Black Sails Season 3: The Real Blackbeard
We look into the history of Black Sails with a look at the real Blackbeard the pirate.
Black Sails season 3 introduces Ray Stevenson as Blackbeard. In honor of this, we give you some insight into the real history behind the show. It may contain spoilers for the upcoming season, though, so read on with caution.
He is the most iconic of all pirates and his name still brings a thrill of fear into the hearts of those who hear it spoken. His look is iconic. The standard for what every pirate ought to be. He’s so much a part of pirate lore that it’s hard to believe that the pirate known as Blackbeard could possibly be real.
“Yes, yes,” say people in the know. “Of course, his name was Edward Teach, and he was captain of the Queen Anne’s Revenge and… and…”
And what else?
His name probably wasn’t even Teach. More modern scholarship says “Thatch” is closer to the truth, although even that may have been an assumed name. His early life remains a mystery. Scholars believe he may have been born in the English port city of Bristol in about 1680. His ability to read and write suggests a wealthy or at least middle-class background, unusual in a pirate.
Legend says Blackbeard began his sailing career during Queen Anne’s war, a conflict which was in many ways the first “world war” since it involved most European nations and their colonies. When this war ended, privateers, who had been robbing ships for years under the auspices of their respective governments, found themselves suddenly without work.
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Having nothing but guns, ships, and experience attacking the merchant shipping of foreign nations, it was easy for these men to “go on the account” and become pirates. However Blackbeard began his career, the first reliable account of him comes in 1716, when the renowned pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold put Thatch in charge of a sloop he had captured.
Blackbeard had been sailing with Hornigold for a while. And while Hornigold had a reputation as a teacher, a man who nurtured young pirates in their careers “on the account” it’s interesting to note that Hornigold and Thatch were of an age.
One wonders, then, why Thatch, who had very obvious leadership abilities, did not gather a crew and capture his own ship (Hornigold, like many pirates, had started out with no more than a canoe).
One intriguing idea is that Blackbeard’s black beard hid a secret – African ancestry. Some believe that the man known as Edward Thatch was the illegitimate son of a wealthy family, a family further disgraced by the child’s mother, an African slave. We may never know for sure, but certain pieces of circumstantial evidence support this. One is the fact that the pirate’s swarthy skin is often mentioned in his descriptions. Another is the fact that his hair and beard were always described as being braided. Europeans did not follow this style at all, but such grooming habits would be typical of someone trying to manage bushy African hair.
Navies of the time would not typically allow a person of African ancestry to hold the position of captain, no matter how qualified. Pirates, however, were a different matter. Ability counted with pirates above all, and Blackbeard was about to show himself a captain of rare ability.
Hornigold, a former privateer, had made it a habit, out of national loyalty, to never capture English ships. Blackbeard, along with several other associates of Hornigold, disagreed with this philosophy, and Hornigold was soon voted out of his position as Commodore of the pirate fleet.
Blackbeard took off with his own flotilla, including a ship named the Revenge, captained by Stede Bonnet, called The Gentleman Pirate. Bonnet had been incapacitated in an ill-advised attack on a Spanish ship, and was happy to offer control of his fortunes to Thatch.
It’s interesting that Thatch did not turn Bonnet out of his own ship, since the Gentleman Pirate was completely unskilled as a tactician and as a sailor. Instead, Blackbeard allowed the former captain to live on in the spacious cabin aboard his sloop the Revenge – a cabin that had been turned into a library before Bonnet set sail.
Further proof that Blackbeard came from an educated background?
Blackbeard had been capturing vessels left and right, but in November of 1717 he began the battle that would cement his legend. On the 28th of that month, he attacked and defeated a large, well-armed French vessel called La Concorde. After putting the ship’s crew off in one of his own sloops, Thatch fortified the merchant ship with additional cannon (bringing the total of guns up to 40) and renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
She was one of the largest pirate ships of the era. Over her deck, Thatch flew a black flag featuring a picture of the Devil in skeleton form. His own appearance had by now been honed to the image we know today- a tall, broad-shouldered man with long, braided black hair and the impressive beard, also worn braided and decorated with ribbons. He was known to favor dark clothing (unusual in the day) and to wear boots, rather than shoes, also unusual.
Going into battle, he was said to carry a leather bandolier with six pistols. This however, was not quite such a distinguishing feature. Since the pistols of the day could only be fired once, pirates often carried as many as six guns, often hung in pairs around the neck by silk ribbons. Blackbeard, in this respect, is notable only for his choice of sturdy leather.
Did he really stick lighted fuses under his hat when going into battle? It says so in the 1724 book by “Captain Johnson,” A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. This book was long regarded as the ultimate source for pirate information, since Johnson, a contemporary of the pirates, got his information from people who had actually been present at the events he depicted.
