Blackbeard's Realm - Historic Texts about Blackbeard

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from Frank Stockton's Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts

Other Texts: Blackbeard from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates
B. Barkers Pirate of the Roanoke

Chapter XXII

The Great Blackbeard comes upon the Stage

So long as the people of the Carolinas were prosperous and able to capture and execute pirates who interfered with their trade the Atlantic sea-robbers kept away from their ports, but this prosperity did not last. Indian wars broke out, and in the course of time the colonies became very much weakened and impoverished, and then it was that the harbor of Charles Town began to be again interesting to the pirates.

About this time one of the most famous of sea-robbers was harassing the Atlantic coast of North America, and from New England to the West Indies, he was known as the great pirate Blackbeard. This man, whose real name was Thatch, was a most terrible fellow in appearance as well as action. He wore a long, heavy, black beard, which it was his fancy to separate into tails, each one tied with a colored ribbon, and often tucked behind his ears. Some of the writers of that day declared that the sight of this beard would create more terror in any port of the American seaboard than would the sudden appearance of a fiery comet. Across his brawny breast he carried a sort of a sling in which hung not less than three pairs of pistols in leathern holsters, and these, in addition to his cutlass and a knife or two in his belt, made him a most formidable-looking fellow.

Some of the fanciful recreations of Blackbeard show him to have been a person of consistent purpose. Even in his hours of rest when he was not fighting or robbing, his savage soul demanded some interesting excitement. Once he was seated at table with his mate and two or three sailors, and when the meal was over he took up a pair of pistols, and cocking them put them under the table. This peculiar action caused one of the sailors to remember very suddenly that he had something to do on deck, and he immediately disappeared. But the others looked at their captain in astonishment, wondering what he would do next. They soon found out; for crossing the pistols, still under the table, he fired them. One ball hit the mate in the leg, but the other struck no one. When asked what he meant by this strange action, he replied that if he did not shoot one of his men now and then they would forget what sort of a person he was.

At another time he invented a game; he gathered his officers and crew together and told them that [Pg 202] they were going to play that they were living in the lower regions. Thereupon the whole party followed him down into the hold. The hatches and all the other openings were closed, and then Blackbeard began to illuminate the scene with fire and brimstone. The sulphur burned, the fumes rose, a ghastly light spread over the countenances of the desperadoes, and very soon some of them began to gasp and cough and implore the captain to let in some fresh air, but Blackbeard was bound to have a good game, and he proceeded to burn more brimstone. He laughed at the gasping fellows about him and declared that he would be just as willing to breathe the fumes of sulphur as common air. When at last he threw open the hatches, some of the men were almost dead, but their stalwart captain had not even sneezed.

In the early part of the eighteenth century Blackbeard made his headquarters in one of the inlets on the North Carolina coast, and there he ruled as absolute king, for the settlers in the vicinity seemed to be as anxious to oblige him as the captains of the merchantmen sailing along the coast were anxious to keep out of his way. On one of his voyages Blackbeard went down the coast as far as Honduras, where he took a good many prizes, and as some of the crews of the captured vessels enlisted under him he sailed north with a stronger force than ever before, having a large ship of forty guns, three smaller vessels, and four hundred men. With this little fleet Blackbeard made for the coast of South Carolina, and anchored outside the harbor of Charles Town. He well understood the present condition of the place and was not in the least afraid that the citizens would hang him up on the shores of the bay.

Blackbeard began work without delay. Several well-laden ships—the Carolinians having no idea that pirates were waiting for them—came sailing out to sea and were immediately captured. One of these was a very important vessel, for it not only carried a valuable cargo, but a number of passengers, many of them people of note, who were on their way to England. One of these was a Mr. Wragg, who was a member of the Council of the Province. It might have been supposed that when Blackbeard took possession of this ship, he would have been satisfied with the cargo and the money which he found on board, and having no use for prominent citizens, would have let them go their way; but he was a trader as well as a plunderer, and he therefore determined that the best thing to do in this case was to put an assorted lot of highly respectable passengers upon the market and see what he could get for them. He was not at the time in need of money or provisions, but his men were very much in want of medicines, so he decided to trade off his prisoners for pills, potions, plasters, and all sorts of apothecary's supplies.

