Blackbeard : biography

c. 1680 – November 22, 1718

Since the end of this so-called golden age of piracy, Teach and his exploits have become the stuff of lore, inspiring books, films and even amusement park rides. Much of what is known about him can be sourced to Charles Johnson’s A General Historie of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in Britain in 1724. A recognised authority on the pirates of his time, Johnson’s descriptions of such figures as Anne Bonny and Mary Read were for years required reading for those interested in the subject. Readers were titillated by his stories and a second edition was quickly published, though author Angus Konstam suspects that Johnson’s entry on Blackbeard was "coloured a little to make a more sensational story."{{#tag:ref|Amongst many questionable "facts" in Johnson’s account is the encounter between Teach and HMS Scarborough. Neither the log of the Scarborough nor the letters of its captain mention such an encounter; historian Colin Woodard believes that Johnson confused and conflated two actual events: the Scarboroughs battle against John Martel’s band and Blackbeard’s close encounter with another warship, HMS Seaford.|group="nb"}} A General Historie is though generally considered to be a reliable source. Johnson may have been an assumed alias. As Johnson’s accounts have been corroborated in personal and official dispatches, Lee (1974) considers that whoever he was, he had some access to official correspondence. Konstam speculates further, suggesting that Johnson may have been the English playwright Charles Johnson, the British publisher Charles Rivington, or the writer Daniel Defoe. In his 1951 work The Great Days of Piracy, author George Woodbury wrote that Johnson is "obviously a pseudonym", continuing "one cannot help suspecting that he may have been a pirate himself."

Despite his infamy, Teach was not the most successful of pirates. Henry Every retired a rich man, and Bartholomew Roberts took an estimated five times the amount Teach stole. Treasure hunters have long busied themselves searching for any trace of his rumoured hoard of gold and silver, but nothing found in the numerous sites explored along the east coast of the US has ever been connected to him. Some tales suggest that pirates often killed a prisoner on the spot where they buried their loot, and Teach is no exception in these stories, but that no finds have come to light is not exceptional; buried pirate treasure is often considered a modern myth for which almost no supporting evidence exists. The available records include nothing to suggest that the burial of treasure was a common practice, except in the imaginations of the writers of fictional accounts such as Treasure Island. Such hoards would necessitate a wealthy owner, and their supposed existence ignores the command structure of a pirate vessel, in which the crew often served by free suffrage. The only pirate ever known to bury treasure was William Kidd; the only treasure so far recovered from Teach’s exploits is that taken from the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was found and excavated in 1997. As of 2007 more than 15,000 objects have been rescued and preserved, some of which are on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum.

Various superstitious tales exist of Teach’s ghost. Unexplained lights at sea are often referred to as "Teach’s light", and some recitals claim that the notorious pirate now roams the afterlife searching for his head, for fear that his friends, and the Devil, will not recognise him. A North Carolinian tale holds that Teach’s skull was used as the basis for a silver drinking chalice; a local judge even claimed to have drunk from it one night in the 1930s. The name of Blackbeard has been attached to many local attractions, such as Charleston’s Blackbeard’s Cove. His name and persona have also featured heavily in literature. He is the main subject of Matilda Douglas’s fictional 1835 work Blackbeard: A page from the colonial history of Philadelphia. Gregory Keyes’ fictional The Age of Unreason has him appearing as the governor of a colony, and Tim Powers’ 1988 novel On Stranger Tides tells of his forming an alliance of pirates. Film renditions of his life include Blackbeard the Pirate (1952), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), Blackbeard: Terror at Sea (2005), and the 2006 Hallmark Channel miniseries Blackbeard. Parallels have also been drawn between Johnson’s Blackbeard and the character of Captain Jack Sparrow in the 2003 adventure film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Early life

Little is known about Blackbeard’s early life. It is commonly believed that at the time of his death he was between 35 and 40 years old and thus born in about 1680. In contemporary records his name is most often given as Blackbeard, Edward Thatch or Edward Teach; the latter is most often used today. However, several spellings of his surname exist—Thatch, Thach, Thache, Thack, Tack, Thatche and Theach. One early source claims that his surname was Drummond, but the lack of any supporting documentation makes this unlikely. Pirates habitually used fictitious surnames while engaged in the business of piracy, so as not to tarnish the family name, and this makes it unlikely that Teach’s real name will ever be known.

The 17th-century rise of Britain’s American colonies and the rapid 18th-century expansion of the Atlantic slave trade had made Bristol an important international sea port, and Teach was most likely raised in what was the second-largest city in England. He could almost certainly read and write; he communicated with merchants and when killed had in his possession a letter addressed to him by the Chief Justice and Secretary of the Province of Carolina, Tobias Knight. The author Robert Lee speculated that Teach may therefore have been born into a respectable, wealthy family. He may have arrived in the Caribbean in the last years of the 17th century, on a merchant vessel (possibly a slave ship). The 18th-century author Charles Johnson claimed that Teach was for some time a sailor operating from Jamaica on privateer ships during Queen Anne’s War, and that "he had often distinguished himself for his uncommon boldness and personal courage". At what point during the war Teach joined the fighting is, in keeping with the record of most of his life before he became a pirate, unknown.