May 25, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean - Blackbeard

Ian McShane as Blackbeard

At the very beginning of this blog, we recounted the swash-buckling, blood-thirsty true stories of the pirates of the Caribbean. Their names are so infamous and their deeds were so horrific, that they are still remembered now, in the places that they terrorized.

The Pirates of the CaribbeanGiovanni de Verrazano
Sir Francis DrakeSir Henry Morgan
Jean-David 'L'Olonnais' NauLaurens 'Laurencillo' de Graaf
Jean LaFitteFermin Mundaca

But there was one notable ommission there. Disney's 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is in our theaters. As box offices around the world thrill to 'the pirate all pirates fear', then we should add a chapter to our terrible tales. It's time to visit Blackbeard! (And, yes, he was in Mexico too.)

Ask someone to impersonate a pirate and there is a definite accent that they adopt. "Ha-arr, me 'earties!" The cry goes out, "Thar be treasure thar! Arrrr!" Everyone is attempting to affect England's West Country tones. There is a reason for this. In 1680, Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) was born in Bristol, which is in the heart of the said West Country. In short, they are trying to sound like Blackbeard. He is, after all, the pirate's pirate and the most notorious of all.

It has been speculated that Edward Teach was born into a wealthy, English family. He could read and write quite eloquently, which was highly unusual for any but the higher echelons of society. It's also probable that his surname wasn't even Teach. Many pirates took false names, in order to protect their family's reputation. His real name could have been Edward Drummond, though little supporting evidence has been found for that.

18th century Bristol
18th century Bristol

All that is known for certain is that young Edward boarded a ship in Bristol, bound for the Caribbean. Bristol was a huge port at the time, one of the centers of the British slave trade. Was he captured and pressed into slavery? Or did he take a job on a merchant ship? Nobody knows.

The history books only take up his tale, with any sense of surety, in 1716. It was then that Edward Teach appeared in New Providence, in the Bahamas, and joined the crew of English pirate, Captain Benjamin Hornigold. New Providence was a pirate safe harbour. The bay was too shallow to allow large navy ships to enter, so the smaller, faster privateers could dock without fear of arrest.

Even amongst this company, Hornigold was infamous. His 33 gun sloop, the Ranger, was the most heavily armed in the region and he could take any other vessel with ease. By 1717, Teach was his second-in-command and it was now that Hornigold awarded Teach his own ship. Blackbeard's career had really begun.


The two captains worked side by side, sailing in to capture merchant vessels, from Havana to Bermuda. But Hornigold refused to attack British ships. He considered himself a pirate, but one loyal to the crown of his homeland. His crew had no such scruples and the sight of unharmed merchant ships, flying the Union Jack, rankled them. There was mutiny and Hornigold retired with The Ranger, leaving Blackbeard in sole command. British ships were no longer off target.

Let us pause to get the measure of the pirate. He was a huge man. He stood 6ft 5" tall (1.96 meters) and had the girth to match. As the name suggests, he had a long, flowing beard, in which he apparently wove hemp fuses. These had been soaked in saltpetre and lime water. During fights, he would set fire to the fuses, giving the impression that his whole head was on fire. For onlookers, filled with Christian lore, it was as if they were faced with Satan Himself.


Then there was his personality. Modern analysts have studied the stories and speculated that he was clinically psychotic. Many pirates of the time would give quarter to the captain and crew of a merchant ship, as long as all of the cargo was simply handed over without a fight. Blackbeard was unpredictable.

He killed indiscrimately, simply to fuel his fearsome reputation. In one notable incident, he was alleged to have shot his First Mate dead, just to prove that he was mean. Another time, he chased down a ship, boarded it and took only the wine, before scuttling the vessel and marooning its crew. There was no reasoning with him.

The merchant captain dropped sails, then dropped anchor. He could not outrun the sloop and her eight guns. Pray they take what they want and move on, he told his crew. Give what they ask -- none of it is yours, none of it worth your life.

Behind the sloop, the merchant captain spied another approaching craft. She was big brute poking cannon from every snout. Twenty, no thirty, maybe more guns -- she was a killing machine!

The merchant captain raised his spyglass to her deck. There, he could see a monstrous figure, pointing across the water, pointing to the merchant ship, pointing to the merchant captain. "Dear God, spare our souls," the merchant captain said aloud. He had seen the devil. And the devil had seen him.
Tim Rickard, 'The Spanish Main'


For all of his notoriety, it must seem that Blackbeard operated for decades. It was actually less than two years that he prowled the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. During that time, the ships of no nationality were safe. (Make no mistake, many pirates acted unofficially (and sometimes officially) for various empire building governments. French pirates would attack Spanish and British ships; and vice versa. Part of the fear of Blackbeard was that he was on no-one's side.)

