Blackbeard's Terror

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About a month later the reivers made their rendezvous with disaster at Topsail (now Beaufort) Inlet. Apparently most (if not all) of the crewmen were rescued by Bonnet’s Revenge and the other remaining sloops and landed at Beaufort village. Bonnet left immediately for the colony’s capital, Bath, to seek the governor’s pardon. Blackbeard took command of the other sloop, armed it, and named it Adventure. Marooning some of his men on a desolate island nearby, Blackbeard sailed toward Bath, taking on 40 crewmen, 60 blacks, and nearly all the loot. Whether as volunteers or pressed men, pirates signed articles that governed their democratically organized communities and specified equitable division of the spoils. Blackbeard’s actions aroused suspicions among his former companions that he had purposely grounded his vessels to reduce the number of shares. This may not have been the case. Although Blackbeard was a skilled seaman, the North Carolina coast was notoriously treacherous, and there is no evidence that he was familiar with Topsail Inlet.

The pirates had arrived at a crucial juncture in the history of the proprietary colony of North Carolina. In 1663 eight noblemen and knights who had played important roles in restoring the monarchy had been rewarded by Charles II with a generous grant of land in North America that would be named Carolina after him. The practice of privatizing the British realm’s expansion had dated from the days of Elizabeth I, but no other monarch would match Charles II’s liberality in granting the vast domains of Carolina, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The monumental dimensions of Carolina alone were breathtaking: a prodigious swath of North America stretching from Virginia to Spanish Florida and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

From Albemarle County in northern Carolina, settlement had spread south of Albemarle Sound to Bath County, which bordered the Tuscarora Nation. This new county enjoyed better sea communications through the deeper Ocracoke Inlet, which gave access to larger vessels, although small sloops and schooners continued to carry most of the colony’s trade. Hampered by poorer connections to the North Atlantic trade network than its neighbors’, northern Carolina had grown slowly at first, attracting small landholders who at the outset relied chiefly on indentured servants. Soon they began importing African slaves. By 1720 North Carolina supported 18,000 Europeans, 3,000 Africans, and an undetermined number of American Indians. In smaller South Carolina’s plantation society, enslaved Africans significantly outnumbered the Europeans.

Charles Town was a substantial city of 2,000 whites and half as many blacks, while the four towns of North Carolina—Bath, Beaufort, Edenton, and New Bern—altogether boasted perhaps 400 people. The earliest, Bath, had been incorporated in 1706 and become the county seat. This village of perhaps a dozen houses near the Pamlico River served as the market and political center for the southern frontier, from Albemarle Sound to the Neuse River. When merchant vessels anchored there, dugouts and periaugers piled with furs put out to meet them, and the sandy lanes bustled with seamen, Indians, and planters from outlying farms. Settled in 1713, the “poor little village” of Beaufort had direct access to the ocean and the teeming marine fisheries of Core Sound nearby. Here sailors could buy apples and cider from bumboats, the mariners’ convenience market.

By the early 18th century the colony was prospering, only to face the great ordeals of the Cary Rebellion (1708–11) and the Tuscarora War (1711–15). The rebellion was the culmination of political tension stemming from upstart Bath County’s challenge to Albemarle’s hegemony—a struggle inflamed by politicians loyal to the newly established Anglican Church, who ousted Quakers from the General Assembly by imposing a test oath. The colony was torn by religious and political dissension from 1705 until 1711. when the powerfully connected new governor, Edward Hyde, finally drove his disaffected predecessor, Thomas Cary, from the colony. But the political machinations and power struggles had left the colony weakened.

The American Indians of North Carolina, who had long endured encroachment on their lands, dishonest trading, and the enslavement of their young people, were well aware of the divisions among the whites. Unable to bear any more, the charismatic Tuscarora chief King Hancock forged a powerful confederacy that fell without warning upon the settlement south of the Pamlico River on September 22, 1711. Hundreds of settlers were killed, wounded, or enslaved. Bath was flooded with refugees, among them approximately 300 widows and orphans. Governor Hyde secured funding and militia drafts from the assembly, and the colony was finally saved by two expeditions from South Carolina.

When the pirates descended in the late spring of 1718, they found settlements isolated amid widespread devastation. Bath County was just starting to rebuild, and the colony’s treasury was depleted. The Tuscarora had been crushed, but the various truces and the treaty of 1715 had not ended the violence. Three years later, renegade bands were still raiding isolated farmsteads and alarming the residents of Bath.