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CW Journal : Autumn 92 : When Blackbeard Scourged the Seas

When Blackbeard Scourged the Seas

Governor Spotswood warred against him. His skull became a drinking cup.

by George Humphrey Yetter,
Associate Curator, Architectural Drawings
Line engraving of Blackbeard the pirate

Courtesy of the College of William and Mary, Special Collections.

"Blackbeard the Pirate" print from Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pirates, (Kensington: printed and sold by Philip Sainsbury at the Cayme Press, January 1927.)

Come all you jolly sailors
You all so stout and brave;
Come hearken and I'll tell you
What happen'd on the wave.
Oh! 'tis of that bloody Blackbeard
I'm going now for to tell;
And as how by gallant Maynard
He soon was sent to hell.
-Benjamin Franklin (attributed)

Williamsburg in the summer of 1718 was rife with unrest. Alexander Spotswood, the Virginia colony's governor, was in the midst of a quarrel with influential members of the local gentry. Eight members of the Council had declined to attend his elegant annual entertainment in honor of the king's birthday in May of that year. Instead, as the governor himself observed, they "got together all the turbulent and disaffected Burgesses, had an entertainment of their own in the Burgesses House and invited the mobb to a bonfire where they were plentifully supplied with liquors."

Stung by the largely unmerited volley of acrimonious accusations and resulting recriminations leveled at him by such well-connected colonial figures as William Byrd and Philip Ludwell--both the second of that name--Spotswood recognized an opportunity for succoring a popular cause to aid in restoration of his personal standing, and so was sympathetic when merchants from North Carolina presented a plea for relief from sea attack. Many of them attested to collusion between their own Governor Charles Eden and pirates. William Howard, who served as quartermaster under Blackbeard, was captured in Virginia and charged for serving with "one Edward Tach and other Wickid and desolute Persons." In the interim, it was learned that the sea rovers were planning to fortify Ocracoke Island as their haven.

Time was of the essence in order to dispatch an expedition before the sanctuary became impregnable. Governor Spotswood himself provided funds for the hire of two light, fast sloops, which slipped stealthily out of the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic on a course set for Ocracoke Inlet on November 17. Spotswood inveighed the burgesses at Williamsburg for "speedy and Effectual Measures for breaking up that Knott of Robbers." On November 24, an "Act to Encourage the Apprehending and Destroying of Pyrates" was passed, and £100 for the death or capture of Blackbeard.

Unknown to them was the climactic battle off Ocracoke Island fought two days earlier. The two vessels sent by Spotswood had arrived off North Carolina's Outer Banks on November 21. One boat became disabled, so that the Ranger, under command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, entered the inlet that evening and sighted Blackbeard's Adventure anchored in open water. Battle was joined at daybreak, after the English mariners jettisoned much of their ballast.

Maynard had the Union Jack run up on his previously unidentified vessel. Blackbeard raised his personal black ensign with a horned skeleton. After receiving cannon fire, Maynard's crew, not equipped with artillery, answered with musket volleys and then hid below decks in a ruse to lure the pirates aboard the English vessel. Maynard later wrote of his adversary that "at our first Salutation, he drank Damnation to me and my Men, whom he stil'd Cowardly Puppies, saying, He would neither give or take Quarter."

Deceived by the seamen's stratagem, Blackbeard and his crew clambered aboard the Ranger and were immediately surrounded and ultimately vanquished by Maynard's men emerging from the hold. In the ensuing chaos, during which a contemporary describes the sea around the vessel as "tinctur'd with Blood," Maynard and Blackbeard came face to face. The pirate received a pistol shot while swinging his heavy cutlass, snapping his adversary's sword like a twig. As Blackbeard was about to deliver the death blow, his throat was slashed by a stout Scot among Maynard's crew. Much as the wily Russian monk Rasputin in a later era, Blackbeard continued to struggle on until, while cocking a pistol, he fell dead. Later it was discovered that he had sustained 25 wounds, five of which were from pistol balls. "Here," remarked a contemporary, "was an end to that courageous brute, who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause."

Almost immediately, Maynard had the pirate's head severed and hung the grisly trophy from the bowsprit of the Ranger. The corpse was thrown overboard after which, legend says, it swam defiantly several times around the sloop. Stopping first at Bath, North Carolina, Maynard discovered much of the pirates' booty in the barn of Tobias Knight, Governor Eden's secretary. With the recovered goods on board and Blackbeard's skull swinging from the bowsprit, the expedition returned to Virginia.

Bristol, England, is generally believed to have been the home of the pirate Edward Teach-better known to history as Blackbeard. It appears that his surname may originally have been Drummond, and that he began his career as a youthful merchant seaman. His first taste of adventure came during Queen Anne's War, when he served on a privateer sailing out of Kingston, Jamaica, to prey on French shipping. The ensuing era of peace created a restlessness of spirit that led him to sign on as a crew member of the pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold, whose base of operations was New Providence in the Bahamas. Teach quickly distinguished himself by his strength, courage, and devil-may-care attitude.