He put three of his pirates in a boat, and with them one of the passengers, a Mr. Marks, who was commissioned as Blackbeard's special agent, with orders to inform the Governor that if he did not immediately send the medicines required, amounting in value to about three hundred pounds, and if he did not allow the pirate crew of the boat to return in safety, every one of the prisoners would be hanged from the yard-arm of his ship.

The boat rowed away to the distant town, and Blackbeard waited two days for its return, and then he grew very angry, for he believed that his messengers had been taken into custody, and he came very near hanging Mr. Wragg and all his companions. But before he began to satisfy his vengeance, news came from the boat. It had been upset in the bay, and had had great trouble in getting to Charles Town, but it had arrived there at last. Blackbeard now waited a day or two longer; but as no news came from Mr. Marks, he vowed he would not be trifled with by the impudent people of Charles Town, and swore that every man, woman, and child among the prisoners should immediately prepare to be hanged.

Of course the unfortunate prisoners in the pirate [Pg 205] ship were in a terrible state of mind during the absence of Mr. Marks. They knew very well that they could expect no mercy from Blackbeard if the errand should be unsuccessful, and they also knew that the Charles Town people would not be likely to submit to such an outrageous demand upon them; so they trembled and quaked by day and by night, and when at last they were told to get ready to be hanged, every particle of courage left them, and they proposed to Blackbeard that if he would spare their lives, and that if it should turn out that their fellow-citizens had decided to sacrifice them for the sake of a few paltry drugs, they would take up the cause of the pirates; they would show Blackbeard the best way to sail into the harbor, and they would join with him and his men in attacking the city and punishing the inhabitants for their hard-hearted treatment of their unfortunate fellow-citizens.

This proposition pleased Blackbeard immensely; it would have been like a new game to take Mr. Wragg to the town and make him fight his fellow-members of the Council of the Province, and so he rescinded his order for a general execution, and bade his prisoners prepare to join with his pirates when he should give the word for an assault upon their city.

In the meantime there was a terrible stir in Charles Town. When the Governor and citizens received the insolent and brutal message of Blackbeard they were filled with rage as well as consternation, and if there had been any way of going out to sea to rescue their unhappy fellow-citizens, every able-bodied man in the town would have enlisted in the expedition. But they had no vessels of war, and they were not even in a position to arm any of the merchantmen in the harbor. It seemed to the Governor and his council that there was nothing for them to do but to submit to the demands of Blackbeard, for they very well knew that he was a scoundrel who would keep his word, and also that whatever they did must be done quickly, for there were the three swaggering pirates in the town, strutting about the streets as if they owned the place. If this continued much longer, it would be impossible to keep the infuriated citizens from falling upon these blustering rascals and bringing their impertinence to a summary end. If this should happen, it would be a terrible thing, for not only would Mr. Wragg and his companions be put to death, but the pirates would undoubtedly attack the town, which was in a very poor position for defence.

Consequently the drugs were collected with all possible haste, and Mr. Marks and the pirates were sent with them to Blackbeard. We do not know whether or not that bedizened cutthroat was satisfied with the way things turned out; for having had the idea of going to Charles Town and obliging the prisoners to help him confiscate the drugs and chemicals, he may have preferred this unusual proceeding to a more commonplace transaction; but as the medicine had arrived he accepted it, and having secured all possible booty and money from the ships he had captured, and had stripped his prisoners of the greater part of their clothing, he set them on shore to walk to Charles Town as well as they could. They had a miserably difficult time, making their way through the woods and marshes, for there were women and children among them who were scarcely equal to the journey. One of the children was a little boy, the son of Mr. Wragg, who afterward became a very prominent man in the colonies. He rose to such a high position, not only among his countrymen, but in the opinion of the English government, that when he died, about the beginning of the Revolution, a tablet to his memory was placed in Westminster Abbey, which is, perhaps, the first instance of such an honor being paid to an American.

