The golden age of pirates

Pirates have sailed the seas almost as long as ships have carried cargoes worth stealing. Even today, in these supposedly civilised times, such rouges are still to be found. But the real ‘golden age’ of pirates was from around 1690 to 1720 when sailing ships carried valuable cargoes between Europe, the Americas and Africa.

In those days, merchant seamen were poorly paid and even more poorly treated, so not only did they often feel disinclined to defend their cargo with fierce resistance, many of them actually joined the pirates when the chance arose to earn ten to a hundred times their ordinary sailor’s wage. Consequently, there were many pirates operating all around the world. Their flag was the deaths head – the well-known skull and crossbones, known as the ‘Jolly Roger’ and their motto was ‘a merry life and a short one.’ The majority of pirates were Englishmen aboard English ships along the Atlantic coast of the Americas, especially around the Caribbean.

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An early woodcut showing one version of the Jolly Roger flag but there were quite a few other designs

One of the most notorious was a former slave trader from Bristol called Captain Edward Teach, known to all as Blackbeard. He was a large, inordinately ugly man who acquired his nickname from the huge beard that covered most of his face and extended down to his belt. He had a certain charisma that kept his crew loyal to him, but he also had a cruel streak. In order to frighten his superstitious crew into submission, and to scare the sailors of ships he attacked, the captain had a devilish trick. He twisted his beard into rats-tails, wove in lengths of a slow burning fuse and adorned them with a red ribbon tied into bows. In the twilight of sundown, he would light the fuses and appear on deck. The sight of this huge man – nearly two metres tall – with his face lit by an eerie red glow and his head wreathed in blue smoke was truly demonic. Certainly, his crew thought he had evil powers or was in league with the devil himself

Another little trick Blackbeard used to keep the crew under control was to occasionally shoot one of them for no reason. ‘If I did not from time to time kill one of them, they would soon forget who I was,’ he is reputed to have said. One night while carousing on board his ship he took exception to something that one of his most trusted crewmen said. Without a word of explanation he drew a pistol and shot Israel Hands in the leg, crippling him for life. Another time one of the crews of a captured ship offended him so he cut off the man’s nose and made him eat it, laughing uproariously as he watched.

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Blackbeard was thought to be in league with the Devil.

Blackbeard habitually carried six flintlock pistols in cross belts over both shoulders and a huge cutlass that was bigger than any other sword. What with the glowing fiery beard and the wreaths of smoke, the cutlass, the pistols and the reputation that proceeded him, Blackbeard created such a formidable image that ships’ crew often allowed their vessels to be plundered without resistance.

One day in late 1717 Blackbeard, with three small pirate vessels under his command, sighted the sails of a larger vessel approaching. She was the French ship Concord, almost 30 metres long and weighing 250 tonnes, and she was headed for the Caribbean island of Martinique with a human cargo of 500 African slaves. When the pirates boarded her they found the crew suffering from dysentery and unable or unwilling to put up any resistance. Blackbeard decided to make the Concord his flagship. He re-named her the Queen Anne’s Revenge and moved his best people and some more cannons into her; at one time she was reputed to have 40 cannons of different sizes. She was so heavily armed that she was a match for any that opposed her, including the ten Royal Navy ships that protected the American Atlantic seaboard.

Over the next seven months, Blackbeard and his pirate fleet plundered 23 ships, becoming very rich in the process. But there was always the problem of what to do with the crew. If they put up a fight then they could expect no mercy, but if they offered no resistance and seemed strong and healthy he would take them on as extra crew aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge. This eventually became a problem though, as too many men shared too little accommodation and food. And the more pirates there were, of course, the less treasure there was for each. Blackbeard devised a plan to solve all these problems in one go.

On 10 June 1718, the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran onto a sandbar and became stranded just off the Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Attempts were made to pull her off backwards by using the power of the winch against an anchor off the stern. The ship was stuck fast. Blackbeard decided to land a large number of men on a small island nearby, in order, he said, to lighten the ship and float her off with the next high tide. Once the men were ashore the captain removed all the gold and stolen valuables from the Queen Anne’s Revenge and stowed it in his other two small ships, which were manned by his staunchest supporters. Under cover of darkness, he sailed away and left the rest of the men marooned without water or provisions.

As luck would have it most of the stranded men were rescued by a passing ship. Amongst them was an educated man called David Herriot who had been taken a prisoner from one of the captured ships and forced to become a pirate or die. He later wrote an account of the event and claimed that Blackbeard had deliberately run the ship onto the sandbar with the ultimate plan of reducing the number of his men. Whether it was an accident or a deliberate plot is still open to debate, but certainly, the death of dozens of loyal men was not the sort of thing to trouble the ruthless captain.

