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BLACKBEARD--PIRATE TERROR AT SEA

BOOM!

BlackBeard Boarding Ship A pirate ship's cannon fires a warning blast. The explosion rocks a nearby merchant ship. Musket balls fly. Grenades explode. A wounded helmsman staggers. He lets go of the ship's wheel, and the ship swings around crazily. Flames flicker everywhere. Pistols fire. Pirates, screaming threats, board the merchant ship, swinging axes and cutlasses (short, curved swords). Hissing through his teeth, Blackbeard—one of the most dreaded pirates who ever lived—jumps to the deck. He stands tall and lean. Pieces of rope burn like fuses among coils of his black hair. Sashes stuffed with pistols and daggers crisscross his huge chest. Black ribbons flap from the braids in his beard. Terrified sailors flee. Blackbeard and his fierce crew have pirated another ship.

IT WAS A REIGN OF FEAR that lasted two long years. Blackbeard and his crew of pirates terrorized sailors on the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea from 1716 through 1718. They ambushed ships carrying passengers and cargo in the dim light of dawn and dusk when the pirates' ship was hard to see.

The pirates often determined a ship's nationality first. Then they raised that country's flag on the pirate ship so they appeared to be friendly. Now able to draw close to the unsuspecting ship, the pirates hoisted Blackbeard's flag only at the last moment. BlackBeard's Flag

Merchant crews often surrendered without a fight the moment they saw Blackbeard's flag. If the ship didn't surrender after warnings, the pirates moved in. Frequently their first target: the sailor at the ship's wheel. Then, as the pilotless ship drifted aimlessly, the pirates snared it with grappling hooks, pulled it closer, and leaped aboard. When the attack ended, the pirates took the passengers and crew hostage and ransacked cabins looking for coins, gold, silver, and jewelry. Blackbeard repeated this scene over and over again.

BLACKBEARD WAS BRITISH, probably born before 1690. His real name was thought to be Edward Teach. As a young seaman, he had served on a British privateer that was based in Jamaica, an island in the Caribbean. Privateers were privately owned, armed ships hired by governments during time of war. The privateers' mission was to attack the ships of the enemy. Queen Anne of Britain allowed Teach's privateer to plunder French and Spanish ships during the War of the Spanish Succession and to keep stolen goods. By war's end, Teach had become an experienced sea robber. He then joined a group of fierce Caribbean pirates.

Soon the cunning, fearless Teach became captain of his own ship—one he had stolen! He added cannons and reinforced the ship's sides. His ship was swift, easy to handle, and able to carry a large crew of as many as 250 pirates.

MOST MERCHANT SHIPS carried little, if any, actual treasure. They usually hauled cargo such as grain, molasses, and kegs of rum. They also carried supplies of rope, tools, and ammunition. After taking over a merchant ship, the pirates divided the booty, or stolen goods, among themselves according to strict rules—the captain and certain officers received larger portions. Sometimes the pirates stole the ship as well as the cargo.

As Teach's power and reputation as the most frightening of pirates grew, so did his beard and hair. Now calling himself Blackbeard, he braided his beard and tied the braids with black ribbons. He stuffed burning rope under his hat to make himself look more ferocious and menacing. He scared everyone.

Some merchant ships carried passengers—often targets of pirates. According to one story told about Blackbeard, a passenger once refused to give up his diamond ring. So Blackbeard sliced off his finger, ring and all.

Blackbeard once took over a large cargo ship carrying many wealthy passengers—including children—as it sailed out of Charleston, South Carolina. The hostages were locked in the dark hold of the ship. Blackbeard threatened to kill them all if the townspeople in Charleston didn't come up with the ransom: a medical chest filled with remedies. The deadline for delivery passed. The hostages were frantic. The pirates prepared them for hanging. Colonial Map

With only minutes to spare, the town came up with the ransom and delivered the medicine chest. Before releasing the hostages, the pirates stole all their jewelry and clothing.

Blackbeard made a home base in North Carolina, a British colony, near a string of islands called the Outer Banks. From there he preyed easily on ships traveling the American coast. Local townspeople tolerated his presence because they liked to buy the goods he stole, such as cloth and sugar. Pirate goods were usually cheaper than imported English goods. The colony's ruling officials turned a blind eye to Blackbeard's “import” business.

In the fall of 1718 Blackbeard returned from sea to his favorite hideaway off Ocracoke Island. He hosted a huge, wild pirate get-together with dancing, drinking, and bonfires. Other famous pirates sailed in for the days-long event. BlackBeard's Private Party

News of the pirate bash reached Alexander Spotswood, the governor of Virginia. He decided that the time had come to stop Blackbeard once and for all. He spent the next several weeks planning Blackbeard's capture.

SPOTSWOOD SENT TWO SLOOPS, small swift ships, commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy to Ocracoke. Seeing the navy's sails, Blackbeard and his pirates knew they were trapped. Only sandbars lay between them and the navy. By morning, the tide would rise, the sloops would glide over the submerged sandbars, and the attack on the pirate ship would begin.

All through the night Maynard's men prepared for the next day's fighting. Muffled laughter and swearing from the pirate ship echoed across the water. Blackbeard didn't seem worried about the upcoming battle. His pirates, however, were nervous. They stockpiled ammunition on deck and soaked blankets in water in preparation for putting out fires. They spread sand on the decks to soak up blood once the fighting started. Thinking it likely they would all die, one pirate asked Blackbeard whether Blackbeard's wife knew where he had buried his treasure. Blackbeard bellowed that nobody but he “...and the devil knew where it was, and the longest liver shall take it.”

In the morning Blackbeard didn't try to outrun the navy sloops. Instead he waited at his ship's wheel. His crew was puzzled. Finally, when Maynard's sloops started moving toward the pirates, Blackbeard ordered his crew to set sail. He seemed to be steering the ship directly toward the beach! They were going to crash!

But then Blackbeard eased the pirate ship through a narrow channel between the beach and a barely visible sandbar. Chasing the pirates, the navy sloops crashed into the sandbar.

Blackbeard shook with laughter. The pirates blasted the stranded sloops with cannons. Thundering explosions shook the waters. Then the pirate ship lurched backward—and became stuck on a sandbar. BlackBeard Fighting

One navy ship lay destroyed. Maynard's sloop was battered. Maynard ordered his men to throw food and water barrels over the side to lighten the ship. It worked. Floating free of the sandbar, Maynard's damaged sloop edged toward the pirate ship. Maynard ordered his men to hide below decks with pistols and swords ready.

Blackbeard's men hurled grenades onto the seemingly deserted navy sloop. The pirates boarded the ship easily. Suddenly, Maynard's men rushed the deck, firing pistols and wielding swords. The pirates turned around, completely stunned—they had been tricked into thinking the navy crew was dead. A battle began. Screams and cries of pain filled the air.

Pistol in one hand, cutlass in the other, Blackbeard came face-to-face with Maynard. They both fired pistols. Blackbeard missed. Maynard hit his mark.

Shot, Blackbeard still managed to swing his cutlass and snap off Maynard's sword blade. Maynard drew back. Blackbeard raised his arm for a finishing blow. Just in time, a navy seaman came up from behind Blackbeard and slashed his throat. BlackBeard's Head

AS A WARNING TO OTHER PIRATES, Blackbeard's head was cut off and suspended from the bow of Maynard's sloop. Maynard searched for Blackbeard's treasure but found only supplies and letters. When Blackbeard died, the secret of his treasure died, too—if indeed he ever had one.

Text by Jennifer Kirkpatrick


 

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