But pirates tell tall tales. Is it true? My thought is that somebody had to have come up with the idea, and Blackbeard himself seems a likely candidate. A substance available on the ship called “slow match” was a type of fuse designed to burn at the rate of one foot per hour, would have fit the requirements perfectly. Blackbeard liked to identify with the Devil, and he knew the importance of reputation. In fact, his reputation stood him in such a good stead that he is never known to have needed to harm a hostage or captive. Pure terror made him successful
In May of 1718 at the height of his power, Thatch, now calling himself Commodore, and leading a fleet of as many as 9 ships, attacked and blockaded the port of Charlestown South Carolina. Fox six days the harbor was bottled up by the pirates, and Teach captured nine vessels in all.
Captured dignitaries were send ashore with a message: All the pirate wanted was a chest of medicine and they would be on their way. Why medicine? Theories say that the pirates, full to the brim with money from successful captures, had contracted venereal disease from Nassau prostitutes.
Whatever their reason for wanting the medicine, the pirates were adamant. Representatives of the captives were sent ashore, under guard of two pirates, to retrieve the medicine. When they did not return on time, Blackbeard extended their time limit by two days. When they did still did not return, Thatch still did not harm his remaining captives, but he did move his ships into the harbor, causing a panic.
The representatives finally returned. They had faced no difficulty in gathering the required medicine. But they had not been able to find their pirate “guards,” who were off getting drunk in a tavern when they should have been escorting the medicines back to Blackbeard.
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Blackbeard now owned not only the largest, but also the most well-known pirate ship in the New World, and he began to find it a problem. Rumors were flying that England had sent a man named Woodes Rogers with a fleet of ships to destroy the regions pirates. It was also common knowledge that a Royal Pardon was being offered for pirates who gave up their way of life.
Blackbeard wanted the pardon, but he also wanted to see how things went down with some other pirate before he committed himself. To this end, he first ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground on a sandbar. This reduced the number of crewmembers he had to deal with, while he escapoed with the bulk of his treasure. Then he sent Stede Bonnet (whom he was still traveling with) into North Carolina to see Governor Charles Eden about the pardon.
Bonnet came back several days later with good news… All the pirate’s crimes were being pardoned. But he did not find Blackbeard. His wily fellow-captain had taken off with all the plunder, marooning another 20 or so pirates on a small island.
Blackbeard obtained his pardon and used his riches to move into a home close to Governor Eden’s place. His remaining crew took up residence nearby, and spent their days drinking in the local taverns. Blackbeard gave every appearance of going straight. But, either out of boredom or because of previous plans, he soon set back out on his piratical ways.
He chose Oracoke Island for his base, anchoring his last ship, a sloop named the Adventure there and camping out on the shore. The location enabled him to keep an eye on local shipping. He captured a French ship, and “found” another vessel that was abandoned or in distress. Governor Eden ruled the cargos of these ships “salvage,” took a cut for himself, and let the pirates have the rest.
Blackbeard began partying harder at his island refuge, entertaining the likes of pirates Charles Vane and Calico Jack Rackham.
The Governor of North Carolina was perfectly happy with the arrangement, but the Governor of Georgia, who was friends with some of the poeple being robbed, was not. He intimidated a captive pirate to provide details of Blackbeard’s location, then put out personal reward large enough to lure a local Navy lieutenant away from his duties and into pirate hunting.
Lieutenant Robert Maynard scrounged up two ships and several dozen men, and approached Oracoke early in the morning. Blackbeard was not surprised. Upon sighting the navy vessels, the Adventure let fly a broadside that completely disabled the smaller of Maynard’s ships. Maynard’s own vessel then ran aground on a sandbar. Blackbeard launched his own ship into the inlet and met Maynard yardarm to yardarm.
The pirates were slightly outnumbered, but Maynard also set a trap by hiding half his crew, and attacking from the rear once the pirates had boarded him. The battle was epic. Men shot and stabbed each other on a deck already red with blood from the Adventure’s first broadside. Blackbeard, isolated from his men, fought hand to hand with Maynard, but the sailors in Maynard’s crew isolated him and attacked in mass.
Blackbeard was shot five times and received over twenty other wounds before he fell to the deck, dying. When they saw their leader vanquished, the pirates attempted to blow up both ships by setting their own powder room ablaze, but were stopped in the nick of time.
Maynard cut off Blackbeard’s hairy head, attached it to the bowsprit of his own ship and threw the pirate’s body into the sea. Blackbeard had died as epically as he had lived. But he would have his revenge. Maynard, unable to resist, helped himself to the pirates’ plunder, and when this was discovered, he lost his share of the prize money and any chance at promotion Blackbeard’s death might have brought him. He faded into obscurity, while Blackbeard remains the most famous pirate to have ever lived.
TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at thepirateempire.blogspot.com