost a throwback to the privateering days but not legit at all, just super corrupt.
At one point he tows a French merchant ship carrying cocoa and sugar to Ocracoke Island and brings all the goods to Eden and he’s just like “yeah we stumbled upon this ship, it was abandoned, and it had all this sugar on it so we took it.” and Eden is just like “sure, that sounds reasonable” even though the French crew, which he let go as is his MO, is like “umm, no actually he attacked us and stole all of that.” but Eden is just like “no, no, no he’s not a pirate anymore so that can’t possibly be true. We will be keeping the sugar and cocoa though, cause, you, finders keepers.”
So Blackbeard is mostly operating out of Ocracoke Island at this point. It’s just really the perfect spot geographically for a pirate. There are a ton of places to hide, the water is really shallow and treacherous if you aren’t familiar with the area so it made it difficult for anyone to go after him there.
But Governor Spotswood of the Virginia Colony starts to get concerned. Blackbeard is threatening Virginia’s trade coming into the Chesapeake Bay. Spotswood conspires with a couple of Royal Navy vessels defending the Chesapeake Bay and gets them to go after Blackbeard. Now, Spotswood has no authority to do this. He has no jurisdiction in North Carolina. Virginia and North Carolina are totally separate colonies there is no United anything at this point.
Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy ends up being the man for the job. He gets two merchant ships the “Ranger” and the “Jane” so these are merchant ships not Navy ships so they're sort of in disguise. He hides a bunch of armed men below decks of these ships and heads to Ocracoke.
So the timing of this could not have been worse for Blackbeard. They had apparently had a big rager the night before. Like a big party on the beach and their drinking liquor and carrying on and when Maynard’s ships arrive they are like passed out, hung over. But someone manages to sound the alarm.
They shoot the “Ranger” as it approaches. It’s sort of out of commission. Blackbeard mistakenly believes that he has the upper hand at this point. He boards the “Jane” which is exactly what Maynard was hoping he’d do and all these armed men below deck jump and take him by surprise. It’s an ambush. Maynard and Blackbeard rush each other with swords and their in this like epic sword fight battle. A naval sailor shoots blackbeard with a gun and he just keeps fighting. He is riddled with bullets and he’s still fighting like a mad man until he finally goes down at which point his crew surrenders.
Maynard cuts off Blackbeard’s head and hangs it from the bow of the ship. Then he throws his body overboard. And, if you haven’t heard the legend, his headless body supposedly swam 3 laps around the ship. And this is obviously physically impossible but I think the hyperbole, the exaggeration of this account speaks to how fiercely Blackbeard fought in the end and how determined he was not to give up.
Maynard finds a bunch of Blackbeard’s loot in like an official North Carolina cargo hold and realizes that Governor Eden is in on the whole thing. Eden accuses Spotswood of illegally attacking outside his jurisdiction. Political scandal follows which had to have only served to further solidify Blackbeard’s infamy.
The book I mentioned earlier “A General History of Pyrates” comes out 6 years later and, although much of it was sensationalized and exaggerated, it really immortalized Blackbeard and portrayed him, really as a hero and someone to be admired. Which I find really interesting.
This view of pirates has not really changed to this day. We’re talking about some really bad guys here. They were straight up villains. They robbed, and plundered, and some of them murdered and yet history has remembered them, for some reason with, almost like this weird admiration.
I mean think about how pirates are portrayed in pop culture. Like Pirates of the Caribbean. Captain Jack Sparrow is the protagonist of that story. Little kids have pirate themed birthday parties, they dress up like pirates for Halloween, it’s all very light hearted. They’re thrown right in they’re with unicorns and mermaids. But, in reality, it’s traumatic. So find it so odd that, as quote unquote woke as our society claims to be right now, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being “woke,” I think it’s about time for a lot of that stuff, but it is weird that pirates are still held with such esteem instead of looked at for what they really were - criminals. The worst sort of criminals.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images of Blackbeard that go along with the story. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d review and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from the book “The Republic of Pirates” by Colin Woodard, “A Short History of…” podcast episode titled “Blackbeard the Pirate,” An Encyclopedia Britannica article about Queen Anne’s War, and, of course, “A General History of Pirates” by Captain Charles Johnson, or Daniel Defoe, or whoever that really was