Published: July 2006
Blackbeard Lives
Three centuries after the pirate lost his head, archaeologists search a wreck off North Carolina for clues to the man behind the myth.
By Joel K Bourne, Jr.
National Geographic Staff

On a sweltering June afternoon on the Hampton, Virginia, waterfront, a crowd gathers around a makeshift surgery where a hapless sailor dressed in 18th-century rags is about to get his leg sawed off. Held down by four brawny mates, he screams and squirms to the onlookers' delight until the offending limb is gone and a neat wooden peg is strapped in its place. Suddenly all eyes turn to a big man with a blood-red sash and wild black beard boldly sauntering across the lawn. His bulging eyes lock on a young mother with a stroller, and one bushy eyebrow rises to the sky. "Arrrhh, what a cute one!" he bellows in a voice like a cannon shot. "And the kid ain't bad, either!"

Once again, Blackbeard is the man of the hour at the annual festival in his honor, a celebration of pirate life and times with mock battles, swordplay, and the odd removal of limbs. Thought to be the inspiration for the fictional Captain Hook and Long John Silver, the great bearded one's image is as popular today as ever, from Johnny Depp's dashing plaits in Pirates of the Caribbean, to Ben Cherry's swaggering impersonation at the Hampton festival.

In nearby North Carolina, where Blackbeard met his grisly end, archaeologists are probing a shipwreck for new clues to his life. Although he struck terror from Pennsylvania to the Caribbean, it was along this coast that he found a welcome that lingers to this day, his memory saluted in trinket shops, inns, and bars. An audacious rapscallion, he came out of nowhere, never surrendered, and went down in a hail of musket balls. Even after his corpse was tossed overboard, some said it circled the boat three times before sinking. Like the pirate himself, the legend just won't die.

No one knows where the man named Edward Teach, or Tache, or Thatch, called home. Capt. Charles Johnson (who some believe was Daniel Defoe) claimed he came from Bristol in his 1724 tome, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, the primary source of most Blackbeard legends. Others trace him to a prominent family on Jamaica, or to the Carolinas. Like thousands of other English tars, he was thought to have turned to piracy after sailing on privateers during the War of the Spanish Succession from 1702 to 1713. And no wonder: A single prize could be worth 20,000 pounds sterling, and a pirate's share worth many times what an honest seaman would earn in a lifetime.

Teach sailed onto the stage in late 1716 in charge of a sloop stolen by Capt. Benjamin Hornigold, one of the most successful free-booters of the age. With Hornigold as his mentor, young Teach had risen through the ranks showing "uncommon boldness and personal Courage," according to Johnson. Teach soon joined forces with Maj. Stede Bonnet, a wealthy planter from Barbados who'd taken to pirating, it was said, to escape a shrewish wife. With Teach calling the shots, the two captured 11 ships from Havana to Delaware Bay.

Near the island of St. Vincent, Teach chased down La Concorde, a French slaver limping along with a crew decimated by scurvy and dysentery. After a brief skirmish, the French captain surrendered, and Teach dumped most of the crew and slaves on the tiny island of Bequia, leaving them a small sloop and a few tons of beans. He refitted the big slaver with 40 cannons and renamed her Queen Anne's Revenge. With one of the largest and most powerful pirate vessels ever to sail the Spanish Main, he sallied forth for a long season of plundering that the world would never forget.

Three centuries later, David Moore, curator of nautical archaeology for the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, methodically dons his diving gear aboard a research vessel about a mile (two kilometers) off Atlantic Beach. A pulse of clear green ocean water has raised the underwater visibility from its normal murky stew to nearly six feet (two meters), making Moore and the crew of marine archaeologists almost giddy. Just 22 feet (six meters) below, partially buried in the shifting sands, lie the remains of what he and his colleagues believe is Blackbeard's flagship. Discovered by treasure hunters in 1996 to great media fanfare, the wreck was subsequently turned over to the state. Ever since, a dedicated team of archaeologists and conservators has been slowly recovering artifacts that ultimately will reside in the maritime museum. After years of shoestring budgets and numerous hurricanes, this is the project's first large archaeological expedition to the site in nearly five years.

