Pirates and BLACKBEARD
by Elva Cobb Martin
Piracy had their greatest days in our Atlantic waters in the 1600-1700’s. The success of piracy and its particular form of terrorism in the colonial period were due in part to the laissez-faire attitude of heads of state and some colonial governors. Unpardoned acts of piracy were often condoned by officials as long as the acts were perpetuated against one’s enemies or the loot was shared. England and other nations issued “letters of marque” which gave their own “privateers” as they called these type captains, permission to attack and plunder ships of their enemies.
But piracy became so prevalent at times that honest sea trade almost ground to a halt. Then governments withdrew letters of marque, tracked down the pirates, and hanged them in public.
The history of Charleston, South Carolina, records such a story involving Blackbeard, one the most notorious pirates of all who roamed the Eastern seaboard and the Caribbean.
Blackbeard was more than an adroit leader of men, swashbuckling and fearsome; he was also a skillful navigator and a competent naval tactician. According to Rod Gragg, a University of South Carolina professor of history, Blackbeard once fought and won a naval battle with a 30-gun British man-of-war, becoming perhaps the only pirate in the western hemisphere to defeat the British Royal Navy.
His method of attack was similar to that of terrorists today. He struck quickly, raided, then ran. His favorite place to run was Ocracoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. His attacks, of course, were always at sea.
In May of 1718, Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard, sailed into Charleston with his fleet of pirate ships. He blockaded the harbor, captured and plundered nine ships and took several hostages including Samuel Wragg, a member of the S.C. legislature. After interrogating the hostages about the remaining ships in the harbor—their cargoes and destinations—the victims were then thrown half-naked into the dark hold.
In exchange for the prisoners, Blackbeard demanded of Governor Johnson something the pirate did not find on the plundered ships, mainly a large supply of meds used to relieve a pirate’s recurring nightmare—syphilis. Blackbeard warned that if his demands were not met, he would execute all the hostages and raid and sack Charleston.
The legislature complied. It seemed that shame, indignation, and revenge were outranked by fear. Actually, it was wisdom that outranked the lot, with revenge simply being reserved.
Blackbeard sailed away, and he had to be gloating over the fact that not only had he taken the most valuable loot of his career, he had, as one writer put it, “reduced to total submission the proud and militant people of South Carolina without firing a single shot.”
What Blackbeard and his cohorts did not count on was that in the South, revenge rides hard on the heels of humiliation.
Once the pirate squadron sailed out of Charleston Harbor and Samuel Wragg and the other hostages had replaced their clothing, if not their dignity, white-hot Southern dander rose to the surface in the Charleston waters.
It was just the stimulus needed for the difficult task of subduing a hitherto fashionable vice.
History records the results.
The courts of Charleston, in November of that same year, tried, convicted and caused to be hanged in the period of one month a total of 49 pirates.
The pride of South Carolina was certainly restored in great measure by these successes against piracy. Blackbeard, however, was not among those executed in Charleston.
He died on November 22, 1718, at the hand of Lt. Robert Maynard. Maynard and his crew, sent by Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, challenged Blackbeard near his Ocracoke, North Carolina, hideout. After being wounded an astounding 25 times, 20 cutlass wounds and five gunshot wounds, Blackbeard succumbed.
Maynard reportedly chopped off Blackbeard’s head and attached it to his mast and sailed home. Legend has it that when they threw the body over board, it swam around the boat seven times before sinking.
So goes the story of Blackbeard, Colonial terrorist.
In England the last pirate of this era was strung up in 1840, and in America the last one was hung in 1862.
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