It’s November 28th, 1717, in the Caribbean Sea.
A French slave ship, La Concorde, gently lurches across tropical waters.
Captain Pierre Dousset points his telescope at the horizon. In a few hours, he and his crew will make landfall on the island of Martinique, where they will unload their human cargo at the slave market before turning around and sailing back to France.
For Pierre, that moment can’t come soon enough. This seven-week voyage has been fraught with disaster. Many of his crew died from scurvy. And Pierre knows that graver threats lie ahead. They have just sailed into a part of the ocean populated by a lawless breed of buccaneering rogues - fearsome criminals and pirates.
But all has been quiet so far… until… a shout goes up from the crow’s nest above.
Pierre leans on a deck railing scouring the horizon. He sees two small sloops closing in on his ship. As they get closer, Pierre makes out the black skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger flag. The color drains from the captain’s face and he starts barking orders.
Soon, the two pirate ships pull up alongsideLa Concorde, their cannons' muzzles bristling from gun ports along the helm. Pierre shouts at his men to prepare their own cannon but before they can mount a defense… a volley of cannonballs crashes into the port side of the ship.
Pierre's crew scatters trying to save themselves from the cannon blast and the flying splinters of wood. And soon, the Pirate ships are close enough that ropes skitter across the deck of La Concorde and dozens of pirates clamber across her gunwales, their cutlasses drawn. Pierre looks across the water to the nearest pirate ship. Standing on deck is a tall man in a tricorne hat wearing a dark, greasy black beard woven into braids, at the end of each is a colored ribbon. Even from this distance, the pirate captain’s eyes glimmer with a deranged zeal.
Pierre knows he’s beaten. So instead of continuing to fight, he throws down his pistol and surrenders his ship.
The 18th Century will come to be known as the Golden Age of Pirates, an era when sea-faring robbers terrorized sailors from the Caribbean to the eastern seaboard of the United States, plundering and pillaging at will. The most notorious pirate of them all is an Englishman named Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
After raiding La Concorde and plundering her stocks, Blackbeard will take control of the French ship and rename it Queen Anne’s Revenge. Aboard this vessel, he will become the most fearsome pirate to roam the seas, until he is killed in a shootout with Royal Navy sailors during a daring raid on November 22nd, 1718.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is November 22nd, 1718: Blackbeard’s Final Battle.
Act One: The Pirate’s Code
It’s May 1718, about 100 miles off the coast of South Carolina; six months before Blackbeard is killed.
Captain Edward Teach - or Blackbeard, as he’s better known - struts across the foredeck of his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The notorious pirate captain removes a small gold compass from his pocket and watches the needle spin and quiver. A flash of yellow teeth appears in the midst of his matted beard as the captain smiles and swaggers back to the ship’s wheel. As Queen Anne’s Revenge adjusts her course for the northwest horizon, so too do the three smaller sloops in Blackbeard’s fleet. The four vessels together cut across the dark waves, their bows cutting swiftly through dense sea fog.
Most pirate captains don’t command a flotilla of four ships. But Blackbeard is not an ordinary pirate. At the age of thirty-eight, he has become the most feared maritime criminal the world has ever known. For the past two years, Blackbeard and his crew have roamed the Caribbean Sea, plundering any merchant vessel unfortunate enough to stray into their path.
Still, despite his fearsome reputation, Blackbeard is no savage. He avoids violence where possible, preferring to rely on reputation alone to instill fear into his victims. This reputation is one that Blackbeard has carefully cultivated, and it explains his striking appearance.
Blackbeard is tall and broad-shouldered. His face is covered by a mane of black hair in which two bloodshot eyes gleam like lanterns. He wears a sling adorned with several holstered pistols, and he hangs lighted gunpowder fuses from his beard when going into battle. The spectacle of this wild-eyed pirate captain surrounded by smoke and sparking embers is enough to convince any sailor that Blackbeard is not of this world, but an apparition straight from Hell. And with a crew of more than three-hundred men and a bounty of riches beyond any buccaneer’s imagining, Blackbeard is at the height of his powers.
Tonight, as he leads his fleet through the choppy waters of the western Atlantic, the notorious pirate is preparing to carry out his most brazen act of criminality to date. He and his men are heading for the colonial port town of Charleston, South Carolina. Once there, they intend to position their ships around the mouth of the harbor, ransacking any vessel that attempts to pass through their blockade.
But it’s not gold or rum that Blackbeard wants to steal - it’s medicine. The pirates in Blackbeard’s crew have thus far managed to evade the clutches of the colonial authorities, but they fell victim to a different sort of threat: disease. After overindulging in the taverns and brothels of Nassau in the Bahamas, many of Blackbeard’s pirates have come down with syphilis. If they don’t successfully secure a chest of medicine, the disease could wipe out as many as half of Blackbeard’s crew.
