How Blackbeard Worked

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey. So Katie, I've always really liked pirates. In high school, my friends and I used to have kind of good pirate jokes. I don't go to conventions or anything like that.

Katie Lambert: I was gonna ask.

Sarah Dowdey: No, no, no. I actually haven't even been a pirate for Halloween, but -

Katie Lambert: I have.

Sarah Dowdey: Really?

Katie Lambert: Um-hum.

Sarah Dowdey: I do like them a lot. And, of course, one of my favorites is Blackbeard.

Katie Lambert: Well, I've got you covered because the one Halloween I was a pirate, and then this past Halloween, I was Abraham Lincoln and wore a big, black beard. But mine did not have candle wicks in it, unlike Blackbeard.

Sarah Dowdey: Blackbeard was one of the most feared pirates in history, and it's no wonder with the smoking fuses and the sashes full of pistols and cutlasses!

Katie Lambert: Six pistols across the chest.

Sarah Dowdey: He definitely mastered the art of intimidation.

Katie Lambert: And he did a lot to keep that reputation up. He wanted people fearing him, although we don't have any evidence that he ever killed anyone who wasn't trying to kill him. But when you're a fearsome pirate, that's not exactly the kind of rumor you want to spread around.

Sarah Dowdey: No. The intimidation kind of saves you a lot of work. You just fire a few warning shots, and the ship gets handed over to you. You don't have to go through the trouble of actually fighting and swashbuckling.

Katie Lambert: So every story that spreads around, like Blackbeard slicing off a passenger's finger when he wouldn't give him his ring, that all builds up to the great Blackbeard legend.

Sarah Dowdey: But, of course, Blackbeard wasn't always a pirate, and he obviously had another name. He was born probably in Bristol, England, although that's debated, around 1690 as Edward Teach.

Katie Lambert: Or possibly Edward Thach, no one's quite sure.

Sarah Dowdey: Which will be a theme in Blackbeard's life? Somebody who's so surrounded in legend, there's gonna be a lot of conflicting information about him.

Katie Lambert: So Teach enlisted as a privateer for the British in the War of Spanish Succession, which went from 1701 to 1713. Privateers were right on the cusp of legal. The British government obviously wanted to have a big of a Navy as possible, but they could enhance it a little bit with privateers, which were allowed to sack French and Spanish ships and take a share of the booty for themselves, which would help you develop your pirating skills.

Sarah Dowdey: But, of course, the war comes to an end eventually, and privateers are no longer allowed to go around sacking French and Spanish ships, and there were a lot of people out of work, and some of them end up turning to piracy.

Katie Lambert: And the golden age of piracy was the late 17th to the early 18th centuries, and as far as America goes, there had been a bunch of laws passed by the British parliament which had made smuggling something that was a bit more desirable because British imports were so expensive.

Sarah Dowdey: British taxes.

Katie Lambert: Right. You could buy things so much cheaper from a pirate than you could from them, so they would attack merchant ships carrying grain, molasses, rum, rope, tools, ammunition, pretty much everything, and go ahead and sell it to the colonists. Because North Carolina's Outer Banks have shallow sounds and inlets, and it was a pirate's favorite hideout place.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is where Blackbeard established his home base?

Katie Lambert: But that wasn't until 1718, and before that, he had to get in some more pirate training.

Sarah Dowdey: He did, and he did that with Captain Benjamin Hornigold in the Caribbean. So in Blackbeard's sort of apprenticeship, almost, with Hornigold, they depart together and plunder a bunch of Spanish and British ships of their cocoa and cordwood, sugar, rum, molasses, all of these useful things. It's not so much the gold treasure and jewels we think of.

Katie Lambert: No, which, of course, is what you think of when you think of Blackbeard - buried treasure, but you might just be finding rum and sugar instead.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, and during this time, Teach gets his fist captaincy of a small sloop, and then the big guns come out when Hornigold's fleet attacks a French slave ship called the Concorde that was bound for Martinique. Teach makes this his flagship and renames it Queen Anne's Revenge.

Katie Lambert: And it only had 14 guns to start with, so he added a bunch to make it up to 40 because you need your guns when you're a pirate. It's more than 80 feet long. There are three masts, and he also installs a cannon.

