-- Published nearly 20 years after his death, this 1736 portrayal of Blackbeard shows the smoking fuses he reportedly braided into to his beard and hair. (November 22, 2013)
Downing a bowl of strong liquor as they approached his ship on the morning of Nov. 22, 1718, the fiery brigand yelled, "Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarter or take any from you!"
But that was to be his last toast.
Fearing the establishment of a pirate colony on the Outer Banks, Virginia Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood secretly organized the Hampton-based Royal Navy expedition that killed Blackbeard at Ocracoke in 1718. (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia / November 22, 2013)
In a bloody back-and-forth struggle that might have gone either way, the determined band of sailors by Lt. Robert Maynard finally killed and decapitated the fearsome pirate chieftain just as he appeared about to take Maynard's life.
Here's my account of the expedition from "Out of the Sea Came Pirates! The Golden Age of Pirates in Hampton Roads."
When news of one of history's most notorious pirate gatherings reached Virginia in late 1718, it couldn't have sparked more fear.
Just two days sail from Hampton Roads, the brutal Charles Vane and his second-in-command — Calico Jack Rackham — had joined the infamous Blackbeard in a week-long, rum-soaked cavort on Ocracoke Island.
And so menacing was this apparent alliance and the specter of a buccaneer stronghold looming so close to home that it transformed the head of a colony long regarded as a choice piratical hunting ground into a determined pirate killer.
Alexander Spotswood knew all too well that — just one year before — the vital channel through Capes Henry and Charles was closed for weeks by predatory sea rovers. Blackbeard himself had plundered nearly 50 ships in the Caribbean and Atlantic in only two years — and his notorious blockade of Charleston that spring made him an international villain.
Still, the secret expedition Spotswood organized in Williamsburg and Hampton finally eradicated this threat, leaving an indelible mark on the region.
Virginia became one of the most active combatants in the war against these brigands — and its triumph over the larger-than-life Blackbeard was a landmark blow that helped end the golden age of pirates.
"Like a lot of pirates, Blackbeard appeared out of nowhere after learning his trade as a privateer," historian John V. Quarstein says.
"In a very short time, he exploited his talents for daring, deviance and debauchery in ways that made him an emblem of piracy — and the battle in which he met his end has become one of history's most famous pirate battles."
Despite a persistent campaign against piracy, Virginia's geography combined with its rich tobacco fleets to turn the waters off the capes and the lower Chesapeake into a choice target.
Located near the northernmost reach of the Gulf Stream, the region was easily reached from as far away as the Caribbean — and the wealth of protected anchorages on its long coastline made it a haven for sea rovers intent on striking without being detected.
That's one reason why so many plied the waters here after the end of Queen Anne's War in 1713, when thousands of English privateers once employed against Spain and France turned to piracy. Even before ex-buccaneer Woodes Rogers became royal governor and drove them from the Bahamas in July 1718, they menaced Virginia and the East Coast in large numbers.
"Nobody paid any attention when they were raiding the Spanish," says maritime historian Donald G. Shomette, author of "Pirates on the Chesapeake Bay."
"But then it got of hand."
No newly minted pirate stood out more than Blackbeard — aka Edward Teach or Thatch — who had shown courage and boldness as a privateer.
Tutored by the renowned Benjamin Hornigold, Blackbeard proved so adept at his new trade that he soon commanded an unusually large and well-armed ship of 40 guns and a fleet of smaller buccaneers. By the end of 1717, he had taken dozens of vessels, including a well-armed merchant ship that put up a lengthy battle.
That fearsome reputation and firepower panicked the port of Charleston when Blackbeard held it hostage in May 1718.
"This was a big tall man with long matted hair and a long black beard tied off in ribbons. So when he jumped on your deck armed with several braces of pistols as well as a sword — he was like a fury from hell," Quarstein says.
"His ship — the Queen Anne's Revenge — also was one of the most powerful pirate vessels and one of the most powerful ships in American waters at the time. So it's no surprise that Charleston and the whole East Coast were so fearful. Blackbeard captured and plundered every ship that passed by for a week — and he held some of the leading citizens for ransom."
Such daring and muscle might have enabled Blackbeard to defy two royal guardships roving the Chesapeake and spark similar panic in Hampton Roads.
But instead he sailed to the Outer Banks, where he beached his ship, abandoned most of his crew and made his way inland to accept a royal pardon.
Within weeks, however, Blackbeard had returned to his piratical ways. And his notorious October rendezvous with Vane and Rackham sparked such alarm that Lt. Gov. Spotswood — citing a plea for help from North Carolina merchants — stealthily hired two light, fast sloops manned by Royal Navy seamen and sent them to Ocracoke Inlet on Nov. 17.
"This was all Spotswood's doing," Colonial Williamsburg historian Linda Rowe says.
"And he was so afraid word might slip out that he kept it under wraps even from the Royal Council."
Armed with information from Blackbeard's former quartermaster, William Howard — who had been seized in Hampton earlier that year — Lt. Robert Maynard and his men located the pirate's hidden mooring on Nov. 21. The next morning they slipped through the shoals toward his ship, which greeted them with curses and cannon fire.
"Damnation seize my soul if I give you quarter or take any from you!" Blackbeard yelled, as he downed a bowl of liquor in a toast to his opponents.
Hoisting his black death's-head flag, the pirate swung his vessel into the hidden shallows and fired on his foes with simultaneous port and starboard broadsides. Nearly 30 Englishmen fell in the deadly barrage, after which all three ships ran aground.
Struggling to free his sloop, Maynard hurried to close with the pirate before another broadside could do him in. He then told his men to wait below deck with pistols and cutlasses ready.
Pirate grenades filled the air with smoke and confusion as Blackbeard pulled alongside, yelling "Let's jump aboard and cut them to pieces!" But as the brigands lept aboard, Maynard's men rushed out in a fierce hand-to-hand melee.
Breaking Maynard's sword, Blackbeard was stepping in for the kill when he was struck in the neck and throat from behind. Blood splattered as he continued to fight, then fell to the deck after being stabbed and shot from all sides.
"He lived up to his legend fully," Quarstein says.
"He took six pistol shots and more than 20 sword wounds before he died — and he was cocking a pistol as he dropped."
Not until Jan. 3 — after rounding up Blackbeard's accomplices in North Carolina — did Maynard return to Hampton with the severed head of the pirate swinging from his bowsprit.
Cheers and cannon fire saluted this grisly arrival, and the celebration in Williamsburg five days later was just as emphatic.
"Blackbeard was Public Enemy No. 1 — and now Spotswood had his head," Quarstein says.
"So this was a big deal."
For more stories on the Golden Age of Piracy in Hampton Roads, click here.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
Tradition holds that Blackbeard¿s flag was emblazoned with a devilish skeleton piercing a bleeding heart with a spear. But no such description is mentioned in period sources. (November 22, 2013)