Blackbeard’s blockade of Charleston

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blackbeard's flag
Blackbeard’s flag | Public domain image

Several things to come to mind when one thinks of the concept of piracy: there’s the illegal acquisition of digital media (RIP Napster); that Oscar-nominated performance by Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips; and, of course, there’s Blackbeard.

Blackbeard is a pirate so legendary that many may not even realize he was a real personand not just a myth. But the notorious robber really existed, terrorizing the waters of North America and the Carribean between the late 1690s + early 1700s– a time that has come to be known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.”

In 1718exactly 300 years ago– Blackbeard showed up in the Charleston harbor and proceeded to wreak havoc on the Holy City. But why did the legendary pirate have such a *burning desire* to visit Charleston? And what if everything we know about Blackbeard is wrong, and he has an even stronger connection to the Lowcountry than what commonly held accounts would lead you to believe?

sketch of blackbeard
Blackbeard | Public domain image

Behind black braids (to the tune of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes’)

Little is known for sure about Blackbeard’s early years. Most historical accounts will tell you he was born in Bristol, England, in 1680 as Edward Teach. There are several variations, though, on what his real name actually was (Thatch and Thack were also commonly used). Plus, being that pirates were known to use pseudonyms, we have no idea what his true last name was-– and we probably never will.

The nickname ‘Blackbeard’ likely comes from a long, black beard he wore braided and tied up with ribbons. To make for a more menacing presence, he regularly walked around with several pistols slung over his shoulders + kept lit fuses tied under the brim of his hat to create a cloud of smoke around his face.

There’s strong evidence that Blackbeard could both read + write, leading many historians to draw the conclusion that he came from a family that was wealthy.

A well-taught man who cares about his appearance? No wonder he had 14 wives! (Just kidding– though many will tell you he did, there’s only one proven marriage.)

 

A Lowcountry native?

Perhaps most fascinating of all the theories is the one presented by North Carolina-based researcher Kevin Duffus. In his book, The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate—Within Every Legend Lies a Grain of Truth, Duffus claims that Edward Teach was simply an alias, and that the real Blackbeard– Edward Black– was not born in Bristol, but right here in the Lowcountry. Goose Creek, to be specific. (You can find an entire exhibit on his possible Lowcountry connections at the Berkeley County Museum and Heritage Center).

 

A pirate is born

Blackbeard reportedly served as a privateer during Queen Anne’s War around the turn of the 18th century. He changed career paths about a decade later, when he + some others boat-jacked a French slave ship in the Bahamas and renamed it the “Queen Anne’s Revenge.”

 

Blockade of Charleston

In 1718, months after acquiring the Queen Anne’s Revenge (and then tricking her out with the installation of 40 guns), Blackbeard + his men sailed up to Charles Towne. He arrived in the harbor, guns a-blazin’, with four ships and several hundred men. Then, in what’s considered to be the boldest act of his career, he set up a blockade of the port and took several ships full of people hostage.

In terms of ransom, Blackbeard didn’t want gold, jewels, or even a three-course dinner at Hall’s– he instead demanded a chest of medicine– likely because he and his crew were stricken with STDs. (Again, that’s kind of expected of a guy who may or may not have had 14 wives.) Then-Governor Robert Johnson quickly obliged, delivering a 400 lb. chest of meds to the disease-ridden outlaws.

Satisfied, Blackbeard and his crew released the hostages– terrified + stripped nearly naked– but otherwise unharmed. He then departed the Holy City.

 

Death

Heading north up the coast of the Carolinas, the Queen Anne’s Revenge as well as another ship in Blackbeard’s fleet, the Adventure, hit a sandbar near what’s now called Beaufort Inlet, N.C. The ships were abandoned– as were some members of the crew.

On November 22, 1718, the dwindling pirate crew was bombarded near Ocracoke Island, N.C. by armed forces sent by then-Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood. A bloody battle ensued, and Blackbeard, along with many of his men, was killed. His body was thrown out to sea, while his head was displayed proudly on the bow of his enemy’s ship.

 

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Visitors flock to Charleston for many different reasons. Some come for the beaches. Others visit for the history. And some stop by for a chest full of medicine to treat venereal disease. To each his own, I suppose.

It’s too bad Blackbeard couldn’t have visited Charleston on better terms, though. I would suspect the risk and adventure involved with being a pirate captain would leave one in desperate need of a little ARRGH and ARRGH.

Jen