A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy
Captain Kidd, who we discussed in the last issue, met his end in London, a city of fog. But let us now travel over 4,000 miles south-west to the exotic beaches of the Bahamas during the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. From 1713 onwards, New Providence Island was a pirate haven, and was later established as the capital of the self-proclaimed ‘Pirate Republic’The Peace of Utrecht (1715) signalled the end of the Spanish War, resulting in tens of thousands of British sailors being cast aside, as the bankrupt Royal Navy disowned three-quarters of its manpower, condemning over 36,000 men to poverty in the first 24 months following the end of the war.
Betrayed, abandoned, and above all resentful of their distant king, these men banded together to ransack the very empire they had help build. As gamekeepers turned poachers, these newly minted terrors of the Caribbean would captivate public opinion for centuries to come. Declared hostis humani generis, or enemies of mankind, these pirates honoured a code of their own- war against the world.
The year is now 1715, and pirates ranked at the top of the food chain. The port of Nassau itself was less of a town then a small collection of shacks and makeshift hovels, with the imposing bastion fort keeping a watchful eye over the bay. New Providence Island was the ideal base of operations for any pirate, as its shallow beaches halted His Majesty’s men-of-war from getting too close, and the Bahamas itself was a veritable labyrinth of small islands and inlets, with hundreds of hiding places where a sea roving vessel could remain undetected for weeks. These enterprising pirates knew these islands well, yet it took years of trial and application for the Royal Navy to even grasp a basic understanding of the pirates’ tactics.
The Pirate Republic took the established democratic ways of a privateering vessel and moulded the rules so that they could be adapted on land. Consequently, the pirates elected their own leaders, and several so-called ‘governors’ if one could call them such, were ‘sworn in’ to manage the republic’s affairs. Among these men were Benjamin Hornigold and Henry Jennings, and much later the cutthroat pirate ringleader Charles Vane. One of these individuals, Thomas Barrows, after declaring himself ‘Governor of Providence’ reportedly claimed that he awaited several hundred Jamaican sailors to join the pirate fraternity, so that they may wage war against the empires of Spain and France, while keeping out of England’s way. One of these ‘governors’ would not only become the world’s most infamous pirate, but also America’s first bogeyman. His name was Captain Edward Thatch, now known the world over as Blackbeard.
The pirates’ reign over New Providence, however brutal or strange it might have been, could not have lasted forever. Having grown tired of the continued pirate raids against their regional interests, the Admiralty named Captain Woodes Rogers governor of the Bahamas, and through much political manoeuvring and the securing of benefactors from Parliament and even financing a fraction of the voyage himself, Rogers led a fleet to retake the island for the Crown. Rogers’ fleet was comprised of the flagship Delicia, Commodore Peter Chamberlain’s Milford, and the sloops Rose, Buck and Shark. On 5 September 1717, George I issued a proclamation decreeing that those pirates who should surrender themselves would have the king’s ‘gracious pardon of and for such his or their piracy or piracies’, a desperate attempt to quell the pirate threat. Rogers was to sail into the heart of the pirate nest to deliver the king’s decree, yet he had no idea of what truly awaited him.
In July 1718, under the command of Thomas Whitney, the Rose was dispatched to scout the state of the island’s primary anchorage. What he saw must have turned Whitney’s blood cold. The blackened skeletons of captured vessels scattered the shoreline, while in the middle of the bay, silently sat Charles Vane’s brigantine, with its 20 primed guns. While Whitney attempted to parlay with Vane’s crew, which was comprised of dissenters that opposed the pardon by hoisting the white flag of truce, with Rogers’ approaching armada, Vane must have realised that Nassau was lost. At 2 AM, Rogers’ men awoke to a state of shock and horror. Vane’s ship, its deck covered in pitch, tar and all things flammable, and its cannons loaded was sent on a collision course with the blockade. As the cannons were double loaded, the moment the heat reached a certain point, the guns would ignite and fire in all directions causing havoc to anything in close proximity. The British fleet scattered, leaving an opening for Vane to sail out of the harbour. Successful pirates knew when to run, and Vane executed his scheme masterfully. The pirates sailed the Katherine out of Nassau to unknown shores, shouting profanities to the British sailors as they passed, and Nassau finally fell the British. The remnants of the Pirate Republic collapsed soon after.
So where was Blackbeard in all this? Having most likely summarised that the pardon would spell doom for Nassau, Blackbeard was busy making friends (and enemies) further north along the east coast of the American colonies. Let us take a moment to analyse another pirate legend:, the tale of Dead Chest Island. We are all too familiar with Billy Bones’ iconic sea shanty that first appeared in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island (1883), a verse of which reads as such:
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum
According to one pirate legend, Blackbeard marooned 15 of his crewmen on Dead Chest Island near Deadman’s Bay, though in truth to refer to the isle as an ‘island’ may be a tad flattering, as the island contains little vegetation, and is entirely uninhabited. Legend dictates that Blackbeard left each man a bottle of rum and a cutlass, and when Blackbeard returned a while later, all but handful remained alive. The legend is most likely what it is, a legend through and through. Yet, short anecdotes like this continue to render Caribbean piracy a fascinating area of study, as it is sometimes difficult to differentiate fact from fiction.
