When the notorious Blackbeard spotted 60 sailors dressed in civilian clothing on the decks of two sloops rowing towards his anchorage at Ocracoke Island on Nov. 22, 1718, he knew trouble was afoot but he did not know the identity of the approaching strangers. Neither was he aware that he and his 18 friends aboard their sloop Adventure were about to engage in what one modern historian overstated as “one of the most pivotal naval engagements in American history.”
The pirate captain also could not have foreseen his imminent and gruesome death, nor that he would become famous for it. Despite Blackbeard’s notoriety, however, traditional historical interpretations have failed to disclose the covert purposes of the unlawful naval operation at Ocracoke Island 300 years ago, and that he and his pirates were little more than pawns in a failed political coup.
As the two sloops came within speaking distance, Blackbeard was reported to have shouted to the strangers: “Damn you for villains, who are you? And whence came you? Leave us alone and we shall meddle not with you.” Thirty-four-year-old Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard—who, contrary to popular artistic renderings did not wear a uniform—hailed in return: “It is you we want and we will have you dead or alive.” By all accounts, Maynard did not identify himself as a member of the British Royal Navy.
Cornered in shallow water with no wind to power his escape, Blackbeard had to quickly make a critical decision based on who he believed was threatening him. His attackers were dressed in civilian clothing and were aboard two small sloops that arrived from Pamlico Sound the night before (Maynard’s Jane, the larger of the two vessels, was about 45-feet on deck; Midshipman Hyde’s Ranger was about 35-feet in length). The strangers easily could have been some of the 300 pirates whom Blackbeard cunningly double-crossed at Beaufort Inlet when intentionally scuttling Queen Anne’s Revenge five months earlier. Or, the assailants may have been Charlestonians, emboldened by their recent capture of the pirate Stede Bonnet on the Cape Fear River and in search of the pirate captain who famously blockaded their port earlier that year. The least likely of the possibilities was that the intruders were Royal Navy sailors from Virginia because they would not have arrived at Ocracoke from Pamlico Sound.
We might imagine the dilemma faced by Blackbeard. “Who are you,” repeated Waxhaw, North Carolina, attorney J. Erik Groves at the mock trial in Beaufort County Superior Court on October 19, 2018, convened to reexamine the evidence and consider the legalities of the Battle of Ocracoke. “If strangers, without identifying themselves, knocked on your door in the middle of the night and shouted that they were going to take you from your home dead or alive, what would you do?” Groves asked of the judge, jury, and courtroom crowded with spectators. Some whispered to those among them that there was little doubt how they might respond.
And so it was, with no other choice, Blackbeard ordered his gunners to fire a lethal broadside of iron shards and nails at his attackers—a desperate effort to stand his ground, but, unfortunately, an act of treason for bearing arms against the white British ensign hanging limply in the rigging of Maynard’s sloop. Maynard had shouted at Blackbeard, “You can see by our colors we are not pirates,” but the unfurled flag he was referring to was mostly white and hard to distinguish from a distance.
Had Blackbeard chosen to surrender without firing the first shots, he and his men would have been pardoned by the King, although in that fateful moment he could not be certain of that. So, at the end of an hour-long, slow-motion series of maneuvers and gunfire amidst dense billows of smoke followed by six minutes of furious hand-to-hand combat, 11 Royal Navy sailors and 10 pirates, including Blackbeard, lay dead.
As the pirates desperately fought for their lives, a ship from London was off the southeast American coast slowly beating its way through early winter gales toward Virginia. Aboard the vessel was a newly published, revised and more generous pardon for pirates from George I that would have instantly absolved Blackbeard and his men who were about to be killed or captured for all acts of piracy they had previously committed. Had that revised pardon arrived sooner, or had Maynard’s expedition clandestinely financed by Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood been delayed for a few weeks by bad weather, the Battle of Ocracoke might never have occurred and the man who became best known by his alias, Blackbeard, would have been little more than a footnote in history.