So, on May 22nd, Queen Anne’s Revenge and three smaller sloops enter the mouth of Charleston Harbor, dropping anchor a few hundred feet from land.
Blackbeard strolls to the starboard side of the ship and points a telescope toward the port. He can make out gaggles of concerned citizens gesticulating at the pirate ships encircling the harbor. A wolfish smile spreads across Blackbeard’s tanned, leathery face. He knows this is the most audacious stunt he’s ever attempted.
Over the course of the next five days, Blackbeard’s men ransack every merchant ship that attempts to pass through the mouth of the harbor. But none of the ships they plunder contain the medicine that Blackbeard’s crew sorely needs. So, he decides to try a different approach.
One of the vessels stopped is a passenger ship bound for England. On board are several prominent Charleston citizens, including a gentleman named Samuel Wragg - a member of the provincial council of South Carolina.
Blackbeard kidnaps Samuel and imprisons him below deck, threatening to kill the Englishman if the pirates’ demands aren’t met. His request is simple: Blackbeard wants the colonial government of South Carolina to provide them with medical supplies. And if those supplies are not delivered soon, Samuel will be decapitated.
Immediately, a messenger is dispatched to present the pirates’ demands to the Governor. Faced with little other choice, the Governor acquiesces. And a few days later, the medical supplies are sent to Blackbeard’s ships. Upon receipt of the medicine, it becomes clear that Blackbeard is true to his word. He releases his hostage and then soon sails out of Charleston, having successfully pulled off what is perhaps the most daring act of piracy ever committed- blockading an entire port.
But the most audacious crime of Blackbeard’s career will also prove to be one of his last. Soon, the British government will crack down on piracy, sending Royal Navy warships to wipe out any sea-faring robbers they find. Only this time, Blackbeard will not resist the authorities or fight back. Instead, the grizzled pirate captain will vow to give up his career plundering on the high seas and commit to an honest life on land.
Act Two: Once a Pirate…
It’s September 1718 in Williamsburg, Virginia; five months after Blackbeard’s blockade of Charleston Harbor.
Alexander Spotswood trudges through the grounds of the Governor’s Palace, sweltering in his heavy robes. Corkscrew curls of his powdered wig tumble down the back of the Governor’s neck, making him feel itchy and irritable. Spottswood doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to these Virginia summers: the unrelenting humidity, the stink of the swamps, and the incessant buzz of biting insects. It’s been eight years since he arrived in the colony, and he misses the temperate English weather more and more each day.
Spottswood came to the Americas to further his political career following a brief and undistinguished stint in the British military. As Governor, his goal is to turn Virginia into Britain’s most successful overseas possession. But so far, that challenge has proved much more difficult than expected. Political opposition in London has stymied Spottswood’s attempts to regulate the tobacco trade, and bands of hostile Indians have been raiding the British settlements in the west of the colony.
But these concerns pale in comparison to the biggest thorn in Spottswood’s side: pirates.Among this accursed breed of sea-faring criminals, one man stands out as the single greatest cause of Spottswood’s sleepless nights: Blackbeard.
A few months ago, following his blockade of Charleston Harbor, Blackbeard decided to give up his life as a pirate. He surrendered himself to the governor of North Carolina and requested the King’s Pardon - an act of clemency offered by the British monarch to any former rogues of the sea. All the buccaneers have to do to receive the King’s forgiveness is to renounce their criminal past and commit to a life of honest, hard work.
When Spottswood heard that Blackbeard had been pardoned, he cursed Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina for believing the marauding mariner could ever change his stripes. And as time went on, Spottswood was proven right. Blackbeard returned to his buccaneering ways. Reports recently surfaced of Blackbeard and his crew launching raids on the North Carolina coast.
So a few days ago, Spottswood ordered the arrest of one of Blackbeard's former shipmates known to be living in Virginia. Upon interrogation, this man revealed that Blackbeard’s ship is currently moored near Ocracoke Island, just off the North Carolina coast. But even though Spottswood now knows where Blackbeard is, the governor is hesitant to take action. North Carolina is outside of Spottswood’s jurisdiction. By sending troops to capture the pirate, he would be violating North Carolina’s sovereignty, and breaching a central tenet of colonial politics.
Trying to find a solution, Spottswood storms into the drawing room of the Governor’s Palace, where a map of the North American coastline is spread out across the desk. He stares at Ocracoke Island, his blood boiling at the thought of Blackbeard and his crew freely terrorizing more British ships.
It's then that the Governor realizes that whatever the repercussions might be, violating the sovereignty of another colony, it would be a fair trade for the prize at stake: the capture and execution of the most villainous pirate ever to blight the waves. Spottswood can’t trust the colonial government of North Carolina to do anything about Blackbeard. So if something is to be done, Spottswood will have to take matters into his own hands.