Blackbeard's flotilla grew. He is usually linked with La Concorde, a 'French ship of 32 Guns, a Briganteen of 10 guns and a Sloop of 12 guns', which he renamed the Queen Anne's Revenge. (It is this ship which is featured in 'The Pirates of the Caribbean' movies.) However, he owned many more than that. His prowess in overwhelming vessels was so great, that he commanded a whole fleet of pirate ships. Hence he seemed unstoppable.

Queen Anne's Revenge
Queen Anne's Revenge

As well as terrorizing the high seas, Blackbeard also held to ransom the town of Charleston, South Carolina, USA. In May, 1718, his fleet blockaded the harbour, refusing to allow supplies to enter the town. He also took hostages from a ship containing prominent Charleston citizens, who had been bound on a diplomatic trip to London. His demand was clear. He wanted medical supplies and certain medicines for his crew. If he didn't get them, then he would execute everyone present.

The town was in uproar and panic. It seemed inevitable that, even if they gave him what he asked for, he would ransack the place. For several days, the whole horizon was filled with Blackbeard's ships. Each day the people held out, the ships came closer, until eventually they handed over the medicinal supplies. To everyone's shock, Blackbeard simply released his hostages and sailed away.

Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard

Blackbeard's end came on November 22nd, 1718, off the coast of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, USA. A British navy ship, captained by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, spotted Blackbeard's fleet. Maynard ordered his own crew below decks and masqueraded as practically a ghost ship. Blackbeard saw it and laughed. The huge pirate then boarded with just a few of his men. Immediately the rest of the British crew burst from the cabins and used the element of surprise to separate Blackbeard from the rest of his men. In the squirmish, dozens were killed, though reports vary as to how many.

What isn't in doubt was that Blackbeard received a gaping neck injury from one of Maynard's men. Even then, he didn't topple, but ended up in hand to hand combat with Maynard, surrounded by the navy. It apparently took Blackbeard 40 minutes to die, fighting all the way, until he eventually collapsed from lack of blood. Maynard delivered the final, fatal blow with his sword. He reported that Blackbeard had been shot five times and suffered 20 sword wounds, before dying.

Maynard decapitated Blackbeard and displayed his head on the bowsprit of his own navy ship. Blackbeard's headless body was cast into the ocean. The rest of the pirates fled on their ships. Of those arrested after the fight, 16 were hanged in North Carolina.

Blackbeard's head

Places to Visit

* Mexican Carribean/Yucatan Straits: Blackbeard's ship cruised up and down this coastline during his hey-day. Anyone on the shores would have seen him at one time or another. Also look out for any unidentified lights out at sea. They are said to be the ghost fleet of Blackbeard, still roaming the area.

* Veracruz, Mexico: During the winter of 1717/18, it is believed that Blackbeard was harrying ships on the trade route in and out of Veracruz. Read more about it here.

For details of other pirate related attractions, please visit our main site or peruse the list below:

Captain HookCaptain Hook Lobster Cruise

* Campeche: Completely destroyed by pirates several times, so had its fort and cannons built to protect it. L'Olonnais was once left for dead on its beach.

* Chinchorro Reef, Riveria Maya: Pirates used lanterns to lure ships onto the treacherous reef. Captains would see the lights far inland, but they would believe that the lights were on the edge of cliffs. Thinking that they were safe, they would sail too close to the coastline and crash on the reef. The wreckers would then swarm over the wreckage and take off with the cargo.

* Punta Herrero, Sian Ka'an: Many night time sightings of a headless pirate. The ghost is described as a giant, colored man, who patrols from one end of the village to the other.

* Subacuatico-CEDAM Museum, Puerto Aventuras: CEDAM (Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuaticos de Mexico; The Museum of Mexico’s Explorations and Water Sports Club, Civil Association) is a museum based in Puerto Aventuras. The exhibits are mostly from shipwrecks, many of which were caused by pirates, recovered from the Caribbean Sea. There are a few exhibits from Xel-Ha Mayan Ruins too.

The museum was formed by divers who had been frogmen in the Second World War. In 1958, they set about exploring the wreck of El Mantanceros, a Spanish galleon, which had sunk off the coast of Akumal in 1741. CEDAM have recovered its cannons, anchor and many small items, such as glass beads, belt buckles, coins and gems. These diving archaeologists went on to explore many other wrecks, as well as cenotes, and returned with more artefacts. They will also place commemorative plaques in places where there was a notable nautical link, for example, there is one to Captain Jean LaFitte in Port Dzilam, where the pirate's grave was discovered.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday all year long from 9:00 to 13:00 hrs. (9 AM to 1 PM) and from 14:30 to 17:30 hrs. (2:30 PM to 5:30 PM)


  1. hey im doing a project for school on blackbeard and i needed a picture of his ship and i have to have permission to use it. can i use this one please?

  2. What port off Mexico was popular with the pirates in the 18th century

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