Myths and Facts about Blackbeard the Pirate
His name is among the most famous in the history of piracy. Today, nearly three centuries after his death, there are few people who have not heard of Blackbeard. And yet, as with most pirates of that era, little is actually known about him, and much of what is widely believed is more myth than truth.
Some of these tall tales were cultivated by Blackbeard himself, others are the work of writers embellishing the facts in the years following Blackbeard's death. Here's a look at seven myths about Blackbeard the pirate, and the truth behind each of these stories.
MYTH: Blackbeard was a ruthless cutthroat.
The Facts: There's no record of Blackbeard ever harming anyone who surrendered without a fight, which, thanks to Blackbeard's fearsome reputation, is usually what happened. Blackbeard was an imposing figure, said to be about 6'4", with a thick black beard covering nearly his entire face, which he wore in braids that reached down to his waist. Beards were not commonly worn at that time, and this alone gave him a threatening look.
When he went into battle, Blackbeard would be covered with weapons. In addition to wielding a cutlass, he'd wear a sling over his shoulders filled with guns and daggers, and additional weapons would be stuffed into his belt. To create a truly demonic appearance, Blackbeard would tuck lit fuses (of the type used to light cannons) under his hat, which surrounded his head with an eerie smoke. He claimed to be the devil himself, and, as superstition was common among seamen at that time, many sailors who came face to face with him may have believed it. Stories of anyone actually daring to engage Blackbeard in personal combat are few.
Blackbeard's reputation was such that the mere sight of his flag was enough to make most crews surrender on the spot. These who did so would be set free — to spread the word that if you didn't fight Blackbeard, you would live! Even the slightest resistance would be met with violence, however. In one instance, when a person on a raided ship refused to take off a ring, Blackbeard didn't use persuasion or threats. He simply acquired the ring by cutting off the man's finger.
Blackbeard's Real Name
MYTH: Blackbeard's Real Name was Edward Teach.
The Facts: Nothing is known about Blackbird's early years with any certainty, not even his real name. Most historians believe he was born around the year 1680, in the English seaport town of Bristol, although even that has been a subject of some debate. Many 18th century documents refer to Blackbeard as Edward Teach, although Thatch is also seen quite often, as are such variations as Thache, Thack and Tack, among others.
None of these are likely to be his true name, however. Blackbeard appears to have come from a fairly well-to-do family, as he was quite literate and well-read. He probably wanted to protect his family name, something commonly done by pirates of that era, who would use false names. One source reports Blackbeard's last name as being Drummond, but that has never been confirmed.
MYTH: Blackbeard had 14 wives.
The Facts: Surprisingly, given his reputation, Blackbeard seems to have been quite popular with the ladies. There are no records of his having multiple wives, however. This myth stems from the fact that while at port, Blackbeard would often meet a woman and become quite infatuated with her. Often she would accompany him to his ship, where the First Mate would perform a "marriage" ceremony. It was a scene that apparently occurred many times during Blackbeard's career. These ceremonies were not legal, of course, and it's unlikely that anyone involved actually thought that they were, although the number of "wives" Blackbeard had was most likely a running joke among the crew.
There is documentation to suggest that in 1718, Blackbeard legally married a young girl from North Carolina named Mary Ormond. The ceremony is believed to have been presided over by the Governor of North Carolina himself, Charles Eden. It is not known what became of Mary Ormond.
Blackbeard's Buried Treasure
MYTH: Blackbeard had a buried treasure.
The Facts: The idea of buried treasure has become an integral part of pirate lore, but there is little evidence indicating that this was something pirates actually did. A pirate's life was risky, and often short, so burying a treasure for later use would not have made much sense to a pirate of Blackbeard's era. The idea of buried treasure (and of a map on which "X" marks the spot where the treasure can be found) comes from works of fiction, such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The only pirate known to have ever buried a treasure is the English pirate Captain Kidd, and he is only known to have done it once. Knowing he was about to be captured, Kidd buried some valuables on Gardiner's Island, off the coast of New York, hoping to use the location of the treasure as bargaining leverage. The ploy failed, and Kidd was hanged.
