15 Facts About Blackbeard
By Mark Mancini
Extremely adept at capturing ships and plundering loot, the pirate Blackbeard struck fear into the hearts of New World seamen—and these days, he's unquestionably the most famous pirate of all time. You can find Blackbeard statues in North Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A brand of men’s hair dye was named after him. And the city of Hampton, Virginia throws an annual pirate festival in his honor. If you want to find out about Blackbeard, this list’s for you, matey.
1. BLACKBEARD WAS AN APPROPRIATE NICKNAME.
Like many pirates from his era, Blackbeard is a figure with mysterious origins. Some say he was born in the English port of Bristol around 1680; others argue that he was born in Jamaica. He used to call himself Edward, but it's unclear what last name he used. Most primary documents refer to him as Edward Thatch (although the spelling isn’t consistent, and it may have been an assumed name anyway), but the Boston News-Letter and other contemporary newspapers tended to call him Edward Teach. The origin of the moniker Blackbeard, however, is easier to figure out. It was derived from eyewitness testimonies: People who had seen the pirate firsthand often described him as a tall, thinly built man with a long black beard.
2. HE MAY HAVE DABBLED IN PRIVATEERING.
For centuries, governments in Europe and elsewhere would hire private warships to further their own interests (think of it as piracy by commission). First, they’d approach the owners of heavily-armed vessels and give them legal permission to attack or plunder enemy nations. After recruiting a private ship, the government would hand the crew a “Letter of Marque”—essentially instructions for the sailors, which included detailed information about who could be attacked and under what circumstances.
These mercenaries were known as privateers. In the 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, Captain Charles Johnson (likely a pseudonym) asserted that, as a young sailor, Edward Thatch joined a privateering crew sailing out of Jamaica (then a British colony). No one’s been able to verify this claim, but it’s certainly plausible. Plenty of great pirates started out as privateers before they went rogue and turned on their homelands. Mr. Thatch wouldn’t have been an outlier.
3. THE PIRATE BENJAMIN HORNIGOLD IS OFTEN CITED AS HIS MENTOR.
In December 1716, merchant captain Henry Timberlake gave a deposition about a pirate attack he’d recently survived—one of the first written documents to mention Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch.
Timberlake reported that a few days earlier, his 40-ton brigantine had been attacked and plundered by two pirate sloops near the island of Hispaniola. One of those ships, he said, was commanded by somebody called Edward Thach [sic]; the other sloop’s leader was the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, a well-known outlaw with a sizable fleet. According to Timberlake’s disposition, Thatch and Hornigold divvied up his booty—which mostly consisted of food—between their crews.
It’s unknown if the two pirates actually worked together. Some historians think Blackbeard was a lieutenant of Hornigold’s at the time, but it’s also possible that the pirates were behaving independently, and that Thatch was never subordinate to Hornigold. Regardless, as a maritime legend, Blackbeard was about to come into his own.
4. HIS FLAGSHIP WAS AN EX-SLAVE VESSEL.
By the autumn of 1717, Blackbeard had established himself as the head of a small fleet. On November 28 of that year, two of his sloops came across La Concorde, a 200-ton slave ship with 16 cannons. The French vessel was on its third slave trading expedition across the Atlantic with hundreds of Africans on board, 100 miles from Martinique, when Thatch’s men caught sight of it. Despite its numerous cannons, La Concorde was an easy target: Blackbeard’s two sloops had a combined total of 150 crewmen, and La Concorde had fewer than 60 sailors in its crew, over half of whom were sick with dysentery and scurvy. Thatch seized the ship and renamed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It remained Blackbeard’s primary ship until June 1718, when it was wrecked on a sandbar near Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina.
5. IT’S SAID THAT HE USED TO PUT FLAMING MATCHES UNDER HIS HAT.
Blackbeard’s fame as an outlaw was solidified after he seized at least 15 ships near the harbors of New York, Philadelphia, and other east coast cities in the fall of 1717. Frightening stories were told and retold by those who’d survived an encounter with him. The tales grew tall. Blackbeard was said to adorn himself with flaming matches or candles, and according to 1724's A General History, “In time of action, he… stuck lighted matches under his hat, which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightful.”
