The Legend of Blackbeard: A Confusing Mix of Reality and Imagination


By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University

The pirate Edward Thatch or Teach, alias Blackbeard, stands out both as a figure who generated extraordinary fear in his day for his notorious deeds and as an instance of the way pirate fact and fiction could merge to become something entirely new. Blackbeard’s name recognition is probably the highest among all Golden Age Caribbean pirates.

A painting of Blackbeard
Blackbeard was a notorious pirate of his age. (Image: The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick/Public domain)

The Brutal Blackbeard

Blackbeard was a successful pirate in terms of the damage he wrought. His legend grew partly because he destroyed ships where many other pirates would have just let them go after a little plundering, throwing overboard goods that his crew had no use for, rather than letting the unfortunate merchants retain them.

Interestingly, he was not particularly murderous for a pirate, even with all the unparalleled property destruction. He seemed to get along a bit better with the southern colonies, at least for a time. 

Whether or not he benefited from government connivance, Blackbeard was believed to be violent and was reportedly smart about using his reputation for violence to strike fear into both his enemies and his own men.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Blackbeard’s Death Ballad

Blackbeard’s death was as extreme as his life and predictably generated accounts with varying degrees of adherence to reality. In fact, the American author and statesman Benjamin Franklin claimed that one of his first publications, done at the tender age of 13, was a popular ballad about Blackbeard’s death, entitled The Downfall of Piracy

In contrast to ballads that depicted pirates as bold rebels like those centered on the Englishman, John Ward or Henry Every, Franklin’s aim was to glorify not the pirate, but Lieutenant Maynard and the sailors of the Royal Navy, who defeated Blackbeard and the crew of his ship, the Adventure, in 1718 near Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. 

This would have surely pleased the governor of Virginia, who thought Ocracoke was being turned into a pirate stronghold.

Blackbeard and Lieutenant Maynard’s Bloody Battle

A sketch of Blackbeard's head hanging from the bowsprit
According to the Boston News-Letter, a powerful Scottish Highlander cut off Blackbeard’s head. (Image: Unkown/Public domain)

But whatever its actual details, the battle does indeed appear to have been bloody, and dramatic. Maynard’s men strained aboard Blackbeard’s ship, at least according to Maynard’s self-serving account, later published in The Weekly Journal, or British Gazetteer: “The pirate raised a glass and drank damnation to me and my men whom he styled Cowardly Puppies, saying he would neither give nor take Quarter.” 

The Boston News-Letter supplies the detail that, after Blackbeard had wounded Maynard sword hand and apparently survived a pistol shot, he was brought down by a powerful Scottish Highlander, “who gave Teach a cut on the Neck, Teach saying well done, lad, the Highlander reply’d, if it be not well done, I’ll do it better, with that, he gave him a second stroke, which cut off his Head, laying it flat on his Shoulder.”

This detail has an air of fiction about it. The General History, in contrast, suggests that Blackbeard simply succumbed suddenly to his wounds, but it’s certain Blackbeard fell in battle. Maynard recorded that Blackbeard’s corpse showed at least five bullet holes, and some 20 sword cuts, all over his body.

However, though there is no surety who beheaded Blackbeard, we do know that the lieutenant hung his disembodied head from the ship’s prow.

Blackbeard’s Treasure

Blackbeard’s piracy doesn’t appear to have made him rich. Maynard’s victorious men eagerly searched the Adventure for booty, but found only some gold dust and a few small bits of stolen silver here and there, along with stolen cocoa and some sugar. 

Lest we be overly persuaded by Franklin’s heroic vision of Maynard, it’s worth noting that he enslaved and sold the African men he found among Blackbeard’s surviving crew to increase his profit threshold. 

The wreck of what may very well be Blackbeard’s other famous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was located, and excavation began in 1996. Objects found aboard are as varied as belt buckles to wine bottles to an enema syringe, but there’s not much sign of treasure.

Different Depictions of Blackbeard

Nevertheless, Blackbeard’s legend rapidly morphed to incorporate any number of outlandish claims. In 1724 for example, Charles Johnson depicted him as a despoiler of virgins and a polygamist, although there are no other contemporary claims about his sexual proclivities being anything remarkable. And as his name recognition grew, it became curiously detached from the man himself, and instead turned into something of a free floating signifier for anything pirate-like at all.

You can get a sense of this in one of the most popular melodramas of the entire 19th century, John Cartwright Cross’ tragic comedy, Blackbeard; or, The Captive Princess. It’s a musical with spectacular special effects. It features Blackbeard hoarding a massive treasure in Madagascar, capturing, and falling in love with the princess of the Mughal Empire, and being haunted by the ghost of the jealous first wife he’d murdered. 

This very different depiction of Blackbeard is still bold and commanding, and interestingly, he’s still brought down by a heroic Lieutenant Maynard in the fiery last act, but there ends the resemblance.

The effect of this hugely popular re-emerging of Blackbeard away from the Carolina coastline, and into the bosom of a fainting female captive, gave great power to the long tradition of the lustful stage swashbuckler. Yet, in large part, the lovelorn pirate was an invention of 19th-century popular culture, given legitimacy by its attachment to works by Sir Walter Scott, and the brooding George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Common Questions about the Legend of Blackbeard

Q: Who was Blackbeard? 

Blackbeard was one of the most feared pirates. He was a successful pirate in terms of the damage he wrought. He was believed to be violent and he used his reputation to strike fear into both his enemies and his own men. Blackbeard was eventually killed in a bloody battle with Lieutenant Maynard.

Q: Did Blackbeard leave behind any treasure? 

According to the evidence, Blackbeard didn’t make much money from his career as a pirate. After his death, Maynard’s men searched Blackbeard‘s ship, the Adventure, but found nothing but a little gold dust, a few pieces of silver, and some cocoa and sugar. The wreck of Blackbeard’s other ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was also excavated in 1996, but there was no sign of treasure in that either.

Q: Who defeated and killed Blackbeard?

After Lieutenant Maynard got wounded in the battle with Blackbeard, Blackbeard was brought down by a powerful Scottish Highlander, who cut off his head. Though there is no surety who beheaded Blackbeard, we do know that the lieutenant hung his disembodied head from the ship’s prow.

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