Thursday, September 17, 2009

People: "He Would Neither Give Nor Take Quarter"

Brethren, its the First Mate's birthday today and, since I was planning on a post about a really famous pirate in anticipation of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I thought I'd poll the birthday boy for a suggestion. I asked him who his favorite pirate was and, without the slightest hesitation, he replied: "That would have to be Blackbeard". I love my husband.

Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, is more legend than man now. When people find out about my love of all things pirate and privateer, nine times out of ten Mr. Teach comes up. The picture above is recognizable to even the youngest of school children and, though I will sadly acquiesce that Jack Sparrow is the prominent piratical Halloween costume, I was pleased to see two little Blackbeards show up at my door last year. He's bigger than the Beatles in the circles I run in. We're all waiting for "Guitar Hero: Blackbeard", frankly.

Of course, this means there is a whole mythos built up around the man, some of which is a little hard to swallow. Let's start with the facts we know with certainty, and then we can move on to the bigger than life stuff that each of you must sort out for yourself.

Edward Teach was most probably born in Bristol, England some time in the late 17th century. He made his way to the West Indies and apparently served aboard a British privateer until peace broke out in 1714. There is documentation of Teach in New Providence (now Nassau), Bahamas in 1716 where he joined the ship's company of the pirate Benjamin Hornigold. Teach must have distinguished himself because he was commanding his own sloop under Hornigold's tutelage by the following year.

There is no discrepancy as to Teach's personal charisma and gift for leadership. Despite the stories of cruelty to his crew, Teach had a loyal group of men who would follow him without question. The most famous of these is Israel Hands who eventually became Teach's First Lieutenant and who fictitiously scared the socks off young Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island.

By 1718, an official, British Governor had come to the Bahamas and New Providence was no longer pirate friendly. Teach, who was now a free agent, moved his base to the Carolinas where he established a base on Ocracoke Island in the outer banks. Ocracoke was across the inlet from Bath Town and the citizens there welcomed the pirates and sold their goods for a tidy profit. The goods started coming in larger quantity when Teach took a French slaver off the coast. The ship, one of the most lavish pirate vessels ever, was renamed Queen Anne's Revenge, and the Captain's legend began to take shape after her capture. Blackbeard was born.

Around this time a captured passenger described Teach as being a "...tall, spare man with a very black beard that he wore very long...". Others said the pirate tied his beard in red ribbons and wore two baldrics crossing his chest, each fitted with three pistols, while carrying a sword in one had and a dirk in the other. More than enough to make you need a change of underwear once that guy boarded your ship.

As the prizes and prize goods continued to roll into Bath Town, the Governor of North Carolina decided he wanted a piece of the pie. Teach agreed to pay a regular "fee" so that the Governor would turn a blind eye and the pirate continued to ply the trade. Teach took his ship to the Gulf of Mexico where he briefly used Barataria Bay as a base of operations. At this time he took the schooner Revenge from one of the most pathetic pirates ever, Stede Bonnet. That has got to hurt.

Returning to the Carolinas, and evidently feeling his oats, Teach decided to blockade the port of Charles Town. He took several British ships and in the process managed to capture some of Charles Town's wealthier citizens. These he ransomed to the town for food, water, liquor, gold and, interestingly, a chest of medicines. The gossip is that Teach was beginning to suffer from one STD or another. Teach headed home where his ship rammed a sandbar in a storm and foundered. Perhaps due to loss of his ride or because he really was ill, Teach decided to quit his pirate gig. With the Governor of Carolina's urging, he was given a pardon for his misdeeds. He bought a house, got married and tried to settle down. Tried being the operative word.

It seems that Teach couldn't stay away from Ocracoke, where many of his men still lived. At some point he met up with his old piratical friend Charles Vane. Flush with cash and booze, the two Captains and their crews put on a week long pirate party that scared the locals into thinking maybe all this chumming around with criminals wasn't such a good idea after all. Meanwhile, Teach went back to sea aboard his sloop Adventure where he raided English shipping just as he always had.

At this point, whether because of solicitation from the leaders of Bath Town or out of jealousy over Teach's deal with his rival in Carolina, Virginia's Governor Alexander Spotswood determined to take care of Teach once and for all. He sent two Royal Navy sloops of war commanded by Lieutenant Maynard to put Blackbeard out of business one way or another.

In November of 1718, Maynard's ship Ranger engaged Teach's Adventure. Maynard wrote that Teach called out he "...drank damnation to me and my men..." and that "...he would neither give nor take Quarter." Teach underestimated Ranger's numbers and boarded her after an initial bombardment from his cannon killed most men on Ranger's deck. The larger part of Maynard's company came up from below decks and the engagement turned to close, bloody combat. Teach was wounded by several pistol shots but he managed to make his way to Maynard and they hacked at one another until it appeared that the pirate would be victorious. A British sailor interceded and dealt Teach a death blow with his cutlass.
Teach's remaining crew was taken into custody and Ranger sailed back to Virginia with Teach's head hanging from her bowsprit. The prisoners were tried in Williamsburg and all thirteen men were hanged in March of 1719.

The legend of Blackbeard, of course, was only getting started when his livid head appeared dangling over the water in Williamsburg harbor. He is now remembered for all manner of antics and atrocities that cannot, at this late date, be sorted out. Did he really stick lit slow match out from under his hat to look more fierce in battle? Did he pass his wife (or wives, as some say) around to his crew without batting an eye? Did he blow off the knee caps of his drinking buddies with his pistol? Did he light sulfur in the hold of his ship and dare his men to outlast him in the hellish atmosphere? Only Teach and his close compatriots can say for sure.

Much has been written about Teach and a quick search will turn up several worthy books. If you'd like a quick fix though, consider watching National Geographic's "Blackbeard: Terror at Sea". Its informative, well researched and produced and James Purefoy is absolutely perfect as Edward Teach. Along those same lines, I heard that Dreamworks is in the process of producing a movie about Blackbeard to be written by David Franzoni ("Amistad", "Gladiator") and produced by Barry Josephson. All I have to say to you, Mr. Katzenburg, Mr. Josephson and Mr. Franzoni, is don't f**k this up. And a very famous pirate's curse on you if you do.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Thankee for the props. I love you, too. As I said last night, even if only half of the legends are true, Blackbeard was friggin' badass! A big screen Blackbeard movie would have the potential to be awesome! ...As long as they don't get Peter Weir to direct it, right?

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! I agree, of course, but that's another discussion for another post. Happy Birthday!