Of course, these stories about Blackbeard's fiery antics might be pure folklore—but the image is compelling!
6. BLACKBEARD DOUBLE-CROSSED THE SO-CALLED “GENTLEMAN PIRATE.”
Stede Bonnet was the wealthy, 29-year-old owner of a Barbados sugar plantation who—for reasons unknown—abandoned his family and became a pirate in 1717. Bonnet’s first move was to (legally) purchase a sloop, which he soon fitted with 10 cannons. Next, he hired a crew and started raiding vessels along the eastern seaboard. But although his men were experienced, Bonnet himself knew almost nothing about seafaring. And then he met Blackbeard.
By that point, Thatch was already a criminal celebrity. Soon, the two forged a partnership and started taking ships in the West Indies. Blackbeard, a worldly fellow, quickly deduced that his new partner—who had been nicknamed the Gentleman Pirate—was just a rookie. Bonnet’s flagship was a vessel called The Revenge. After some persuasion, he allowed one of Blackbeard’s men to be put in charge of the ship.
When the Queen Anne’s Revenge was wrecked on the sandbar, Blackbeard returned The Revenge to Bonnet. Likely seeking a pardon for some crimes he'd previously committed, Bonnet left the ship and went ashore. While he was away, Blackbeard stripped The Revenge of its supplies and sailed off. Bonnet vowed that he’d get even, but the Gentleman Pirate never saw Thatch again.
7. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, HIS FLAG DID NOT LOOK LIKE THIS.
Some picture books, magazine articles, and TV documentaries will tell you that Blackbeard’s ships used flags with a heart-stabbing horned skeleton on them. But historian E.T. Fox begs to differ. In his book Jolly Rogers: The True History of Pirate Flags, Fox points out that there’s no record of Blackbeard ever using this design. One newspaper report from 1718 said that Thatch’s ships flew “Black Flags” and “Bloody Flags,” but the writeup doesn’t go into detail. According to Fox, the horned skeleton design didn’t appear in any English-language document until 1912, when it was featured in the journal Mariner’s Mirror, incorrectly tied to a pirate named John Quelch. In all likelihood, the horned skull flag was invented during the early 20th century and only started being associated with Blackbeard as late as the 1970s.
8. IN 1718, HE BLOCKADED THE PORT OF CHARLESTON—AND DEMANDED MEDICAL TOOLS.
In May 1718, Charleston (then called Charles Town) found itself at the mercy of Edward Thatch. With four vessels and 400 men, Blackbeard effectively sealed off the city’s harbor; ships that tried to enter or leave it were plundered. On one of these ships, the Crowley, was Samuel Wragg—a member of the colony's governing council—and his young son. In exchange for the safe return of these hostages, Blackbeard demanded a chest of medical supplies. Within a few days, he got his wish. The city grudgingly handed over the equipment and Thatch sent his prisoners back unharmed.
9. HE TRIED TO SETTLE DOWN IN BATH, NORTH CAROLINA.
After the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank, Blackbeard found himself in a conciliatory mood. He and his (diminished) crew approached North Carolina’s governor Charles Eden and asked for an official pardon. Eden granted their request. Blackbeard settled in the coastal town of Bath; he reportedly married a local woman and fielded numerous dinner invitations from neighbors who saw him as an object of great curiosity.
But as the saying goes, old habits die hard, and despite his attempts to fit in, a normal life just wasn’t in the cards for Blackbeard. One day, Thatch set sail out of Bath and came back into port with a loot-filled French ship. Thatch swore that the vessel was abandoned at sea when he found it, a story that was understandably hard to believe.
