Dear readers, this week’s post is brought to you by guest blogger Sarah Toye, Golden Age Pirate Historian and regular guest lecturer in EMSP 2480: The Pirate and Piracy. Consider this a ‘Teach’-able moment! –Simon Kow
November 22, 2018 marks the tricentennial of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach’s death in battle by Lt. Robert Maynard’s hand, or as I call it, his ‘die’-centennial. I would make a joke about him dying because he ‘lost his head’ in battle, but I’ve done that already.
I think it’s safe to say that Blackbeard is the most iconic pirate of all time, definitely of the historical pirates and at least the top three if including fictional corsairs (Captain Hook and Long John Silver would be right up there with him). He was active from 1716-1718, during what is known as the Golden Age of Piracy. This is called the Golden Age because, while piracy is probably the world’s third oldest profession, in our minds we often distill thousands of years of history into these two decades in the early-eighteenth century Atlantic World. It’s continuously mind-blowing to me how such a tiny span of time in such a specific area has had such an immense cultural influence. Piracy has existed in infinite forms all over the world for all of human history, but when I say pirate, you say Blackbeard. Which raises the question: why him? There were many pirates active in the Golden Age who were also very compelling. So here are my top seven theories (in no particular order and of varying scholarly legitimacy) about why Blackbeard has become so legendary:
He had a big black beard. That’s it. As a nickname it’s effective but not at all witty, much like the pirates themselves.
Part of what made Blackbeard so powerful and memorable as an image was his aesthetic. Huge black bushy beard, tri-corner hat, double pistol belt. He’s most famous for putting lit fuses in his beard so there was literally smoke and flame pouring out of his face – imagine being a good Christian sailor and seeing THAT charging at you over the side of your ship, waving six pistols, two cutlasses and screaming like a bat out of hell. You could even say that he had a ‘short fuse’. Intimidation was actually a pirate’s most valuable weapon; by relying on fear and reputation, pirates could seize ships that they probably would have lost to in an actual battle, with fewer deaths and injuries and without expending as many resources. His branding made him memorable and a more effective pirate.
There is a huge heritage and tourism industry around Blackbeard and pirates in general, and while there were pirates everywhere, the United States has really seized them as a part of its history. I have a theory that this is related to its being a young country that for a long time was mostly coastal, so in order to give itself a sense of history and national identity it adopted pirates and other maritime cultures that were active in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In North Carolina, there are Blackbeard walking tours, pirate festivals, exhibitions, re-enactors and more. Nova Scotia boasts those as well, but none so famous. (The pirate re-enactors in Halifax were not as starstruck to meet me as I had expected.) North Carolina is very proud of Blackbeard, and glorifies him to what I think is a troubling degree. In addition, his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, is one of the only known pirate shipwrecks, the other most famous one being Sam Bellamy’s Whydah. They are ‘treasure troves’ of historical information just waiting to be ‘plundered’ by underwater archaeologists, and the North Carolina Maritime Museum has hundreds of artifacts from Queen Anne’s Revenge that have shaped our understanding of eighteenth-century piracy as well seafaring in general. Plus who doesn’t love a shipwreck? Especially one in ‘ship’-shape.
On November 22, 1718 Blackbeard engaged in battle with Lt. Robert Maynard off the coast of North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, Blackbeard fought like a mad dog and apparently it took no fewer than twenty five shots to take him down, and he didn’t even stop firing his many pistols. After his hard-won victory Maynard decapitated Blackbeard and hung his head of the prow of his ship. Unfortunately technology was not yet at the point where he could have said “full steam a-head”! Blackbeard was a public terror, and it made the authorities look very good to finally take him down, even if they didn’t get to gibbet him.
I know this one sounds like a joke, but hear me out. Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts was arguably the most successful pirate of the Golden Age (the most successful pirate ever was a sex worker-turned-pirate-queen in nineteenth-century China named Ching Shih). He was active for longer than Blackbeard, had a larger fleet and captured more ships. However, he sounds like a peg-leg in the mud. He didn’t approve of drinking, partying, women, or gambling and insisted on religious services every Sunday. Most pirate ships didn’t allow gambling and women while on board as part of their articles, but that was a practical choice to prevent conflict more than a moral one. Blackbeard, meanwhile, famously threw wild all-nighters on Ocracoke Island. So honestly, despite Black Bart’s success as a pirate, I think it was nearly impossible for him to capture people’s interest the way Blackbeard did. More like Drama Queen’s Revenge.
A General History of the Pyrates (1724) is the earliest and most influential text about Golden Age piracy. Each chapter tells the story of a different pirate – pirates who were contemporaries to this book, so it was more like current events than history when it was written. Blackbeard is one of the headliners of this text, and the subject of one of only three images actually depicting a pirate. It’s exactly how you imagine him (because even if you’ve never heard if this book it has completely shaped your perception of pirates): beard, fuses, weapons and all. So his branding and intimidation tactics, which were already attention-grabbing, made for great storytelling and it just keep escalating from there. Which is why…
Blackbeard is everywhere in popular culture. One of the more recent installments of Pirates of the Caribbean (I’ve lost track) featured him as a main character, and honestly I’m shocked it took that long. I think we’ve gotten to the point where including Blackbeard in your pirate thing is almost too obvious. I even googled “blackbeard tv show” because I couldn’t remember the name of the one with John Malkovich (it’s Crossbones and it was terrible) and there are no less than FIVE TV shows about or featuring Blackbeard, THREE of which are simply called Blackbeard. Again with the inventiveness. There were also a lot of classic Hollywood movies about him, plus he features randomly in things like Doctor Who, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Once Upon a Time, plus many other TV shows, movies, video games, books and pretty much everything ever. It looks like we’re stuck with him.