Blackbeard's Terror

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Blackbeard, alias Captain Edward Thatch, in a rare contemporaneous rendering from Capt. Charles Johnson's 1724 A History of the Pyrates, blockaded Charles Town (present day Charleston) for two weeks in March 1718, ransoming some of its prominent citizens.

One bright June day in 1718, a handful of fishermen off the coast of North Carolina were startled to see four vessels—a large heavily armed ship and three sloops—running before a freshening southwest breeze under a black banner emblazoned with a skeleton and a bright red bleeding heart. So the rumor was true: Blackbeard’s pirates were bearing on the inlet straight toward their village of Beaufort. The sloops carefully negotiated the hazardous shoals in single file, but their heavier flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, grounded on the bar, her sails flapping as the sheets were eased. The sloop Adventure, commanded by Israel Hands, cautiously tacked back down the inlet while Queen Anne’s Revenge’s crew set a kedge anchor astern in an unsuccessful effort to warp her off. Soon Adventure was hard aground too.

As afternoon faded into dusk, Queen Anne’s Revenge rolled aport, sending cannon through her bulwarks into the sea. The pirates, laden with belongings and loot, plunged into small boats or clung to planks, spars, kegs, and barrels. The burdened boats labored through the choppy inlet; those floating were either picked up or swept into the harbor by the surging tide. By nightfall the listing wrecks were abandoned to the rising wind and sea. Over the summer and fall the villagers salvaged what they could before nor’easters and hurricanes broke them up.

Blackbeard, who had served England as a privateer during Queen Anne’s War (1701–13), had arrived in North Carolina with Major Stede Bonnet, a gentleman pirate from Barbados, in the latest flaring of piracy from the West Indies. For centuries European nations had augmented their navies with privateers licensed to prey on enemy merchant vessels in time of war. When peace treaties eliminated the need for privateers, thousands would cross the narrow line back into piracy, heading for Nassau in the Bahamas, a weakly held dependency of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. The open criminality of this new stronghold forced the British Crown to assert control by sending longtime privateer and famed navigator Capt. Woodes Rogers to become the colony’s first royal governor. Rogers arrived with an offer of a royal pardon, the Act of Grace, for those who would submit, just months after Blackbeard and Bonnet had left on their latest foray.

The pirates plundered the French ship, taking 125 slaves

That previous fall, Blackbeard and Bonnet had been cruising 100 miles east of Martinique when they encountered Capt. Pierre Dosset and his 200-ton French frigate La Concorde, nine months out from Nantes and carrying more than 500 slaves from the Guinea coast of West Africa, along with stores of cocoa, copper, and gold dust. Scurvy and dysentery had thinned the 75-man crew, leaving too few able bodies to
defend the ship.

The two pirate craft closed swiftly. Once in range, the pirates unleashed two salvos of cannon and a storm of musketry: La Concorde hove to, soon to be overrun by a horde of freebooters, a tall bearded figure at their head. The pirates plundered the French ship, taking 125 slaves and terrorizing the officers into revealing the whereabouts of the gold dust. Blackbeard left them a sloop, the majority of the slaves, and enough food to keep them until they reached Martinique.

The sound of Blackbeard's Spanish watch bell proved welcome music to many Carolina colonists, buffeted by internal dissension and weakened by bloody conflict with the Tuscarora Indians. The pirates brought opportunity for revelry, as illustrated in this 1837 engraving.

In honor of the late Stuart monarch whom he had nominally served, Blackbeard named his new command Queen Anne’s Revenge, a gibe at the new, unpopular Hanoverian King George I. With a weightier armament of as many as 40 guns, his new flagship was as powerful as any Royal Navy warship in the hemisphere. Blackbeard, accompanied by Bonnet’s Revenge, embarked on a destructive campaign, capturing and looting more than 40 prizes from the Leeward Islands to the Virgins. By March 1718 the pirate captains had left the Spanish Main and sailed lazily north in a potent flotilla of three sloops and a frigate, altogether mounting at least 60 guns and crewed by more than 300 pirates, which overmatched the few Royal Navy vessels deployed at sea from the West Indies to North America.

Two months later the people of Charles Town, South Carolina, awoke to “a great Terror”—Blackbeard’s squadron off their harbor. For a week the pirates held up incoming vessels, garnering supplies and nearly £1,500 in gold and silver. The ransom that Blackbeard demanded for his prisoners was a medicine chest worth only £400, but drugs were hard to come by, and the pirates suffered from numerous maladies including syphilis. When the governor proved obstinate, Blackbeard’s threats to behead the hostages had quick effect.