Is Blackbeard the most famous pirate of them all? Certainly he looms large in the imagination, a terrifying huge figure, armed to the teeth and with flames glowing in his beard, ruthless and cunning and not quite human. When you picture a pirate in the mind’s eye, he is the man of whom you are thinking.
Born Edward Teach, he cultivated a reputation as a monster. His reputation matched his appearance, and he was one of the most feared pirates who roamed the coasts of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. However, even today centuries after his death, historians and researchers are researching the real Blackbeard and how much of his feared character was real and how much myth.
Blackbeard And His Reputation
When Blackbeard was alive, it is true that merchants and seafarers uttered his name in whispers because he was feared for his great size and ruthless reputation. The descriptions of Blackbeard all agree: he was a tall and broad man with wild and fierce eyes, someone who used to carry a lot of firearms and pistols with him. According to accounts collected, Blackbeard used to keep three pistols tied to his chest in a holster, and used to wear a tall fur cap on his head.
His legendary figure would put lighted matches in his thick beard to appear demonic and terrify those whom he attacked. All these features together made Blackbeard a frightful sight to look at. The pirate used to frighten anyone who would wish to explore the seas to such an extent that he became part of American legends.
However, like everyone else, Blackbeard also had highs and lows in his life, and his ending was that shared by almost all pirates. In 1718, the pirate vanished when he and his men were ambushed by a British naval expedition, which led to a battle between the pirates and the armed crew of the expedition near the Ocracoke Island.
This was Blackbeard’s last battle. Shortly afterward, his severed head was stuck on a piling near the coast of Hampton, Virginia, as a warning to other lawbreakers who looked up to Blackbeard as a famous criminal.
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The Pirate Blackbeard, however, stayed fresh in the imagination of future generations. His otherworldly appearance ensured he remained feared long after Edward Teach was dead.
The Search for the Real Blackbeard
To start with, even the birthplace and birth date of the pirate are disputed as no one can pinpoint these details about Blackbeard. Some historians believe that Blackbeard’s birthplace was Bristol. Others believe that it was America, in Philadelphia or North Carolina, or else possibly Jamaica.
While earlier people used to think that Blackbeard could not have come from Jamaica, records show that his family name, Teach or Thatch, existed in the era when he was alive. There are records showing that a boy named “Cox Thache” lived there in the year 1700, born to Edward and Lucretia Thache.
Could this be Blackbeard’s family? Thache could easily have become Thatch, or been further anglicized to Teach. If these records are to go by, Blackbeard belonged to the small Jamaican settlement of Spanish Town.
There is some further evidence in support of this origin. There are records of an English visitor to Jamaica meeting the Thache family in Spanish Town in 1739, when Blackbeard’s mother was alive. Researchers believe that Blackbeard’s father was a sea captain, and the family was well off. His father had married twice, and Blackbeard’s mother, Lucretia, was his last wife.
A Man of Culture
So, a rich family. After the death of his father, the estate was left to his stepmother Lucretia and it seems that Edward left to seek his fortune in the Caribbean sea. But first to England, with Edward Thache arriving there from Barbados in the last years of the 18th century.
The real Blackbeard was a well-educated, reputable person who joined the crew of a merchant ship at first, and then went on to join the Royal Navy to experience the life and challenges at sea. It is possible that the story that Blackbeard was actually born in Bristol could hold a kernel of truth as the Thache family originally came from Bristol.
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Maybe he was indeed born in Bristol, moving with his family to Jamaica only later. The possibility that Blackbeard was actually a young man of education, wealth, and social influence could explain why he was so popular in the political circle of North Carolina before his death. A barbaric pirate would not be so popular, but a man of culture and good upbringing can be very popular among gentlemen of politics.
Historians who have studied the life of Blackbeard closely know that he never executed men until the last battle of his life at the Ocracoke Island. He might have killed people during the battle when his life was under threat.
From where does the reputation come, then? Is the Blackbeard we know another invention of Hollywood, another Frankenstein’s monster distorted from the original? It seems there may have been an erudite and sophisticated man under the ruthless, demonic exterior?
Blackbeard was certainly a formidable presence in the waters of the Caribbean. Styling himself a Commodore, he led a fleet of ships, successfully blockaded a port and forced the British into offering him a pardon. It would be the Governor of Virginia who finally ended his career.
Lieutenant Robert Maynard, given command of two ships and ordered to find and kill Blackbeard, finally tracked him to Ocracoke Island. The fearsome pirate was last seen in pitched combat across the British and his own ship, wounded and fighting like a cornered animal. Whatever else this man was, he was brave.
Perhaps Blackbeard could have been all these things, as required. Civilized when he wanted, ferocious when he needed to be. Adaptability after all must be one of the most important traits in a successful pirate.
Top Image: Blackbeard is remembered as a fearsome pirate, but who was the man behind the reputation? Source: warmtail / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Lawler, A, 2018. Three Centuries After His Beheading, a Kinder, Gentler Blackbeard Emerges. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/three-centuries-after-his-beheading-kinder-gentler-blackbeard-emerges-180970782/
Britannica, 2022. Blackbeard. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blackbeard
Royal Museums Greenwich, 2022. Who was Blackbeard? Available at: https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/blackbeard-edward-teach-pirate