"If I don't kill one of you every now and then, you'll forget who I am."
Why fly a black flag, when a black beard will do?
Born in the town of Bristol (maybe) circa 1680 (maybe), Edward Teach (maybe
), better known as Blackbeard, the most famous pirate of The Golden Age
. He was not the richest, nor was his career the longest, and he probably wasn't even the meanest, but he set the standard for Golden Age piracy, codifying the image in popular culture. When we think of pirates, he is the first one to come to mind. Maybe because of his flair for drama, and his weaponization of the terrifying pirate image.
Blackbeard's origins are sketchy; history records very few facts about his life before his pirate career began. English by nationality, he was most likely born in the port city of Bristol, sometime around 1680. His birth name is commonly given as "Edward Teach," but not even that is a certainty. The earliest reliable historical mention of an "Edward Teach" was that of a Privateer in the British Navy during the War of the Spanish Succession
, circa 1714. He was apparently a good, if not particularly remarkable, sailor and seaman. After the end of the War, Teach, along with many Privateers who now found themselves unemployed, migrated to the Caribbean and took on a full-time career in piracy. So many pirates did this, as a matter of fact, that they actually took over the Bahamian island of New Providence and declared it a "Pirate Republic." It was here that Teach hooked up with legendary Privateer Benjamin Hornigold, and wound up commanding a ship under him.
Between 1716 and 1717 Teach and Hornigold raided the Caribbean islands and the Carolina coast, growing in strength and reputation. Eventually they allied with a third pirate, Stede Bonnet, and between the three of them they became a serious threat to the southern British colonies. Toward the end of 1717, Hornigold was forced into retirement and Bonnet voluntarily stepped down from his command, leaving Teach the sole commander of the small fleet. Under Teach's command his crews became bolder, capturing more ships and cargo and increasing their size and strength. One such captured prize, a French frigate called La Concorde,
was re-christened Queen Anne's Revenge
and claimed as Teach's flagship. And around this time, Teach officially started being referred to as "Blackbeard."
Over the course of 1717 and 1718, Blackbeard continued to raid and pillage, mostly around Florida and Hispaniola, taking more prizes and increasing the size of his fleet. By May of 1718, his fleet had grown so powerful that he successfully blockaded the port of Charleston, ransoming a shipload of high-society Charlestonites for...medical supplies
Shortly after the Blockade of Charleston, word came down that the British government was about to crack down hard
on Caribbean piracy. The pirate-hunter Woodes Rogers was on his way with a fleet of warships, preparing to wipe New Providence clean...but any pirate who surrendered to the authorities before he got there would be offered a provisional pardon. Blackbeard and Bonnet were considering taking the pardon and going straight, but they were wary; the exact conditions of this blanket pardon were subject to the interpretation of the individual colonial governors, so they had to be very careful which
local authority they decided to surrender to. They opted for North Carolina, since Governor Charles Eden was actively recruiting Privateers, and they made a plan to test his honesty and leniency: they careened their ships on the coast, and Bonnet would head to Bath Town to seek the pardon, while Blackbeard would wait for him. Eden did in fact offer Bonnet a pardon and a Privateer's commission, but once Bonnet returned he found that Blackbeard had double-crossed him: Blackbeard had scuttled the ships, marooned the crews, and taken off in a smaller ship with all the valuables he could carry. So pissed was Bonnet that he returned to his pirating ways to hunt down Blackbeard. He failed, and was captured and executed for his troubles. Meanwhile, Blackbeard also got a pardon and a commission as a Privateer, operating out of North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Of course, the line between "pirate" and "privateer" is pretty damned fine, and the Governors of other colonies were soon screaming for Blackbeard's head, claiming acts of piracy on vessels out of their ports. In November of 1718, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard, commander of the Ranger,
after him. Maynard tracked Blackbeard to Okracoke Island and engaged him in a ferocious battle. Fighting like a cornered beast, Blackbeard soaked up an insane
amount of damage, and was finally brought down, taking ten members of Maynard's crew with him.
Blackbeard has gone down in popular culture as the quintessential Pirate. He has a reputation for cruelty as well as a reputation for cunning. Indeed, his greatest talent might well have been the weaponizing of that reputation for cruelty, crafting an image for himself that was so fearsome that crews would just surrender without a fight if they saw him coming for them. Exactly how much of this reputation was real, how much was him playing it up, and how much was fabricated by the authorities to demonize him, may never be known. Indeed, there is no evidence of him committing a single murder until his Last Stand
. His reputation as a Bad Boss
who frightened his crew with eccentric actions and Refuge in Audacity
ploys probably proved to be his undoing. He had a reputation for randomly killing or maiming whoever his first mate was at the time, and however exaggerated that might be, it wasn't beyond him to do so if it helped his image. One of his own crew-mates played a part in his final defeat.