Sarah Dowdey: And Teach probably took this ship with his class intimidation methods rather than a bloody fight. It's likely he just fired some warning shots and hoisted up the pirate flag, and the guys surrender. They don't want any trouble with Blackbeard. But the captain of the Concorde also reported when he got back to France that Teach gave him a sloop to finish transporting his cargo of slaves, which I was surprised to hear that. I always imagined pirates making you walk the plank.

Katie Lambert: Right, but that sounded very gentlemanly, we thought. And Hornigold couldn't be Blackbeard's teacher forever because after the war, the British government wanted to get rid of all their pirates, so they got an officer named Woods Rogers and hired him as the governor of the Bahamas and told him he'd better get rid of the pirates. So he said he would grant pardons to pirates who agreed to walk the straight and narrow, and Hornigold is one of the ones who agreed, and he became a pirate hunter.

Sarah Dowdey: But that's okay with Blackbeard by now because he's really struck off on his own and starts patrolling the Virginia and Carolina coasts.

Katie Lambert: For his reign of terror from 1716 to 1718. So we've already mentioned that the Outer Banks is a fantastic place for pirates, just because of how it's designed, but it was also a great place for Blackbeard himself because he met a lovely corrupt politician by the name of Charles Eden there, who would allow him clemency in exchange for very generous bribes.

Sarah Dowdey: So in addition to the excellent geography of North Carolina and the corrupt governor, Blackbeard actually ends up being kind of a folk hero. The people of North Carolina, they're not the wealthy rice growers or tobacco growers like South Carolina or Virginia, so they're more okay with this deal where they get essentially duty free goods from Blackbeard in exchange for sort of letting him hang in the Outer Banks. The folk hero stuff also comes from Blackbeard's challenge to the oppressive authority. He's lauded for sticking a hot poker into the eye of a British official, which sounds pretty awful.

Katie Lambert: But I feel like that's a running theme in all the stuff that we've done about gangsters and outlaws in any way. Part of it is public opinion of them being the hero who is the only one who's willing to go up against corrupt authority.

Sarah Dowdey: But it also seems that that opinion always turns at some point. The outlaw does something which just pushes their reputation over the edge.

Katie Lambert: And for Blackbeard, this is in May 1718 in Charleston.

Sarah Dowdey: So with four vessels and as many as 400 pirates, Blackbeard captures eight or nine ships coming into and out of Charleston over about a week, and he holds the crews of the ships hostage, along with their passengers. Passengers, there are kids on board, women on board, and Blackbeard demands a chest of medicine in exchange for the lives of the passengers, but Charleston takes a while to pony up.

Katie Lambert: Yes, and in the meantime, the pirates have decided they're not going to get it, and they've set all the citizens up to be hanged. Like preparations are underway. They're about to die, and Charleston eventually comes up with the ransom and gets their people back, but not before the pirates have taken all of their clothing and jewelry.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, they returned to shore almost naked; as the outraged description is send back to England. But all this goes down pretty quickly and within a week of the Charleston hostage situation, the Queen Anne's Revenge is grounded on a sandbar near the entrance to present day Buford Inlet. It's like that Blackbeard beached this on purpose. He knew how to sail a ship and how to scurry around through the Outer Banks, so it's unlikely that he would accidentally ground his ship. It's possible he was considering some kind of retirement or at least trying to disman this group of 400 pirates and break them up a little bit.

Katie Lambert: Some people say he marooned a bunch of pirates on one of the sandbars when he left and then took provisions from one of the other ships and got out of there. In addition to the blockade at Charleston, Blackbeard by this point had captured something like 50 ships, and he was also charging tolls for other people's ships to make it through Pamlico Sound. Things were beginning to come to a head and while North Carolina and Charles Eden were pretty okay with the pirates.

Sarah Dowdey: Making money off the whole situation.

Katie Lambert: Right. The rich Virginia planters and South Carolina planters were not, and they appealed to the governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, to do something about it.

Sarah Dowdey: And he engaged Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy to hunt down Blackbeard. It's not as hard as it sounds to find Blackbeard. You'd think it would be difficult to find a pirate, right?

Katie Lambert: Not if he's throwing the biggest pirate party known to man on Ocracoke Island, which I would kind of like to be invited to.

Sarah Dowdey: I don't know. It might sound more fun than it really was.

