Blackbeard at Ocracoke Island
A visitor to Ocracoke Island may walk down a nature trail to Springer’s Point, a public beach on the Pamlico Sound. As they look to their southwest toward the Ocracoke Inlet, they are seeing the area where one of the most famous naval battles in American history occurred – a battle that would bring an end to the famous pirate known as Blackbeard.
Colonial Wars and Piracy
In 1718, North Carolina was a colony of Great Britain, part of its growing overseas empire. England, France, and Spain had all claimed huge territories of land in the Western Hemisphere, and would be competing for land and resources in a “mercantilist” economy reliant on colonial profits. As a result, they fought a series of wars over land in the new world – including the long Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713).
This war would not settle questions of colonial power in the new world, but it would unleash men known as “privateers” onto the waters of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Privateers were legal pirates – they had a “letter of marque” from the monarch of their country that authorized them to raid the vessels of rival powers. When the war ended, many privateers would continue their actions without that blank check – and would become pirates, outside the law.
One of the most infamous examples was a man known by two pseudonyms – “Edward Teach” and “Blackbeard”. We don’t precisely know where or when he was born, but he likely served as a privateer in Queen Anne’s War before turning to piracy. While Blackbeard’s career as a pirate captain likely lasted only two years, he gained a reputation as one of the most intimidating and fearsome pirates of the time.
The Fearsome Blackbeard
During his time on the Caribbean Sea, Blackbeard would gain a crew consisting of up to 400 men. He would cultivate an image of fear that helped him become a very successful pirate. A pirate feared by his targets would face less resistance when boarding a ship. It is unknown how many men Blackbeard may have killed, but we have records of his journeys from ships’ logs and run-ins with the English colonies.
Pirate crews attracted men from all levels of society. Blackbeard’s men included wealthy ex-privateers, sailors from ships captured at sea, and people from the lowest classes of society, both black and white. Pirate ships often attracted people who had no place else to go – they served as an escape and a moneymaking enterprise. Pirate raids would be beneficial for both the captain and his crew – the crew would get shares of the loot, while the captain would add captured sailors to his numbers, enabling him to successfully raid more ships. If raids were infrequent or unprofitable, the captain could suddenly be faced with an angry crew.
Blackbeard was known for his famous flagship. In late 1717, he captured a French slave ship known as La Concorde, and rechristened it the fearsome Queen Anne’s Revenge. Its namesake, the Queen herself, was dead – her replacement, George I, was a German prince and was unpopular with many Catholics, Scotsmen, and pirates. Blackbeard may have been making a political statement with this name.
Journey to Ocracoke
In September 1717, England was frustrated by pirate activity in their Caribbean colonies. To incentivize the pirates to walk away from their profession, they offered the chance for a pardon. If a pirate declared loyalty to the English crown and never returned to pirating, he would never be arrested or put on trial for his crimes.
Blackbeard decided to take this opportunity to sail to North Carolina and take the loyalty oath. In June 1718, after a tumultuous voyage in which he blockaded the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, beached the famous Queen Anne’s Revenge at present-day Beaufort, NC, and abandoned most of his men, he and about 30 others reached Bath, North Carolina, the colony’s capital. After taking the loyalty oath, Blackbeard came to Ocracoke Island, where he would live much of his final five months.
Ocracoke Island was a great place for Blackbeard to live as a semi-retired pirate. He anchored his vessel, the Adventure, between the Ocracoke Inlet and a natural fresh-water well on land in what is now called Teach’s Hole Channel. The inlet was one of the few paths in and out of the Pamlico Sound – necessary for ships entering mainland North Carolina. The sound, however, was much shallower than the ocean, making it a good place for Blackbeard to maneuver his ship when being chased by a larger vessel.
Damnation Be Unto Your Souls
The colony of North Carolina was willing to shelter the pardoned pirate Blackbeard, but this did not prevent its neighbors from plotting his demise. Arguing that Blackbeard was still raiding vessels (and therefore violating the terms of his pardon), the colonies of South Carolina and Virginia would both authorize raids into North Carolina in late 1718 to capture members of Blackbeard’s crew. One of these raids, led by the British Royal Navy, would cost the pirate his life.
About 60 Royal Navy men on two vessels, led by Lt. Robert Maynard, took a five-day journey from Virginia to Ocracoke, approaching Blackbeard from the sound side on November 22, 1718. While Blackbeard was cornered, his narrow channel worked to his benefit, as the Navy boats quickly ran aground on the inlet’s dangerous sandbars. Blackbeard took advantage of their predicament by firing an artillery barrage, taking one ship (the Ranger) completely out of the battle; he would soon find the damaged second ship (the Jane) directly in front of him with a seemingly empty deck.
The pirate and his men took the opportunity to board the Jane, but would be in for a rude surprise. Lt. Maynard had kept many of his men below decks, disguising his true strength. When those men exploded out of the hull, they engaged the pirates in hand-to-hand combat. After a brief fight, Blackbeard was killed by a wound to the throat. The Navy sailors estimated that he took five pistol wounds and twenty stab wounds during the battle.
Blackbeard’s head was brought to Virginia and put on a pike at Hampton Roads, intended to serve as a warning to future pirates. Fifteen of his men, nine of whom survived the battle (the other six were living in Bath at the time), were put on trial; six of them were executed. While many writers mark the end of the Golden Age of Piracy in the decade after Blackbeard’s death, illegal activity and smuggling would be sources of tension between England and its North American colonies in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
Last updated: September 27, 2021