Having now provided himself with medicines enough to keep his wild crew in good physical condition, no matter how much they might feast and frolic on the booty they had obtained from Charles Town, Blackbeard sailed back to his North Carolina haunts and took a long vacation, during which time he managed to put himself on very good terms with the Governor and officials of the country. He had plenty of money and was willing to spend it, and so he was allowed to do pretty much as he pleased, provided he kept his purse open and did not steal from his neighbors.

But Blackbeard became tired of playing the part of a make-believe respectable citizen, and having spent the greater part of his money, he wanted to make some more. Consequently he fitted out a small vessel, and declaring that he was going on a legitimate commercial cruise, he took out regular papers for a port in the West Indies and sailed away, as if he had been a mild-mannered New England mariner going to catch codfish. The officials of the town of Bath, from which he sailed, came down to the ship and shook hands with him and hoped he would have good success.

After a moderate absence he returned to Bath, bringing with him a large French merchant vessel, with no people on board, but loaded with a valuable cargo of sugar and other goods. This vessel he declared he had found deserted at sea, and he therefore claimed it as a legitimate prize. Knowing the character of this bloody pirate, and knowing how very improbable it was that the captain and all the crew of a valuable merchant vessel, with nothing whatever the matter with her, would go out into their boats and row away, leaving their ship to become the property of any one who might happen along, it may seem surprising that the officials of Bath appeared to have no doubt of the truth of Blackbeard's story, and allowed him freely to land the cargo on the French ship and store it away as his own property.

But people who consort with pirates cannot be expected to have very lively consciences, and although there must have been persons in the town with intelligence enough to understand the story of pitiless murder told by that empty vessel, whose very decks and masts must have been regarded as silent witnesses that her captain and crew did not leave her of their own free will, no one in the town interfered with the thrifty Blackbeard or caused any public suspicion to fall upon the propriety of his actions.

Chapter XXIII

A True-Hearted Sailor draws his Sword

Feeling now quite sure that he could do what he pleased on shore as well as at sea, Blackbeard swore more, swaggered more, and whenever he felt like it, sailed up and down the coast and took a prize or two to keep the pot boiling for himself and his men.

On one of these expeditions he went to Philadelphia, and having landed, he walked about to see what sort of a place it was, but the Governor of the state, hearing of his arrival, quickly arranged to let him know that the Quaker city allowed no black-hearted pirate, with a ribbon-bedecked beard, to promenade on Chestnut and Market streets, and promptly issued a warrant for the sea-robber's arrest. But Blackbeard was too sharp and too old a criminal to be caught in that way, and he left the city with great despatch.

The people along the coast of North Carolina became very tired of Blackbeard and his men. All sorts of depredations were committed on vessels, large and small, and whenever a ship was boarded and robbed or whenever a fishing-vessel was laid under contribution, Blackbeard was known to be at the bottom of the business, whether he personally appeared or not. To have this busy pirate for a neighbor was extremely unpleasant, and the North Carolina settlers greatly longed to get rid of him. It was of no use for them to ask their own State Government to suppress this outrageous scoundrel, and although their good neighbor, South Carolina, might have been willing to help them, she was too poor at that time and had enough to do to take care of herself.

Not knowing, or not caring for the strong feeling of the settlers against him, Blackbeard continued in his wicked ways, and among other crimes he captured a small vessel and treated the crew in such a cruel and atrocious manner that the better class of North Carolinians vowed they would stand him no longer, and they therefore applied to Governor Spotswood, of Virginia, and asked his aid in putting down the pirates. The Virginians were very willing to do what they could for their unfortunate neighbors. The legislature offered a reward for the capture of Blackbeard or any of his men; but the Governor, feeling that this was not enough, determined to do something on his own responsibility, for he knew very well that the time might come when the pirate vessels would begin to haunt Virginia waters.

There happened to be at that time two small British men-of-war in Hampton Roads, and although the Governor had no authority to send these after the pirates, he fitted out two sloops at his own expense and manned them with the best fighting men from the war-vessels. One of the sloops he put under Captain Brand, and the other under Captain Maynard, both brave and experienced naval officers. All preparations were made with the greatest secrecy—for if Blackbeard had heard of what was going on, he would probably have decamped—and then the two sloops went out to sea with a commission from the Governor to capture Blackbeard, dead or alive. This was a pretty heavy contract, but Brand and Maynard were courageous men and did not hesitate to take it.