Among the pirates of the Golden Age, all colorful characters in their own rights, Blackbeard stands out on his own level. And he probably would have liked it that way.
Tropes Associated with Blackbeard include:
- Badass Beard: And he would hide plugs of smoldering incense in it, making him look like a flaming monster.
- Badass Boast: His words to Maynard: "Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarters, or take any from you!"
- Bling of War: Blackbeard was not above dolling up his beard with ribbons and beads.
- Captain Colorbeard: Trope Codifier
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: He orchestrated Hornigold's "retirement" to get himself elected full commander of the fleet. Then Stede Bonnet found out the hard way what happens when you trust a guy named Blackbeard.
- Cool Ship: La Concorde, a heavy 40-gun frigate that Blackbeard was lucky enough to capture intact and rename the Queen Anne's Revenge. Considering most pirates were limited to small sloops and cutters, he would have been a fool not to make it his flagship.
- The Dragon: To Benjamin Hornigold...
- The Dreaded: He deliberately cultivated this image to get people to surrender without a fight. And it worked.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: He went down swinging. And most likely swearing.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Quite literally; on paper he doesn't even exist before 1714.
- Genre Savvy: Image-consciousness was a defining characteristic of Golden Age pirates: the images they projected to the world were all very deliberately and very carefully constructed, whether they chose to be monsters to be feared or Gentleman Adventurers to be respected and admired. Blackbeard was no exception, and he was particularly good at it.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Zigzagged. Make no mistake, Blackbeard was not a nice man. But the tales of his cruelty were most likely exaggerated, either by the authorities or deliberately by himself.
- Large and In Charge: Contemporary accounts of Blackbeard indicate that he was very tall, and "spare of frame;" his huge bushy beard probably made him look bigger than he actually was.
- Made of Iron: And how! It took something like twenty-five stab wounds and five point-blank pistol shots to even slow him down long enough for someone to sneak up behind him with a sword and lop his head off.
- Off with His Head!: And according to legend, his headless corpse swam a few laps around the boat afterward.
- Pirate: Obviously.
- Pragmatic Villainy: What does Blackbeard want from Charleston? Gold? Rum? Women? No, just medicine for his crew; they're riddled with STDs.
- The Starscream: To Benjamin Hornigold. Hornigold's refusal to prey on British ships (he was trying to maintain the illusion that he was still a lawful Privateer) caused enough resentment among his crew that Blackbeard didn't have to do much pot-stirring to get him voted out of command, and himself voted in.
- Surrounded by Idiots: Blackbeard was a shrewd and devious commander, but his crew were...well, rum-soaked pirates. During the Blockade of Charleston, when the men he sent to collect the ransom started running late, he landed himself to see what was going on, and to deal with any subterfuge on the part of the authorities. He found his men at a nearby tavern. Nothing bad had happened; they just got themselves blind stinking drunk at the first opportunity. It's hard to shed too many tears for the ones he marooned.
- Villain's Dying Grace: He actually complemented the man who mortally wounded him. "Well done, lad. Well done."
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Standard operating mode for Blackbeard toward his allies.
Works Featuring Portayals of Blackbeard Include:
- On Stranger Tides: Here, Blackbeard (called Edward Thatch) is a voodoo shaman, who allies himself with Hurwood in an elaborate plot to resurrect himself in another body after his death at Okracoke and abscond with his hidden riches.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Taking inspiration from the above-referenced book, Blackbeard here has already been resurrected by some means never explained, and is seeking the Fountain of Youth to permanently prolong his life.
- Crossbones: The central premise of the series is that Blackbeard faked his death and is now ruling a secret island kingdom.
- Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag gives him a Lighter and Softer treatment that is closer to the historical record than any other popular culture portrayal. He's in fact highly heroic and friendly and his final stand is one of the Tear Jerker moments of the game featuring a line of dialogue that best encapsules his romantic appeal:
"In a world without gold, we might have been heroes."
- Epic Rap Battles of History: Battled Al Capone once.
- The Simpsons: Appeared among the Jury Of The Damned in Treehouse Of Horror IV. He was also the only British born character among them. The rest were Americans.
- Referenced in the song "Jolly Roger" from Adam And The Ants' album Kings Of The Wild Frontier.
Of all the pirates on the seas
So damnable a fiend from Hell
He was the one they most feared
Any man who sailed with him
Was taking quite a chance
He'd hang them from the gallows
Just to see if they could dance, haha