Following the capture of a French merchantman plying between Martinique and the African coast, Teach's energy and leadership led to his appointment as captain of the prize. Hornigold, with wealth laid by, accepted the offer of George I to pardon pirates promising to reform and left Teach, his lieutenant, in charge. With 40 cannon mounted at her gun ports and a crew adept at manning them, the rechristened Queen Anne's Revenge--its name reflecting the dark glamour of the earlier Elizabethan piratical era--was soon besting warships of the British Royal Navy.

It was during this period that Teach cultivated a fearsome reputation as Blackbeard. This evil fame was intentionally developed as an aid in encouraging prompt surrender with minimal resistance of his prey at sea. His tall frame and powerful physique contributed to a dreadful physiognomy, including a lengthy, coal-black beard which, before action, he plaited into small pigtails tied with colored ribbons. Into these he lighted and placed long, slow-burning matches ordinarily used to touch off cannon. The wisps of smoke curling out from beneath his cocked hat and around his face greatly increased a devilish appearance. Pistols, daggers, and a cutlass were in his belt. Across his chest he wore a bandolier in which he usually carried six primed, cocked, ready-to-fire pistols.

Obviously a believer in the importance of first impressions, he ordinarily dressed completely in black to create an appearance as horrifying as his deeds. It is said that Blackbeard in battle array was an awesome sight and, to sailors of the day, as feared as the devil himself, to which many believed him akin. This fearsome demeanor, together with a reputation for ruthlessness in battle, effected instant surrender in many instances.

Meeting the "gentleman pirate" Stede Bonnet--a former resident of good reputation and estate in the Barbados, who had taken up the nefarious profession in part to escape some discomforts he found in the married state--Blackbeard formed an instant friendship and announced that henceforward they would sail together. Unfortunately for Bonnet, his ineptitude as a mariner soon led to his virtual imprisonment on board his companion's flagship, where the latter said he could now "live easy and at his pleasure." During this period, a successful hunt by the pirates in the sea lanes between the Bahamas and South Carolina led to the taking of at least 12 ships. Some of the captured sailors signed on with Blackbeard's crew.

Following this, Blackbeard sailed for North Carolina's Pamlico Sound as the admiral of a flotilla of four ships and at least 140 seamen under his command. Protected by the Outer Banks, the shallow sounds provided a number of hiding places. One retreat was up the Chowan River near Holiday's Island. The favorite refuge, however, was Ocracoke Island, where a house known as Blackbeard's Castle used to stand in the village. An inlet not far from the present town of Ocracoke is known today as "Teach's Hole." Here, tradition has it, he careened his ships for repair.

Blackbeard's mercurial personality craved excitement tinged with cruelty and terror; he felt occasional barbarous displays necessary in order to maintain discipline and discourage mutiny. During one meeting with his men between decks he extinguished the lantern and fired his pistol randomly under the table, crippling a crewman. Another time, he closeted himself in the hold with several others and directed that pots of brimstone, or sulfur, be lit. Soon, clouds of smoking fumes forced the others to flee; Blackbeard held out the longest.

Another side of his complex psyche caused the pirate to crave a quiet life ashore. In 1717 he appeared before Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina with 20 of his men and received the king's pardon. Blackbeard appears to have been no stranger to the governor. A contemporary described portions of stolen pirate loot being carried to Eden House and observed that "Governors are but Men." Blackbeard proceeded to acquire a fine home near Bath, North Carolina--an area where frontier morality still prevailed--and was married by Governor Eden to a 16-year-old bride who, unbeknownst to her, was his 14th wife. Ten among her predecessors were still living. A time of merrymaking and dissipation followed during which the pirate, though a swaggering braggart, won over most of the neighboring planters through gifts of rum and sugar as well as lavish entertainments in his home.

After awhile the call of the open sea became irresistible, and Blackbeard returned to piracy along the southeastern coast, ranging as far north as Pennsylvania in the eight-gun sloop Adventure. Tradition in the James River region maintains that he eluded British naval vessels by disappearing up Pagan Creek in the neighborhood of Smithfield, Virginia. Blackbeard's Hill still dominates Lynnhaven Bay near Cape Henry. From its summit, pirate sentinels could scan the Chesapeake Bay entrance through the Virginia Capes.

Ultimately, the endurance of all was pushed to the limit by his insolence and insults. Because valuable cargoes traveled through the Chesapeake Bay, trade in Virginia often came to a standstill when pirates patrolled sea lanes and threatened vessels could not leave the safety of ports. During one six-week period, not a single ship dared to leave the safety of Virginia shores.

