Blackbeard : biography

c. 1680 – November 22, 1718

The remainder of Teach’s crew and former associates were found by Brand, in Bath, and were transported to Williamsburg, Virginia, where they were jailed on charges of piracy. Several were black, prompting Spotswood to ask his council what could be done about "the Circumstances of these Negroes to exempt them from undergoing the same Tryal as other pirates." Regardless, the men were tried with their comrades in Williamsburg’s Capitol building, under admiralty law, on 12 March 1719. No records of the day’s proceedings remain, but 14 of the 16 accused were found guilty. Of the remaining two, one proved that he had partaken of the fight out of necessity, having been on Teach’s ship only as a guest at a drinking party the night before, and not as a pirate. The other, Israel Hands, was not present at the fight. He claimed that during a drinking session Teach had shot him in the knee, and that he was still covered by the royal pardon. The remaining pirates were hanged, then left to rot in gibbets along Williamsburg’s Capitol Landing Road (known for some time after as "Gallows Road").

Governor Eden was certainly embarrassed by Spotswood’s invasion of North Carolina, while Spotswood disavowed himself of any part of the seizure. He defended his actions, writing to Lord Carteret, a shareholder of the Province of Carolina, that he might benefit from the sale of the seized property and reminding the Earl of the number of Virginians who had died to protect his interests. He argued for the secrecy of the operation by suggesting that Eden "could contribute nothing to the Success of the Design", and told Eden that his authority to capture the pirates came from the king. Eden was heavily criticised for his involvement with Teach and was accused of being his accomplice. By criticising Eden, Spotswood intended to bolster the legitimacy of his invasion. Lee (1974) concludes that although Spotswood may have thought that the ends justified the means, he had no legal authority to invade North Carolina, to capture the pirates and to seize and auction their goods. Eden doubtless shared the same view. As Spotswood had also accused Tobias Knight of being in league with Teach, on 4 April 1719, Eden had Knight brought in for questioning. Israel Hands had, weeks earlier, testified that Knight had been on board the Adventure in August 1718, shortly after Teach had brought a French ship to North Carolina as a prize. Four pirates had testified that with Teach, they had visited Knight’s home to give him presents. This testimony and the letter found on Teach’s body by Maynard appeared compelling, but Knight conducted his defence with competence. Despite being very sick and close to death, he questioned the reliability of Spotswood’s witnesses. He claimed that Israel Hands had talked under duress, and that under North Carolinian law, the other witness, an African, was unable to testify. The sugar, he argued, was stored at his house legally, and Teach had visited him only on business, in his official capacity. The board found Knight innocent of all charges. He died later that year.

Eden was annoyed that the accusations against Knight arose during a trial in which he played no part. The goods which Brand seized were officially North Carolinian property and Eden considered him a thief. The argument raged back and forth between the colonies until Eden’s death on 17 March 1722. His will named one of Spotswood’s opponents, John Holloway, a beneficiary. In the same year, Spotswood, who for years had fought his enemies in the House of Burgesses and the Council, was replaced by Hugh Drysdale, once Robert Walpole was convinced to act.

Modern view

Official views on pirates were sometimes quite different from those held by contemporary authors, who often described their subjects as despicable rogues of the sea. Privateers who became pirates were generally considered by the English government to be reserve naval forces, and were sometimes given active encouragement; as far back as 1545 Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, when he returned to England from a round-the-world expedition with plunder worth an estimated £1,500,000. Royal pardons were regularly issued, usually when England was on the verge of war, and the public’s opinion of pirates was often favourable, some considering them akin to patrons. Economist Peter Leeson believes that pirates were generally shrewd businessmen, far removed from the modern, romanticised view of them as murderous tyrants. After Woodes Rogers’ 1718 landing at New Providence and his ending of the pirate republic however, piracy in the West Indies fell into terminal decline. With no easily accessible outlet to fence their stolen goods, pirates were reduced to a subsistence livelihood, and following almost a century of naval warfare between the British, French and Spanish—during which sailors could find easy employment—lone privateers found themselves outnumbered by the powerful ships employed by the British Empire to defend its merchant fleets. The popularity of the slave trade helped bring to an end the frontier condition of the West Indies and in these circumstances, piracy was no longer able to flourish as it once did.