Over the previous year, so many ships had been plundered by Blackbeard’s operation that ship owners were badgering the authorities to rid the seas of him and his cursed pirate band. He was being pursued by the Royal Navy – the only authority he had any fear of – and downsizing his operation and lying low for a while could well have been a strategic move. Wrecking his largest ship and leaving dozens of men to die on an island could have been designed to give the impression that he was no longer a formidable force. If this was indeed the case, then Blackbeard’s timing was out. Agitation by ship owners had already set in action events that would ultimately see the end of him and his men.

Governor Spotswood of Virginia offered a reward of £100 for the destruction of the pirates. In those days £100 was an enormous amount of money, more than an ordinary sailor could earn in a year and more than he could save in a lifetime. The governor also paid for two small Royal Navy ships to mount a search for the villain’s lair amongst the islands and backwaters of the North Carolina coast. In mid-November 1718 Lieutenant Maynard of HMS Pearl and Lieutenant Smollet of HMS Lyme set out on their mission with a total complement of 60 men.

Maynard received information from paid informants that at least one of Blackbeard’s ships, the Adventurer, was anchored in Ocracoke Inlet in North Carolina. Apparently, they had a captured merchant ship alongside them, which they were looting. The Pearl and the Lyme prudently anchored just out of sight of the pirates around the point. They could hear them as they caroused the night away, drinking, singing and cursing. At first light the next morning the Royal Navy ships weighed anchor and closed in on the Adventurer. Almost immediately things started to go wrong. The Pearl, due to her deep draught, went aground. The Lyme, forced to sail directly at the pirate ship, could not bring her cannons to bear on her. Blackbeard, now alerted to the fact that he was under attack, had a few tricks to play. He connected a cable from the stern of the ship to the anchor cable and slewed the Adventurer side on. This allowed him to bring all his cannons to bear and he fired a devastating volley against the Lyme, with terrible consequences. The captain was killed, as were several of the crew, and the now unmanageable ship drifted onto a sandbank and stayed there.

Meanwhile, Maynard’s crew threw ballast weights and heavy cannons overboard in order to lighten HMS Pearl. She floated off from where she had stuck, was brought alongside the Adventurer and secured with grapple hooks. The navy crew swarmed aboard the pirate vessel and confronted their opponents in bloody battle. Maynard fought his way onto the poop deck where Blackbeard was shouting encouragement to his men and abuse at the attackers.

Both captains fired their pistols at one another at point-blank range. Blackbeard was hit in the shoulder but Maynard was unscathed. They then fought hand-to-hand with cutlasses and daggers. The navy captain was younger, fitter and probably the better swordsman; he scored a number of hits. At first, the pirate captain called out encouragement, as if to a student. ‘Well parried young lad. Well-done son. Good lunge.’ But then his jovial mood swung and he lunged at Maynard, striking the sword from his grasp and breaking it in two. One of the navy seamen, protecting his captain, rushed in and slashed the pirate’s throat with a cutlass. A fountain of blood spurted forth.

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An old illustration of Blackbeard and Lieutenant Maynard fighting to the death.

Apparently unaware of his mortal wound, Blackbeard aimed one of his pistols at Maynard’s chest. Then, before he could shoot, he fell forward onto the blood-spattered deck. Maynard picked up the pirate’s huge sword and cut off his rival’s head. When he held it up for the remaining pirates to see, they stopped fighting and allowed themselves to be captured and shackled.

With the death of Blackbeard and the hanging of his remaining crew, most of the pirate activity ceased in the Caribbean. The golden age of pirates drew to a close. Brave Captain Maynard, after all, he and his men had endured, was refused the £100 reward. Governor Spotswood reneged on the deal, on the grounds that he had financed the mission. The matter was taken up with the legal authorities and a victory, of sorts, was won. The court awarded £3 to Maynard and £1 10 shillings to each crewmember who had survived.

That was the end of Blackbeard the pirate, but the legends that surround such men have a tendency to live on. One story that the survivors of the battle must have started was told as truth for years. When Blackbeard’s headless body was thrown overboard, it was said, he swam twice around the ship as an act of defiance before swimming down to join his friend the devil in hell.
FOOTNOTE. In recent years Various archaeological expeditions have searched for and finally discovered the wreck of the Queen Ann’s Revenge and some very interesting artefacts have been discovered.

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What is thought to be the pummel of Blackbeard’s sword?

To my mind the most poignant is the pummel of what researcher feel sure is from Blackbeard’s own cutlass, giving us a direct 090327-06-blackbeard-gold_big.jpglink to the man himself.

Also discovered during the same excavation of the Queen Ann’s Revenge wreck were some hoards of small pieces of gold, thought to have been the personal treasures of some of the men who were marooned and left to die, and were never able to return to the ship to recover their well-hidden stash. On the same expedition, they also found a large quantity of cannon of British French and other manufacture, in keeping with what was known about the ship.

 

 

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