One month later, on November 21st, 1718, British Lieutenant Robert Maynard stands aboard his ship as it follows the twisting waterways of Pamlico Sound.
The boyish-looking 34-year-old squints into the distance, following the meandering coastal channel to the sea. The stiff lapels of his tailcoat flutter in the cool breeze and his heart pounds in anticipation. They are closing in on Ocracoke Island, just off the coast of North Carolina - the spot where the notorious pirate Blackbeard is rumored to be moored.
Robert and his crew set sail from Williamsburg four days ago. Their mission from Governor Spottswood was clear: find Blackbeard and bring him back to Virginia, dead or alive. For this task, Robert would have liked a heavily-armored warship. But such a large vessel couldn’t navigate the shallow waters of Pamlico Sound. So instead, Robert was provided two small Royal Navy sloops, the HMS Rangerand HMS Jane, carrying a combined crew of sixty men. The ships are too lightweight to hold cannons, leaving the crew equipped with only muskets and swords. Still, Robert is feeling optimistic. He is confident that his disciplined crew will outmaneuver the loutish band of buccaneers they seek.
And soon, Robert’s lookout spies the masts of two ships moored in a bay off Ocracoke Island. With evening closing in, Robert orders his sloops to drop anchor. Through his telescope, Robert can make out the pirates carousing on deck, swigging from rum bottles and waving their cutlasses with drunken abandon. Robert smiles. He and his men will wait until morning, and then at first light greet the hungover pirates with a surprise attack.
Act Three: Blackbeard’s Last Stand
It’s November 22nd, 1718, near Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.
As Lieutenant Robert Maynard emerges from below deck of the HMS Jane, he is greeted with clear skies and light winds. Seagulls circle above as the thirty-four-year-old naval officer views Blackbeard’s vessels through a telescope. There’s no sign of movements aboard the ships. The pirates are clearly still asleep, feeling the effects of a heavy night’s drinking. So, Robert and his two Navy vessels silently make their way toward an unsuspecting enemy.
But suddenly, there’s a deep grinding sound and a wrenching jolt sends Robert stumbling forward - his ship has hit a sandbar. Robert orders his men to begin hauling objects overboard, frantically trying to lighten their load. Eventually, both sloops are able to move clear of the shallow water. But it’s too late. The delay and commotion has alerted the pirates to the British ships’ presence.
Robert straightens his bicorne hat and looks out over the water. They’re now within earshot of the pirates’ vessels, and Blackbeard himself is standing on deck, his appearance somehow even more vivid and terrible than Robert could have imagined. Summoning his courage, Robert calls out to Blackbeard and requests permission to come aboard. But the pirate captain knows it’s a trap. He sneers: “Damn you and your sniveling puppies! We shall neither give nor take any quarter!”
With that, the pirates unleash a volley of gunfire, badly wounding several of Robert’s men. Robert orders his crew to return fire, and soon, the air is filled with whistling musket balls and the screams of the wounded. But the pirates have superior firepower. Robert's small arms cannot compete with Blackbeard’s cannons. Robert realizes that the only way to defeat the pirates is to outsmart them. So while Blackbeard orders his cannons to open fire again, Robert orders his men on both sloops to retreat below deck and wait till he gives the order to emerge and attack.
When the cannon smoke clears, Blackbeard notices the decks of the Royal Navy sloops are clear. Assuming the battle is won, Blackbeard sails across the water. And with a victorious cry, Blackbeard leads his men on board the Jane while another group of pirates boards the second sloop. But in that moment, Robert and his men rush out from below deck and engage the pirates in furious close combat. The clash of cutlasses and the crack of gunpowder echoes across the water.
When the fighting stops, Blackbeard lies dead on deck. Robert approaches the infamous pirate’s lifeless corpse. Blackbeard’s malevolent eyes are still open. Robert sheaths his sword, satisfied to report back to Governor Spotswood that their mission has been accomplished. Soon, Robert and his remaining crew will sail back to Williamsburg, with the pirate’s severed head impaled on the bowsprit of his ship.
Shortly after Blackbeard’s death, the Golden Age of Piracy will come to an end. The British colonial authorities will clamp down on the buccaneering rogues, and the time of the pirates will soon be over. But with his death, Blackbeard’s infamous legend is born. His name will echo through the centuries as the most dastardly and ferocious pirate ever to roam the high seas, a larger-than-life character who was mythologized after Edward Teach, the pirate captain known as Blackbeard, was killed on November 22nd, 1718.
Next onHistory Daily.November 23rd, 1991. On the day before his death, rock music legend Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen, informs the world he has AIDS.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Emily Bern.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.