Returning to the matter at hand, what was Blackbeard up to whilst his remaining comrades resisted Rogers’ invasion of Nassau? The answer demonstrates Thatch’s (Blackbeard’s) sheer ingenuity and political guile. Thatch relocated to Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, only short distance from the colony’s capital of Bath. Unlike crown colonies which were under the direct control of the king, North Carolina at the time was a privately-owned colony dependent on individual enterprises. The small colony could have not been more perfect for Blackbeard’s scheme. Reigning Governor Charles Eden was more than willing to deal with pirates, who could in theory provide a steady source of income.In June 1718, Blackbeard tactically negotiated a king’s pardon for himself and his men and put into action his latest and greatest con.
With the glimmer of gold in his eyes, Eden asserted that Blackbeard should take a privateering commission from the Danes of St. Thomas, as Thatch’s taking of the Adventure, a registered Spanish vessel was itself an act of piracy. Eden overlooked the transgression and allowed Thatch to keep his sloop and might have even forged the relevant ownership papers for the captain. Having remained an honest citizen for the impressive span of a month, by August, Blackbeard had resumed his piratical activities. Under Blackbeard’s command, his crew harried fishing craft in the Outer Banks, later attacking several British merchant vessels. Thus, Blackbeard’s plan is laid bare. So long as Eden remained under this thumb, Blackbeard could rely on colonial protection.
So, if Blackbeard had maintained a relatively good relationship with the local colonial authorities, who exactly were the titular adversaries? The answer lied directly north in the colony of Virginia, were the vengeful Governor Alexander Spotswood held court. Viewing Blackbeard as something of a personal adversary or perhaps even a nemesis, Spotswood’s distain for pirates is legendary, having previously mandating that all former pirates who wished to settle in Virginian territory must make themselves known to the local authorities, and had later masterminded the kidnapping of William Howard, a prominent member of Blackbeard’s crew. To silence his adversary and fearing the formation of a second Nassau in his back garden, Spotswood dispatched a small flotilla comprised of the sloops Jane and Ranger to silence the dread pirate once and for all. Indeed, Blackbeard’s ploy treaded the boundaries of politics, colonial jurisdiction, and economic circumstances, so devious was his master plan.
On 21 November 1718, Spotswood’s pirate hunters dropped anchor a short way from Ocracoke Inlet. Ever confident in his scheme, Blackbeard neglected to post a lookout, effectively bestowing commanding officer Lt. Robert Maynard with the element of surprise. At 7:30 the following morning, Maynard ordered a launch in an attempt to stealthily infiltrate the Adventure. According to popular legend, Blackbeard’s crew were at the time of the ambush recovering from a night of heavy drinking, and it is imaginable that many of the pirates groaned as they heaved their aching bones and groggy heads into action after the alarm was sounded. Blackbeard’s gunner, Phillip Morton, fired a broadside at the British sloops, and it was reported that Maynard raised the Union Jack in defiance, while Thatch returned the favour by raising a black flag. As per Maynard himself, Blackbeard, ever the showman, ‘drank damnation to me and my men, whom he stil’d cowardly puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take quarter.’ To kill a pirate, Spotswood and Maynard had relied upon pirate tactics. The Jane and the Ranger were outfitted for speed, while in contrast the Adventure rode low in the water due to the weight of her heavy guns. Another broadside robbed the Ranger of his leadership and she was run aground on a nearby sandbar by its confused crew. Overly confident in his abilities and sure of a victory, Blackbeard ordered the Adventure to fire further broadsides on Maynard’s Jane. Maynard’s strategy was commendable, if somewhat dishonest. One could even suggest that they were more akin to pirate tactics to Royal Navy stratagems. Maynard ordered his remaining below decks, leaving only Maynard himself and a few others on deck, conveying the impression that the pirates had already dispatched the majority of the crew.
With his crew cheering and morale high, Blackbeard ordered that the crew of the Adventure board Maynard’s ship, and it was at this moment that the pirate hunters sprang their trap. Maynard ordered his men on deck, and the navy outnumbered the surprised, and likely severely hungover pirates. Blackbeard’s crew were no match for Maynard’s revitalised hunters. The two commanders engaged in a duel, yet before Blackbeard could silence Maynard, ‘one of Maynard’s men gave him a terrible wound in the neck and throat’, catching Blackbeard off-balance. According to legend, it took 20 lacerations from a cutlass and 5 gunshot wounds to bring Captain Blackbeard down, though this is most likely fictious.. Perhaps to finally ensure that the dread pirate Blackbeard stayed down, one of Maynard’s highlanders cut off the captain’s head, which was later hung from the Jane’s bowsprit as a warning to all that Blackbeard was no more. Demoralised, the remaining pirates surrendered, and a plot by the pirate Black Caesar to ignite the Adventure’s powder magazine was foiled by some rebellious captives. Blackbeard’s headless corpse was then thrown overboard, which according to legend swam 20 times around the ship before sinking to the captain’s final resting place in Ocracoke’s shallow waters.
Perhaps Blackbeard had the last laugh after all, as while his adversaries became shrouded in history and spent years untangling the subsequent political calamities that they themselves had created, Blackbeard’s legend has survived and thrived. Indeed, for all their accomplishments, Spotswood is only really remembered for one reason: their association with the far more famous archpirate.
Despite having halted Blackbeard’s pirate activities, Sportswood was accused by multiple parities of breaching contemporary colonial conduct, and spent the next years attempting to unravel the chaos he had unknowingly created.
Captain Thatch, you certainly did have the last laugh.
Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, researching Early Modern maritime history.
Next week: The Reign of the Pirate Queens
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