There was Teach, the bloody pirate, with his black beard curling on his breast.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the seventh in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet, here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler, here to read the biography of Thomas Morton here to read the biography of King Philip, and here to read the biography of Governor Thomas Dale. Our final member of the jury of the damned is Edward Teach, better known to history as Blackbeard.
It is odd that Blackbeard is almost the only pirate from the colorful Age of Piracy in the Sixteenth-Eighteenth centuries that most members of the general public could name, because he had a very short career, only two years, and was much less successful than many pirates, for example Henry Morgan, who achieved a knighthood and the office of Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
Teach was probably born in Bristol, England in 1680. He may have served as a privateer in Queen Anne’s War. In 1716 the pirate Benjamin Hornigold placed Teach in command of a sloop, and together the duo committed numerous acts of piracy. In 1717 Teach captured a French merchant ship, renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge and armed her with 40 guns, a formidable armament for a pirate ship. His fame began to spread. His nickname, Blackbeard, came from the long black beard he wore. Teach adopted a fearsome personae in order to overawe the crews of the ships that he captured. He lit fuses dangling from beneath his cap to enhance his image as a completely ruthless pirate.
His most notable feat was a blockade he undertook of the new port of Charleston, not lifting the blockade until a ransom was paid.
In June of 1718 Teach received a pardon from the Governor of North Carolina. Life on shore however proved too dull and by August Teach had returned to the life of a pirate.
Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, alarmed that Teach was operating in North Carolina waters and preying upon ships from Virginia sent two armed sloops under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, Royal Navy, to kill or capture Blackbeard. In a furious hand to hand battle on November 22, 1718 Teach was defeated and killed, his body having received 20 slashes and five musket balls in the fierce melee. In what would be the best Hollywood style Blackbeard and Maynard had fought each other in the struggle. Maynard had Teach beheaded, with his corpse minus the head tossed into the sea. Maynard suspended the head of Teach from the bowsprit of his ship as evidence for the monetary reward he had been promised for the reward of slaying Blackbeard. Maynard would rise in rank to Captain and would leave an estate of 2,000 pounds in value, a fairly large sum for the time.
Blackbeard probably would have faded into the obscurity that enveloped most pirates, except for Charles Johnson’s A General Historie of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724 which kept Blackbeard’s memory alive. “Charles Johnson” may have been a nom de plume and it is possible that the book was written by Daniel Defoe. In any case the book was a hit, and kept alive the memory of Blackbeard and other pirates. Various superstitions have clustered around Blackbeard and tales and movies have associated him with the supernatural. One of the best known of these is the Disney movie Blackbeard’s Ghost where Peter Ustinov gave a typically unrestrained performance as the shade of Blackbeard. In the video below from the film we have the ghost of Blackbeard singing Heart of Oak which would not be written until more than three decades after his death and celebrates the Royal Navy that put an end to his blood bespattered career.