Katie Lambert: Drinking, womanizing, and pirates from all over the world were invited to come, and come they did and made a complete spectacle out of themselves.

Sarah Dowdey: So during this drunken pirate shindig, Maynard shows up with his sloops intending to kill or capture Blackbeard. The pirates are aware that Maynard is there, but they're trapped between this island and a sandbar, so they prepare themselves over the night. And while accounts say Blackbeard was very calm, his pirates were starting to get worried.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, they were freaking out a little bit. He kept drinking. Everyone else went out and put sand on the decks in case there was blood and soaked blankets in water in case there were fires and began preparations for battle.

Sarah Dowdey: And Teach only has 20 men too, while Maynard has about 60, but Teach's main advantage here is mounted weapons on his sloop, which is called the Adventure. In the morning, everyone's kind of expecting Teach to try to make a getaway. Instead, he waits, and Maynard's men start to approach. Then, at the last minute, Teach just shoots off to a little winding channel.

Katie Lambert: Which no one else saw?

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, it's right by a sandbar. And Maynard's men all get stuck, but Maynard's a pretty good captain, and he tells everybody to start throwing extra supplies overboard. So they lighten the ships enough that they're able to sail free. Maynard recounts that Teach, "drank damnation to me and my men, whom he styled cowardly puppies."

Katie Lambert: And insult I enjoy.

Sarah Dowdey: Is that gonna be your new insult?

Katie Lambert: It is, actually.

Sarah Dowdey: Calling someone a cowardly puppy?

Katie Lambert: Beware. And at this point, Blackbeard's crew is bombarding Maynard's ship with iron scraps and nails from the guns, basically everything they've got. So Maynard and his men go and hide below deck, all tricky like.

Sarah Dowdey: And because the ship is so quiet after this bombardment - there are even grenades involved - Teach thinks that they're dead, and the pirates board the ship, Blackbeard included, and all of a sudden Maynard's men rush out. They're alive, surprise.

Katie Lambert: The gotcha moment.

Sarah Dowdey: And Teach and Maynard go to a face to face battle that actually gets written about in the London papers. It really looks like it should be in an action movie.

Katie Lambert: I'm sure it will be.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, if it hasn't already. Maynard's sword is bent. He shoots Blackbeard. Blackbeard survives after being shot. Obviously, guns are - they put a big hole in you at this point. One of Maynard's men jumps in at the last minute of this brutal fight between these two men and slashes Blackbeard's neck. I don't know how he did this with a bloody slashed neck, but Blackbeard apparently says, "Well done, lad. Arr." That may be apocryphal, but it's still a good detail.

Katie Lambert: But when he died, he'd been shot multiple times and stabbed multiple times and kept fighting until the very, very end.

Sarah Dowdey: And Maynard's man actually cuts off Blackbeard's head, which is strung up on the ship as a warning to other pirates.

Katie Lambert: And Maynard searched and searched for Blackbeard's treasure, as people have been doing for years, but all he found were supplies and letters. And during the fight, eight of the other pirates were killed. Some cried for mercy, and some were arrested, and they were brought to trial, and all but two were hanged. So the pirates didn't get off so easily either. This was pretty much the end of piracy, or at least the golden age of piracy. That was November 22, 1718 when Blackbeard was killed.

Sarah Dowdey: So in addition to the legend about the treasure, there's another pretty amazing one about Blackbeard's skull. So his head is hung up on the ship, but what happens to the skull?

Katie Lambert: Maybe it went to the University of Virginia.

Sarah Dowdey: There's a legend that says the skull was dipped in silver and kept by the university where fraternity members were once required to drink from it upon their initiation. I have a great grandfather who went to the University of Virginia, and now I'm starting to wonder was he in a fraternity. I don't know.

Katie Lambert: As a former member of the Greek system, I salute you, UVA, for a great rumor. You can actually go visit Blackbeard Island. It was acquired by the Navy department and then in 1924, was made a preserve and breeding ground for wildlife and birds. You can only go there by board, which I feel is fitting.

Sarah Dowdey: It's quaint now, isn't it?

Katie Lambert: It is.

Sarah Dowdey: So if you'd like to learn more about piracy from Blackbeard's time to today, check out How Pirates Work at

Katie Lambert: And if you have any suggestions you'd love to send us, e-mail us at

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