10. HE THREW A WILD BEACH PARTY WITH ANOTHER INFAMOUS PIRATE.
In September or October 1718, the dreaded captain Charles Vane and his crew of 90 sailed into Bath with the goal of recruiting Blackbeard for an attack on Nassau. Vane and Thatch threw a huge party on Ocracoke Island, where Blackbeard’s men had set up a private campsite. The drunken festivities reportedly lasted for days on end. Afterwards, Vane and Thatch parted ways; they would never cross paths again.
11. IT WAS VIRGINIA’S LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR WHO ORCHESTRATED BLACKBEARD’S DEMISE.
Governor Eden and Blackbeard had a cordial relationship—so cozy that it raised eyebrows. The governor’s critics wondered if Thatch was secretly providing him with stolen goods, and other colonies weren’t too happy about the fact that a notorious outlaw was now living freely on American soil.
Shortly after Thatch and Vane’s epic bash, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, hatched a plan to rid the continent of Blackbeard once and for all. In the late fall of 1718, he sent two ships under the command of naval officer Robert Maynard down to North Carolina. The expedition’s legality was questionable at best; Spotswood had decided to invade a separate colony without consulting its government [PDF], after all. But he persisted anyway.
Maynard’s ships reached Ocracoke Island on November 21, 1718. Arriving at dusk, he saw that a sloop of Thatch’s called the Adventure was anchored nearby. The next morning, Maynard’s men quietly approached. They were seen and attacked by the pirates, and a battle broke out. When the fighting erupted, there were only 18 crewmen aboard the Adventure. Blackbeard was present also, but it should be noted that he’d been drinking heavily the night before. Though the pirates put up a good fight, Maynard prevailed—and Thatch was killed.
12. HIS SEVERED HEAD WAS PUT ON DISPLAY.
Once the dust had settled, Maynard counted five bullet holes and 20 sword-made cuts in Blackbeard’s dead body. On his orders, Thatch’s head was removed and the rest of his corpse was tossed into the ocean. (According to another account, Blackbeard was killed when one of Maynard’s men cut off his head.) Maynard then tied the severed remains to one of his bowsprits. The gruesome prize was taken back to Virginia, where Spotswood had it mounted on a tall pole near the intersection of the Hampton and James Rivers. It stayed up there for a few years as a morbid warning to other pirates.
13. ONE OF HIS SUBORDINATES WAS WRITTEN INTO TREASURE ISLAND.
Israel Hands is generally considered Blackbeard’s second in command. Unlike Thatch, he didn’t participate in the battle with Maynard. When the fighting started, he was over in Bath—possibly recovering from a leg injury (according to A General History, he was shot in the leg by a drunk Blackbeard). Later, Maynard’s men captured Hands, who testified against some of his own former crewmates in court. Thanks to his damning testimony, Hands was allowed to go free. Robert Louis Stevenson went on to give the man a role in his novel Treasure Island. The book casts Hands as the wily first mate of Long John Silver. Jim Hawkins winds up killing him in self-defense.
14. THERE’S NO PROOF THAT HE BURIED ANY TREASURE.
Tales of buried treasure are legendary, but there’s only one confirmed case of a pirate who actually did bury some treasure (that pirate was William Kidd, who in 1699 hid precious loot worth a million dollars in today's money under the sands of Gardiners Island, New York, which was soon dug up again to be used against him in trial). Did Edward Thatch try to bury a chest or two of his own? Probably not—none of the available evidence suggests that Blackbeard ever stored any loot underground.
15. THE WRECKAGE OF THE QUEEN ANNE’S REVENGE WAS REDISCOVERED IN 1996.
Credit for the find goes to the private research firm Intersal, Inc. Off the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina, their team found a sunken ship on November 21, 1996. It appeared to match the description of the long-lost Queen Anne’s Revenge. At the end of a protracted inspection process, in 2011, experts confirmed that the wreckage was indeed Blackbeard’s former flagship. More than a dozen cannons have been recovered from the site, along with a bounty of other artifacts. These treasures include a medical syringe and a scrap of paper that presumably came from a 1712 adventure book. The booty did not include a lot of gold: Only a few grams of gold dust were discovered.