"This is amazing," Moore says. "We might get 20 days a year like this." We splash over the side and once on the bottom are greeted by a massive anchor fluke jutting defiantly out of the sand. Moore swims toward a large pile of ballast stones, parts of cannon, and two huge anchors covered with green anemones. Stopping to fan a patch of sand, he reveals a small section of dark wooden hull. I reach out to steady myself in the current and grasp a perfectly shaped cascabel, the big iron ball at the back of a cannon. It was impossible not to imagine Blackbeard doing the same as he aimed the big gun on a fleeing prize.

Thousands of artifacts have been recovered from the wreck site, including a roughly cast Spanish bronze bell, a pewter charger big enough to serve a suckling pig, an English blunderbuss barrel, even a French urethral syringe for the treatment of syphilis. Some critics, not convinced this is Blackbeard's ship, say such things were common on merchant vessels of the day. But it's the guns, says shipwreck project director Mark Wilde-Ramsing, along with a few crude hand grenades, that tip the scales toward pirates.

"We've found 24 cannon, and there may be more buried on the site," says Wilde-Ramsing—far more than carried by typical military or merchant ships known to ply these waters. The remaining cannon were probably small, easily removable rail guns. Several of the cannon have been recovered and restored, a hodgepodge of sizes and makes from Europe. Many were still loaded with typical pirate shot: bolts, nails, bar-shot, and spikes—ammo designed to shred sails or rigging, or rake the decks of ships before boarding. Pirates, after all, wanted to capture a rich prize, not to sink it. Such homemade grape-shot, along with a recovered lead touchhole cover that kept the gunpowder dry and crude hand grenades, are virtually identical to those found on Whydah Galley, a pirate ship discovered off Cape Cod in 1984. They've even found pieces of square "case" bottles that Blackbeard was said to have filled with powder to make early Molotov cocktails.

After capturing several prizes in the Caribbean, Blackbeard sailed north in the spring of 1718 in command of a pirate flotilla of four vessels with more than 60 guns and as many as 400 brethren of the coast. When he reached Charleston, South Carolina, one of the wealthiest towns in the Colonies at the time, he sprang his boldest plan yet—a blockade of the entire city. Within a week, he seized and plundered nine vessels attempting to enter or leave the port, taking 1,500 pounds sterling and numerous hostages, including a member of the governor's ruling council. Oddly enough, with the town at his mercy, Blackbeard's sole demand was a chest of medicines—items in great demand among pirates. The governor fretted and fumed for days, but eventually caved in.

"Up until then, he's just another little rogue," says Mike Daniel, the former treasure hunter who discovered the wreck. "Charleston Harbor, that's like the twin towers. You don't do something like that without the whole world taking notice."

And Blackbeard, according to Johnson, was someone who liked to be noticed. A huge man with fiery eyes and a booming voice, he was fond of a scarlet cloak, and went into battle with lighted, slow-burning cannon fuses tucked into his hair, and six pistols slung across his chest. Some said he was fond of pouring gunpowder into his rum and setting it ablaze before downing it. In a famous Blackbeard tale, while drinking in his cabin one evening with a few of his crew, he suddenly blew out the candle, drew two pistols, and fired them randomly beneath the table, wounding his sailing master Israel Hands in the knee. If he didn't kill one of them now and then, he said, "they would forget who he was."

Few ever forgot or forgave him. Days after the Charleston blockade, Blackbeard ran Queen Anne's Revenge aground—some say intentionally—entering what is now Beaufort Inlet. He ordered another pirate vessel, Adventure, to pull him off, and soon both vessels grounded and were lost.

The time for treachery was at hand. Blackbeard convinced Stede Bonnet to take some of his men and sail to Bath, where North Carolina's governor had a plantation, to accept the King's pardon, which had just been extended. While he was gone, Blackbeard gathered 40 loyal pirates and 60 captured slaves and stripped Adventure and Queen Anne's Revenge of anything of value—cheating his fellow brigands of their share of the booty. When David Herriot, Adventure's captain, demanded restitution, Blackbeard marooned him and 16 others on a barrier island "a league from the main." He then sailed to Bath to take the pardon for himself.