Pirates had long held a dark fascination for Englishmen stemming, perhaps, from their dimly remembered experiences with Viking plunderers. This notoriety was not always stained with dishonor. The navigator Francis Drake began his career being called the "master thief of the known world," yet was knighted by Elizabeth I. So also was the notorious Henry Morgan, by Charles II. Such encouragement bred a race of hardened seamen who contributed to England's position as mistress of the seas. Since the days ofthe Spanish Armada, privateering, or government approved plundering of enemy commerce, assisted in establishing some of the country's greatest fortunes. With the colonization of America and a change of venue-largely from the English Channel to the Caribbean-these former privateers evolved from buccaneers and pirates into what was euphemistically known along the American and Spanish mains as "Brethren of the Coast."

William Berkeley, governor of the Virginia colony in 1660, complained that the "Seas are soe full of Pyrates that it is almost impossible for any Ships to goe home [to England] in safety." Merchantmen and trading vessels often sought to thwart pirates by assembling in fleets and sailing under convoy of guardships, English naval vessels that superintended harbors and protected shipping.

Writing to the Board of Trade in 1724, Governor Spotswood lamented his lack of "some safe opportunity to get home" to London and insisted that he would travel only in a well-armed man-of-war.

Your Lordships will easily conceive my Meaning when you reflect on the Vigorous part I've acted to suppress Pirates; and if those barbarous Wretches can be moved to cut off the Nose & Ears of a Master for but correcting his own Sailors, what inhuman treatment must I expect, should I fall within their power, who have been markt as the principle object of their vengeance, for cutting off their arch Pirate Thatch, with all his grand Designs, & making so many of their Fraternity to swing in the open air of Virginia.

The legend of Blackbeard proliferated following the end of what has been termed the "Golden Age of Piracy." A youthful Ben Franklin--then a printer's devil or apprentice in Boston--wrote what he termed "a sailor's song on the taking of Teach." A series of theatrical dramas ensued and, for a time, pirates and rumors of pirates continued to haunt the southern coast. The image Blackbeard created lingered and was colorfully portrayed by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island. Today his memory is kept alive in Williamsburg through interpretive programs at the Capitol and Gaol.

Williamsburg's connection with pirates dates to 1693. Account books of the College of William and Mary show £300 received from three buccaneers named Edward Davis, Lionel Delawafer, and Andrew Hinson, who thus obtained their release from the Jamestown jail. Blackbeard quartermaster William Howard, while incarcerated in Williamsburg, was defended in court by the town's first mayor, John Holloway, characterized by Spotswood as "a constant patron and advocate of pirates." Nine of Blackbeard's crew survived to be captured and, with six others seized in Bath, were brought to Virginia's colonial capital for trial, probably held in the General Courtroom on the first floor of the Capitol. March 1719 saw 13 pirates meet their end on the gallows along Williamsburg's present Capitol Landing Road.

During the 17th and 18th centuries in England and America, the bodies of executed pirates were often later hanged in chains near harbor entrances and left for years as a warning to would-be pirates. It is recorded that Spotswood required this action to be taken, with four "profligate wretches" hanged by twos at Tindall's Point on the York and at Urbanna on the Rappahannock. Blackbeard's skull hung for many years from a pole at the confluence of the Hampton and James rivers. The site is still known as Blackbeard's Point.

Reputable sources declare that the relic was later taken down and fashioned into a silver-mounted drinking cup. Antiquarian and publisher John F. Watson states that the "skull was made into the bottom part of a very large punch bowl, called the infant, which was long used as a drinking vessel at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. It was enlarged with silver, or silver plated; and I have seen those whose forefathers have spoken of their drinking punch from it, with a silver ladle appurtenant to that bowl." Historian and author John Esten Cooke, in his Virginia, states that the cup was still preserved in the state in 1903. The usage of skulls as drinking cups is an ancient practice. The Roman historian Livy makes reference to northern Italians cleaning and gilding crania for use as drinking goblets; Plutarch and Herodotus record similar rituals practiced by the Teutons, Scythians, and Tibetans.

As recently as 1989, Charles H. Whedbee, a lawyer and state legislator in North Carolina, wrote a volume of reminiscences describing an event of the early 1930s when he visited a law school friend from the University of North Carolina at his home on the coast. Touring Ocracoke, they stopped at Blackbeard's Castle near Silver Lake. It was an odd but convivial evening, spent among rough seamen speaking with the Elizabethan inflection familiar to the area. They drank from what was purported to be Blackbeard's silver-plated skull. Incised around the outer circumference were the words: "Deth to Spotswoode."

"In the commonwealth of Pirates," concluded novelist Daniel Defoe writing under the nom de plume of Captain Charles Johnson in 1724, "who goes the greatest length for wickedness is looked upon with a kind of envy amongst them, as a person of a more extraordinary gallantry, and is thereby entitled to be distinguished by some post. And if such a one has but courage, he must certainly be a great man." Blackbeard has been described as "the embodiment of impregnable wickedness, of reckless daring, a nightmarish villain so lacking in any human kindness that no crime was above him. . . the living picture of an ogre who roamed the seas and withered all before him with his very presence." He was, an 18th-century writer said, like "a frightful meteor" that "frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there in a long time."

Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Autumn 1992), pp. 22-28.