Blackbeard's Female Crewmember
MYTH: Blackbeard had a cabin boy who was secretly a girl.
The Facts: This myth is the result of the 2006 docudrama, Blackbeard: Terror at Sea, produced for the National Geographic Channel. As with all NatGeo documentaries, the film is very well-done, with excellent acting and high production values. Blackbeard is played by James Purefoy (Marc Antony in the HBO series Rome), and the rest of the cast is equally good.
For some reason, however, they chose to introduce a fictional character, "Frenchie", a cabin boy who is secretly a girl. Only first mate Israel Hands is aware of Frenchie's secret. Because the documentary is so well done, and National Geographic has such a respected reputation, many people who see the film believe that Frenchie was a real person. There is, however, no record of such a thing ever happening on Blackbeard's ship.
The Death of Blackbeard
MYTH: Blackbeard was killed by Robert Maynard.
The Facts: Some accounts of Blackbeard's death (see photo to the right) tell of how Blackbeard finally met his match in Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy. Blackbeard did die in battle with Maynard, who had been sent by Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood to apprehend or kill the pirate, but Maynard did not do the job single-handedly. In fact, accounts of the event indicate that Blackbeard was about to deliver a killing blow to Maynard when a member of Maynard's crew came forward and slashed Blackbeard's throat. At that point a number of men attacked Blackbeard together, finally killing him.
Blackbeard had already been shot once when he was about to finish off Maynard, and Maynard's official account states that Blackbeard had suffered a total of five gunshot wounds, and had been stabbed approximately twenty times, before finally dying.
MYTH: Blackbeard's headless body swam around the ship several times before sinking.
The Facts: After Blackbeard's death, Maynard cut off his head and hung it from ship's bowsprit (the pole extending out from the front of the ship). Maynard needed the head in order to collect the bounty, and probably also considered the sight of Blackbeard's head hanging from his ship to be quite a trophy. Blackbeard's headless body was thrown into the sea, and legend has it that the body swam around the ship three times (some say seven times) before sinking. Unless Blackbeard truly was the demon he claimed to be, this legend is probably false.
Interesting Facts About Blackbeard
Here are some other interesting facts about Blackbeard:
- Despite his enduring fame, Blackbeard's career as a pirate lasted only about two years, from 1716 to 1718.
- In June, 1718 Blackbeard renounced piracy and received a royal pardon from Governor Charles Eden of NC. By August of that year, however, Blackbeard had returned to piracy.
The site of the discovery of Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge.
- Blackbeard was not only a "pirate of the Caribbean". He also operated off the east coast of the British colonies in North America, in the waters around the Carolinas.
- Blackbeard once held prominent residents of Charleston, SC ransom, demanding not money in exchange for his prisoners, but a chest of medicine for his crew. His captives were then released unharmed, although Blackbeard did take their jewelry — and their clothing — before releasing them.
- The wreck of Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, was discovered in 1996 (but not positively identified until 2011) off the coast of North Carolina, where it had been grounded on a sandbar and abandoned in 1718. The map to the right shows the site of the shipwreck.
Poll: The Ghost of Blackbeard
Do you believe it's possible that Blackbeard's ghost has actually been sighted?
Myth or Truth? You Decide
MYTH? Blackbeard's ghost can be seen off the coast of North Carolina.
The Facts: Reports of Blackbeard's ghost appearing in the waters off of North Carolina persist to this day. The ghost is usually said to be in search of its head. In addition, mysterious, unexplained lights are sometimes sighted off the coast in the same area, and have become known as Teach's Light.
I'll leave the truth of these stories for you to decide. Do you believe in ghosts?
- Lee, Robert. Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times. Winston-Salem, NC. John F Blair Pub, 1974.
- Karg, Barb & Spaite, Arjean. The Everything Pirates Book. Avon, MA. Adams Media, 2007.
- Blackbeard: Terror at Sea. Writer: Andrew Bampfield. Produced by Dangerous Films Ltd for National Geographic Channel, 2006.
- Colonial Williamsburg, When Blackbeard Scourged the Seas, http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/blackbea.cfm
- The Republic of Pirates, Blackbeard, http://www.republicofpirates.net/Blackbeard.html