Charleston and the Golden Age of Piracy

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

Charleston first became a popular hot spot for pirates in the 1670s when CHS was the main port of the state. The government at the time was not very strong + often corrupt, which made a perfect, chaotic place for pirates to thrive.

Blackbeard

sketch of blackbeard
Blackbeard | Public domain image

 

Many people don’t realize that Blackbeard, a.k.a. Edward Teach + one of the most infamous pirates in history, made an appearance in Charleston (then Charles Towne) in 1718. Blackbeard arrived in the Charleston Harbor + set up a blockade at the port, taking hostage of several ships. What was Blackbeard’s random demand? A chest full of medicine, and mostly mercury. Mercury was thought back then to be able to cure venereal diseases (such as syphilis, which many of Blackbeard’s crew were suffering from). After several days in the harbor, their ransom was delivered, and after getting gloriously drunk in a Charleston tavern, they returned their hostages to shore and set back out to sea.

Want to learn more? Read more about Blackbeard’s famous blockade of the Charleston Harbor here.

 

Charles Vane

Soon after Blackbeard’s blockade, another pirate, Charles Vane, attacked Charleston. After the second attack, the city was certainly on edge. Then came the Charleston native + pirate hunter, William Rhett. S.C. governor at the time, Robert Johnson, sent Rhett on his way with two Royal Navy ships + an order to capture Vane. While he lost Vane, he did manage to find and capture Stede Bonnet (who helped lead Blackbeard’s blockade of Charleston) and 34 other pirates + brought the pirate prisoners back to the Holy City.

 

Stede Bonnet

Known as the “Gentleman Pirate” due to his privileged upbringing + polished demeanor, it’s unclear what led Bonnet to the pirate’s life – though maybe it’s related to the (unknown) reason he chose to call his ship the “Revenge.”

The Gentleman Pirate + his crew spent August 1717 wreaking havoc on the Lowcountry coastline with his crew. Eventually, the novice pirate was swindled into signing his control over the Revenge to his former mentor, Blackbeard. To regain control, Bonnet assisted Blackbeard in his 1718 blockade of Charleston. As previously mentioned, he was almost immediately apprehended + hanged for this act, while Blackbeard managed to evade capture for a few months.

He was hanged over at White Point Gardens – which, at the time, was a popular spot for pirate executions. While you’re unlikely to stumble upon a pirate being hanged in White Point Gardens today, you can still find a monument about its history there that commemorates its historic role as a venue for public executions.

 

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny | Public Domain Image

Another infamous pirate with ties to Charleston is Anne Bonny. Born in Ireland, Anne + her parents relocated to Charleston. In a time when pirates frequented Charleston, Anne met + eventually married pirate James Bonney. They escaped to Nassau where Anne distanced herself from James + became romantically involved with another pirate, John “Calico Jack” Rackham.

Anne joined Jack’s crew, supposedly disguised as a man. Anne was known as a bloodthirsty + violent pirate, and apparently an expert fighter. As the story goes, when she was on the ship, Bonny fell in love with another sailor – only, it turned out, that sailor was also a woman in disguise. After revealing their true identity to one another, Bonny and the other woman, named Mary Read, became close friends.

Eventually, their ship was captured, and all of the pirates except for the two women (who were spared due to having children) were sentenced to hang. At the execution of her former lover Rackham, a ruthless Anne reportedly said something along these lines:  “I’m sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man you need not have hanged like a dog.” Ouch.

After the hangings, Anne + Mary both went to jail. Mary got sick and died a short time later, while Anne virtually disappeared from the historical narrative.

Piracy dwindled down in the 1720s, and while there may have been a pirate sighting or two after that time, the Golden Age of Piracy had come to an end.

 

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