“Some of Blackbeard’s frolics of wickedness were so extravagant, as if he aimed at making his men believe he was a devil incarnate.”– Captain Charles Johnson
There isn’t a pirate in history as infamous as Blackbeard. His reputation for wickedness permeates the centuries and he appears even now as a force of evil in the popular imagination. So, would it surprise you to learn that Blackbeard was not as bloodthirsty and cold as the stories regale; that Blackbeard merely got stuck with a bad reputation? In fact, there is no evidence that Blackbeard killed anybody in cold blood, and his swash-buckling adventures resulted in less death and gore than most other pirates in this golden age of piracy. It has been claimed that, in his short two-year career, Blackbeard had not killed anyone prior to the battle at Ocracoke, North Carolina in 1718, in which he was decapitated by Captain Maynard. If this is the case, how and why did Blackbeard earn his reputation for ‘wickedness’, as Captain Charles Johnson put it?
Even Blackbeard’s early life was less rugged than one would assume; born Edward Teach in Bristol in 1680 to a middle-class family, young Blackbeard enjoyed a comfortable start to life, complete with a decent education that provided him with excellent literacy skills. He also did not start his maritime career as a pirate. First, he was a privateer, which was in many ways quite similar to pirating – the key difference being that privateering was a government-supported endeavour, in which privateers attacked and stole from enemy ships during periods of war. Pirating involved a lot of the same activities, just without the support and encouragement of the authorities. Support for privateering was eventually withdrawn around 1713, at which time Blackbeard officially became a pirate along with many other former privateers who found the swash-buckling life of looting and shooting at enemy ships preferable to a long life on land. So, a pretty mundane start to his legendary career. Not so terrifying yet, was our Blackbeard.
Active in the Caribbean Sea and along the Atlantic Coast of North America, Blackbeard sailed his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, in search of trading ships to loot. One of the most sought-after treasures for pirates were spices, such as turmeric, which could be traded in the New World for high prices. Blackbeard would sail along popular sea trade routes in search of a ship full of valuable goods and it is here we see the Blackbeard that haunts our memories. See, Blackbeard may not have been the most violent or murderous pirate out there, or even the most successful, but what made Blackbeard to terrifying was that he knew how to wield fear. A common tactic, once a target ship had been acquired, was to raise the same flag as the victim and sidle up to them, before raising the flag with the infamous skull and crossbones and revealing their true nature as pirates. At this point, it was too late for the target to escape, thus inducing panic aboard. Even more menacing was Blackbeard himself, who would light tapers in his thick black beard to create the illusion that he was surrounded by hellfire. Indeed, Blackbeard encouraged crew members and victims alike to believe that he had supernatural powers, sometimes even that he was Satan himself. These fear-inducing displays carved Blackbeard’s wicked reputation, so terrifying that it endures to this day. Interestingly, however, this reputation and frightening façade served to reduce the number of deaths when attacking ships and stealing booty, as it made victims more likely to surrender more quickly. So, Blackbeard’s most frightening features actually served to reduce the death toll and gore of his pirating escapades.
Not only this, but Blackbeard’s reputation was changeable. For example, in Bath, North Carolina, the masses of booty Blackbeard brought into the town from successful raids actually propelled him towards celebrity status. Many of the town’s most important residents invited him over for dinner, where he charmed them and made friendly connections. It is clear that Blackbeard’s reputation was whatever he decided it to be – he was cleverly able to mould himself according to people’s fears and desires. This is what made him such a successful pirate.
The only evidence of Blackbeard’s hands getting bloody comes from the battle at Ocracoke, North Carolina in 1718. This is the battle in which he fought for his life, only to lose dramatically to Captain Maynard of the Navy, who proceeded to decapitate Blackbeard and place his head on the mast of his ship before sailing to Virginia. Blackbeard’s loss at Captain Maynard’s hands makes it clear that Blackbeard was not an inherently murderous pirate, despite what his reputation would suggest. In conclusion, although Blackbeard worked hard to cultivate his reputation as a wicked, evil and dangerous pirate, he is perhaps not actually deserving of those credentials.
Written by Amy Hendrie
Andrew Lawler, ‘Three Centuries After His Beheading, a Kinder, Gentler Blackbeard Emerges’ Smithsonianmag.com 2018. Accessed 02/02/2021, at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/three-centuries-after-his-beheading-kinder-gentler-blackbeard-emerges-180970782/.
Jennifer Stock, ‘Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library’ , Vol. 3: Biographies. (Detroit, MI: UXL, 2011).