The notion that Blackbeard was eliminated because he was a maniacal bloodthirsty pirate who was preying on ships passing the Outer Banks has been etched in stone by centuries of myth and folklore but could not be farther from the truth. Most research historians acknowledge that no record exists proving that Blackbeard ever killed anyone prior to the battle at Ocracoke, nor documentation confirming the salacious suggestions that he abused women. On the contrary, depositions of merchant captains detained by the pirate’s company reveal that he was often hospitable even while his boarding crew determined what items from their victims would be stolen or sometimes traded for things of lesser value. According to the only credible source that mentions his love life, Blackbeard married just once, a North Carolina girl, and even that was based on hearsay. Not once during his documented two years as a pirate did he and his crew capture a ship passing the North Carolina coast. And his purported flag proudly flying atop the state’s ferries this year—a skeleton holding an hourglass alongside a bleeding heart—was arbitrarily attributed to Blackbeard by an author of an illustrated book of pirates published in 1978.
The fictional Blackbeard, once described by a Bahamian historian as an amalgamation of all pirates, has long been a moneymaker. His fearsome legend has been embellished and greedily perpetuated by publishers, producers, and retailers—even museums—with little interest in pursuing or promoting the truth of the pirate’s history, which turns out to be far more complex and intriguing than the fictional version.
It was no accident that the real Blackbeard and his most trusted shipmates, having months earlier conceived a clever plan, chose Beaufort Inlet to deliberately wreck their former French slave ship and shed themselves of hundreds of unwanted pirates. By doing so, Blackbeard and his hand-picked inner circle of officers and friends were able to return to where their two-year, salvage-turned-piracy adventure began—the Pamlico River and Bath.
The revelation that Blackbeard’s friends were local men is not news. “Inhabitants of North Carolina” was how Col. Thomas Pollock characterized the pirates nearly 300 years ago in a December 1718 letter to Gov. Eden.
Those North Carolina mariners likely crossed the blurry line between legal privateering and illegal piracy out of necessity in order to support their families. Smuggling and wrecking were other popular and profitable colonial cottage industries. Privations and punitive trade restrictions in America in the early 18th century forced nearly everyone to seek ways to circumvent the law simply in order to survive. Historian Henry William Elson wrote: “It may be said that the whole people became lawbreakers, and often the customs officials and even the governors connived at their practice.” Certainly that was true for North Carolina in Blackbeard’s day.
As the colony’s first families were struggling to recover from years of economic distress caused by draught, famine, yellow fever, and a devastating war with the Tuscorora Nation, exciting news arrived that a fleet of Spanish treasure ships had wrecked on the coast of Florida in a hurricane. The catastrophe caused a gold rush in colonial America, not unlike what happens today when armored bank trucks accidentally spill bags of cash on a highway. Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Spotswood was among those who sought the king’s permission to dispatch a salvage party to Florida. Within 6 months of the disaster numerous groups of men from New England, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Jamaica, rushed to the coast of Florida to scavenge the beaches for treasure, “like ravenous vultures,” wrote paleographer Dr. John DeBry. The salvage of the Spanish treasure by British subjects, however, was illegal at the time. Despite this, the desire to easily procure instant wealth produced a mob mentality among mariners, sparking high seas looting that has since become glamorized as the “Golden Age of Piracy.”
When Blackbeard and the sons and slaves of Bath plantation owners returned to the Pamlico in late-June 1718 from their two-year odyssey they came home not as salvors of Spanish treasure but as pirates with a sloop full of slaves. Gov. Eden presented them pardons on behalf of George I but the pardons were worthless. The Bath pirates had committed numerous acts of piracy after the pardon’s January 5th deadline in order to keep hundreds of their shipmates and slaves fed until they could arrive at Beaufort Inlet. The pardons provided no protection for the Bath mariners and endangered Eden’s job and potentially his life. By pardoning pirates who were ineligible for the king’s forgiveness Eden became an accessory to acts of piracy—a hanging offense, even for a proprietary governor.
Yet the stakes were higher than a governor’s fate—the future ownership and control of North Carolina was the ultimate contest. Eden’s imprudent patronage of Blackbeard and his Bath pirates provided the grounds needed by the anti-proprietary political faction lead by General Assembly speaker Edward Moseley, with the backing of Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Spotswood, to depose the governor, ultimately leading to the revocation of the colony’s charter so that ownership of North Carolina would revert to the king. Political provocateurs in both Carolinas had sought the Crown’s intervention ever since the Lords Proprietors failed to provide military assistance to their colony’s taxpayers during North Carolina’s Tuscorora War (1711) and South Carolina’s Yamasee War (1715). In 1719, South Carolina succeeded in severing ties with their aristocratic real estate developers in what was described as a “bloodless yet effectual revolution”—indeed, it was America’s first revolution. It took North Carolina another ten years to become a royal colony.