The Virginians had been informed that the pirate captain and his men were on a vessel in Ocracoke Inlet, and when they arrived they found, to their delight, that Blackbeard was there. When the pirates saw the two armed vessels sailing into the inlet, they knew very well that they were about to be attacked, and it did not take them long to get ready for a fight, nor did they wait to see what their enemy was about to do. As soon as the sloops were near enough, Blackbeard, without waiting for any preliminary exercises, such as a demand for surrender or any nonsense of that sort, let drive at the intruders with eight heavily loaded cannon.

Now the curtain had been rung up, and the play began, and a very lively play it was. The guns of the Virginians blazed away at the pirate ship, and they would have sent out boats to board her had not Blackbeard forestalled them. Boarding was always a favorite method of fighting with the pirates. They did not often carry heavy cannon, and even when they did, they had but little fancy for battles at long distances. What they liked was to meet foes face to face and cut them down on their own decks. In such combats they felt at home, and were almost always successful, for there were few mariners or sailors, even in the British navy, who could stand against these brawny, glaring-eyed dare-devils, who sprang over the sides of a vessel like panthers, and fought like bulldogs. Blackbeard had had enough cannonading, and he did not wait to be boarded. Springing into a boat with about twenty of his men, he rowed to the vessel commanded by Maynard, and in a few minutes he and his pirates surged on board her.

Now there followed on the decks of that sloop one of the most fearful hand-to-hand combats known to naval history. Pirates had often attacked vessels where they met with strong resistance, but never had a gang of sea-robbers fallen in with such bold and skilled antagonists as those who now confronted Blackbeard and his crew. At it they went,—cut, fire, slash, bang, howl, and shout. Steel clashed, pistols blazed, smoke went up, and blood ran down, and it was hard in the confusion for a man to tell friend from foe. Blackbeard was everywhere, bounding from side to side, as he swung his cutlass high and low, and though many a shot was fired at him, and many a rush made in his direction, every now and then a sailor went down beneath his whirling blade.

But the great pirate had not boarded that ship to fight with common men. He was looking for Maynard, the commander. Soon he met him, and for the first time in his life he found his match. Maynard was a practised swordsman, and no matter how hard and how swiftly came down the cutlass of the pirate, his strokes were always evaded, and the sword of the Virginian played more dangerously near him. At last Blackbeard, finding that he could not cut down his enemy, suddenly drew a pistol, and was about to empty its barrels into the very face of his opponent, when Maynard sent his sword-blade into the throat of the furious pirate; the great Blackbeard went down upon his back on the deck, and in the next moment Maynard put an end to his nefarious career. Their leader dead, the few pirates who were left alive gave up the fight, and sprang overboard, hoping to be able to swim ashore, and the victory of the Virginians was complete.

The strength, toughness, and extraordinary vitality of these feline human beings, who were known as pirates, has often occasioned astonishment in ordinary people. Their sun-tanned and hairy bodies seemed to be made of something like wire, leather, and India rubber, upon which the most tremendous exertions, and even the infliction of severe wounds, made but little impression. Before Blackbeard fell, he received from Maynard and others no less than twenty-five wounds, and yet he fought fearlessly to the last, and when the panting officer sheathed his sword, he felt that he had performed a most signal deed of valor.

When they had broken up the pirate nest in Ocracoke Inlet, the two sloops sailed to Bath, where they compelled some of the unscrupulous town officials to surrender the cargo which had been stolen from the French vessel and stored in the town by Blackbeard; then they sailed proudly back to Hampton Roads, with the head of the dreaded Blackbeard dangling from the end of the bowsprit of the vessel he had boarded, and on whose deck he had discovered the fact, before unknown to him, that a well-trained, honest man can fight as well as the most reckless cutthroat who ever decked his beard with ribbons, and swore enmity to all things good.

Other Texts: Blackbeard from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates
B. Barkers Pirate of the Roanoke

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