By Hugh F. Rankin in 1960
As is the case with most pirates, his origin is obscure though his given name was said to have been Edward Drummond. He began his career as an honest seaman, sailing out of his home port of Bristol, England. But, after he became a pirate, he began calling himself Edward Teach. Yet it was as Blackbeard that he was, and still is, known, and it was under this name that the people of his generation knew him.
Perhaps Edward’s piratical tendencies were the result of his early environment. His hometown, Bristol, turned out more pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries than any other English port. As a young lad, he went to sea as a merchant seaman and his first taste of adventure came in Queen Anne’s War, which lasted from 1701 to 1713. Towards the latter stages of the war, he served on a privateer, sailing out of Kingston in Jamaica to prey on French shipments.
The routine of peace following upon the excitement of warfare created a restlessness in the young man who was by this time beginning to call himself Edward Teach. He signed on as a member of the pirate crew of Captain Benjamin Hornigold, sailing out of New Providence in the Bahamas. He soon distinguished himself by his strength, courage, and devil-may-care attitude. He sailed with Hornigold to engage in a plundering expedition off the coast of North America. The hunting was good and several rich prizes were taken. After careening their ship in Virginia, the pirates sailed on the return voyage to the islands.
On the way, a merchantman flying the French flag was sighted, overhauled, and taken. She proved to be engaged in trade between the French Island of Martinique and the African coast. Well-built and fast, Teach saw in this ship the means of realizing his own ambitions. He suggested to Captain Hornigold that he had been able to demonstrate such energy and leadership as to prove he was capable of commanding a vessel of his own. He asked Hornigold to make him captain of this prize. His request was granted and Edward Teach was on his way to becoming a legend in the annals of piracy.
Both ships made for New Providence. They found the town buzzing with the news of the King’s proclamation offering clemency to pirates who would promise to reform. Hornigold, by now a wealthy person, decided to accept. In fact, you might say he went far beyond the terms of the proclamation. Until his death, Hornigold devoted his energies to aiding the new governor, Woodes Rogers, in capturing other pirates.
Teach had no such ideas. He re-christened his new command the Queen Anne’s Revenge. And before long there were 40 cannon thrusting their ugly muzzles through the gun ports. Such firepower allowed him to attack the largest and best-armed of merchant ships. It was not too long before he was able to prove the strength of his ship. The Great Allan, a large merchantman laden with valuable cargo, was taken near the Island of St. Vincent. After the valuables were transferred to the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the prisoners put ashore, the Great Allan was put to the torch. Edward Teach had begun his career as a pirate captain in a grand style.
The capture of this ship also allowed Teach’s crew to demonstrate their fighting ability. The news of the fate of the Great Allan spread. The Scarborough, a 30‑gun British warship, put out to sea in search of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Sighting the quarry, the man-of‑war closed in for the kill. Teach was ready, and quite willing to trade shots with the navy vessel. The two ships exchanged broadside after broadside. After an extremely bloody battle lasting for several hours, the battleship pulled away and limped toward the nearest port in Barbados. The news that Teach had bested a warship of the Royal Navy in combat only served to make his name more feared than ever.
Teach was not the name which was so feared, however, for it was around this time that the pirate became better known as “Blackbeard.” It was good business for a pirate to cultivate such a name and make it as fearsome as possible. An evil reputation was a great aid in persuading prospective victims to surrender quickly with a minimum of resistance. With this in mind, he deliberately attempted to emphasize the evil side of his character. He was a tall man, and of powerful physique. His long, bushy, pitch-black beard gave him his name. Before any action, he would plait this beard into little pig‑tails which he tied up with colored ribbons. Some of these braids were twisted back over his ears. And just before doing battle he would secure several of the long, slow-burning matches used to touch off the cannon. These he would tuck under his hat, lighted, allowing them to dangle around his face, the curling wisps of smoke adding to the frightfulness of his appearance. In the belt strapped around his waist, there were pistols, daggers, and his cutlass. Across his shaggy chest he wore a bandoleer, or sling, in which were fixed three braces of pistols, all six of which were primed, cocked, and ready for instant firing. Indeed, Blackbeard, in his battle dress, was a most awesome sight. To the sailors of the day, he was feared almost as much as the Devil himself, and many were sure that they were kin.
Blackbeard’s reputation as an invincible terror of the seas increased considerably with his defeat of the warship. The very fact that he had dared to do battle with a warship made him a person to be much feared. It was after this encounter that he sailed for the Bay of Honduras, where he met Stede Bonnet. And it was the result of this meeting that Bonnet had, for several months, remained a virtual prisoner aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, with Blackbeard trying to comfort him by pointing out that he could now “live easy and at his pleasure,” and henceforth would not be “obliged to perform duty, but follow his own inclinations.”
The two ships, both named Revenge, sailed northward to Turniffe Island to fill their water-casks. Even as they lay at anchor a sloop was sighted, beating her way into the island for the same purpose. Quickly slipping his cable, Lieutenant Richards in the hoisted the black flag and soon overhauled the stranger. The sloop, the Adventure of Jamaica surrendered without resistance. Her master was David Herriot, who, with the rest of his crew, accepted an invitation to join the pirates. Israel Hands (sometimes called Hezikiah or Basilica Hands) was placed in command of the Blackbeard was now in command of a regular fleet of pirate ships.
After the water casks were filled, they sailed again for the Bay of Honduras. Luck was with them. A Boston ship, the Protestant Caesar, and four sloops were lying at anchor. The very sight of the “Jolly Roger” (pirate flag) so frightened the crews of these vessels that they scrambled over the sides into boats and fled to the safety of the shore. The cargoes were quickly plundered. And, because the people of Boston had lately hanged a number of pirates, the Protestant Caesar and one of the sloops were burned.
From this time on, Blackbeard’s little squadron began to haunt the sea lanes between the mainland and West Indian Islands. Several times they put into Cuba and sold their booty in Havana. Although these buccaneers roamed far out to sea, North Carolina became their headquarters. They used a number of hideouts, for it was too dangerous to always return to the same spot. Legend says that one of their retreats was up the Chowan River as far as Holiday’s Island. Probably the favorite refuge, however, was Ocracoke Inlet. Tradition indicates that a house known as “Blackbeard’s Castle” used to stand in the village, and an inlet not too far from today’s village of Ocracoke was known as “Teach’s Hole” (known today as Springer’s Point.) Here, supposedly, Blackbeard came to careen his ships.
One of the best hunting grounds in the Atlantic at this time was off the port of Charleston, South Carolina. This Port was the busiest and most important in the southern colonies. Because of the happy prospect of taking richly-laden merchant vessels, Blackbeard’s flotilla began to hover outside the entrance to the harbor, ready to pounce upon the first unwary victim that shoved its bowsprit into the open sea. One ship was taken, then another, and still another. They carried rich cargos. One ship was carrying 14 slaves, while another held over £6,000 in gold. Before the South Carolinians realized what was happening outside the harbor, eight or nine ships had been quickly taken. Within Charleston, all was confusion. Trade came to a standstill. Eight ships lay tied to the wharves, not daring to hoist their sails.