Capturing or killing Blackbeard and the few remaining members of his pirate crew at Ocracoke was simply a pretext for the seizure of written evidence from Blackbeard’s possessions that would prove that the colony’s government had been colluding with pirates. As it happened, Blackbeard and his friends from Bath, many of whom were killed, were unwitting pawns caught in the middle of what turned out to be a failed political coup.
Spotswood’s extraordinary invasion of his neighboring colony was unlawful. According to his instructions issued by George I’s Secretary of State dated April 15, 1715, Spotswood had no authorization to send assistance or armed forces into a neighboring colony unless he received a request or invitation from the colony’s governor. Records are clear that Eden did not send an application for assistance to Spotswood or otherwise ask for Virginia’s help to suppress or eliminate Blackbeard. According to Blackbeard biographer Robert E. Lee, Dean of the School of Law at Wake Forest University, Spotswood had no legal authority to enter the territorial limits of North Carolina.
Furthermore, the Royal Navy did not have jurisdiction on the inland waters of the proprietary colony of North Carolina. Lt. Maynard’s 60 Royal Navy sailors were privately hired by the government of Virginia—enticed to volunteer for the expedition by the prospect of acquiring pirate treasure. The expedition was not expressly authorized by the Lords of Admiralty nor did it have the approval of the Lords Proprietors.
Maynard and his men were little more than pirates themselves. For a number of years after the battle, Maynard was accused by his own captain of improperly sharing the pirate’s treasure among his crew members and misrepresenting his role in the engagement in a letter to the King. He had been a lieutenant for 11 years prior to his defeat of Blackbeard but it would be another 21 years before he was promoted to commander. Maynard was not such a hero.
In an ironic capsizing of historical and legal interpretations, on the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Ocracoke on November 22, 2018 (on our modern calendar the corresponding date is Dec. 3), there will be a celebration honoring the Royal Navy’s role in the killing of Blackbeard and his men from Bath, calling the battle “the first time the rule of law was established on Ocracoke.” Notwithstanding the illegalities of the invasion, the event is especially paradoxical considering Ocracoke has for many years enjoyed the economic fruits of Blackbeard’s vast legend and untimely and spectacular death. Tourists are generally not known for visiting the island because of Lt. Gov. Spotswood’s illicit invasion of his neighboring colony; visitors don’t spend their money on Royal Navy emblazoned t-shirts or Royal Navy white ensigns; nor is there a hotel on Ocracoke named for Lt. Maynard.
For nearly 300 years, historians and authors have published numerous books about Blackbeard, and film and television producers have created dozens of movies and documentaries about Blackbeard, and many businesses, attractions, restaurants, hotels, retailers, private museums, and other commercial enterprises benefit from the use of Blackbeard’s name. It can be fairly stated that the public today makes relatively far more money off of the notorious pirate than he ever made off of his victims.
The notorious Blackbeard and his cohorts, their families, and the government officials who aided them represent an important chapter of North Carolina’s colonial history. Blackbeard’s history is one of the more popular subjects taught in North Carolina schools. Pirates, privateers, wreckers, and merchant mariners, when interpreted accurately, provide an intriguing introduction to early American history and the broader studies of economics, politics, and family life on the frontier.
As an example, my research has proven that one of Blackbeard’s former crew members, the barrel maker Edward Salter, redeemed his brief piratical career by serving two terms in the colonial Assembly and contributing to the construction of North Carolina’s oldest standing church, St. Thomas Church of Bath. Three of Salter’s grandsons performed heroic roles in America’s fight for independence from the British crown, perhaps possessing the same spirit as their pirate forebear. Who knows how many similar inspiring stories might be found today in eastern North Carolina among the extended families who are the descendants of Blackbeard’s pirates?
In light of the fact that historical records and primary sources indicate that Blackbeard and his fellow crew members never committed the brutal crimes or murders attributed to them by traditional historical interpretations and popular culture, it seems appropriate to commemorate their lives and the contributions that they have made to North Carolina history, tourism, and the state’s economy. Blackbeard and his pirates from Bath deserve North Carolina’s forgiveness and appreciation—they should be pardoned once again.
Kevin P. Duffus is the author of six books on North Carolina maritime history including Into the Burning Sea—The 1918 Mirlo Rescue.
Copyright © 2018 [Kevin P. Duffus]. All Rights Reserved.