North Carolina was a perfect hideout. Wracked by Indian wars, yellow fever, and political upheaval, the poor colony could barely muster a weak militia and had no jails. Its shallow sounds and barrier islands were ideal for light pirate craft to prey on merchant ships from its wealthier neighbors.

Teach's retirement was short. He was soon back to his old ways, plundering local vessels in the rivers and sounds, and seizing a French sugar ship off Bermuda. At one point he even rendezvoused with pirate Charles Vane at Teach's favorite honey-hole on North Carolina's remote barrier island of Ocracoke. Some say as many as 200 pirates partied for a week before Vane sailed off.

It was all too much for Virginia's Governor Alexander Spotswood to bear. When rumors reached him that pirates were building a fort at Ocracoke, Spotswood sent both a land and sea expedition to hunt down Blackbeard.

Near sunset on November 21, Lt. Robert Maynard, commanding two sloops and 60 men, found Teach anchored at Ocracoke. With the King's pardon in hand and only 20 pirates aboard, Blackbeard showed little concern, drinking heavily with a local trader deep into the night. His crew, sensing trouble, asked him where the booty was buried. Only the devil and he knew where it was, he reportedly barked, "and the longest Liver should take all." Despite 300 years of hunting, no treasure has ever been found.

At sunrise Maynard sailed right for him, Union Jacks flying, and the pirate's blood began to boil. "Damn you for villains, who are you? And from whence come you?" he is said to have bellowed at Maynard, who supposedly coolly replied: "You may see by our colors we are no pirates!" Blackbeard then raised his drink, called them "cowardly puppies," and swore his final oath: "Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you!"

"I expect no quarter from you, nor shall I give any!" Maynard shot back.

No one knows what actually happened in the melee that followed. But according to published accounts, Blackbeard unleashed a crippling broadside from his cannon that killed or wounded nearly half of Maynard's men. Knowing he had no hope of capturing the pirate ship, Maynard ordered his remaining men below to lure the pirates on board. Blackbeard fell for the ruse. He and his crew hurled homemade grenades onto the sloop and rushed aboard.

Maynard's men swarmed out of the hatches. Blackbeard went straight for Maynard, the two men firing pistols at the same time. The pirate's shot rang wide, but Maynard hit Teach square in the chest. Still, the pirate fought on, landing a cutlass blow so fierce it broke Maynard's sword. Just then, the pirate was staggered by a sword blow to his neck from behind. He pulled his last pistol but was too weak to fire. Blackbeard collapsed on deck, in the end having been shot five times and stabbed more than 20.

Maynard cut off Blackbeard's head, hung it from his bowsprit, and tossed the corpse into the water, where locals say it can be seen to this day on certain moonlit nights, searching for its head. That head, which Johnson wrote "frightened America more than any Comet," Maynard took back to his base at Hampton and stuck on a pike there. Thus the town's modern festival.

And that, of course, was the pirate's evil genius, enabling him to capture so many ships with so little trouble. "Blackbeard's image was so horrific it made his job easier," says historian Lindley Butler. "Pirates would much rather take a prize without a fight, and there were enough psychopaths around at that time to make merchantmen believe the image was true." It was this same image that finally caught up with him, Butler says. Spotswood was not going to let the fiercest pirate in the world retire in his backyard.

"He was probably a better actor than I am," admits Ben Cherry, taking a break in a waterfront watering hole. "And I'm pretty damned good!" He slaps his hand on the table, and that booming laugh echoes around the bar.

There's another theory about Blackbeard's legacy here and in North Carolina. Of the pirates who sailed with him into Beaufort Inlet back in 1718, some 200 were never captured, never tried, never heard from again. To this day, echoes of their voices are heard in bait shops and marinas on nearby Harkers Island or Ocracoke, where locals chatter with a distinctive Elizabethan patois. Don't be surprised during your next visit if they take your silver, and feed you full of beans.