Blackbeard in the Bay Islands
New research reveals the notorious pirate’s sojourn

August 1st, 2008
by Colin Woodard

[private] v6-8-Feature-Notorious Pirate'sHe was the most notorious pirate of piracy’s Golden Age, a cunning strategist who terrified his quarry into surrendering without a fight, a fearless outlaw who, for a time, had the Royal Navy on the run.

Blackbeard – his real name was Edward Thatch or Teach – was the most successful pirate to emerge out of the Bahamas in the early 18th century, when Nassau was a fortified pirate base. By the fall of 1717, he had built himself a pirate flotilla capable of threatening not just shipping, but the colonies themselves. From his flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, he oversaw the burning of Guadeloupe, and terrorized the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

And then, at the peak of his career, he vanished. For three centuries, historians have wondered where Blackbeard was during the winter of 1717-18. Now new research reveals it was Roatan.

During the summer and fall of 1717, Blackbeard’s pirate gang – some 400 to 600 men, half of them of African descent – left a wide documentary trail in their fleet’s wake. While researching The Republic of Pirates, a comprehensive account of the real pirates of the Caribbean, I was able to track his movements week-to-week and, often, day-by-day, from the testimony of former captives and the dispatches of the Royal Navy frigates charged with tracking his movements.

He had cultivated a terrifying reputation, going into battle with burning fuses tied into his signature beard, so that he appeared enveloped in hell fire. His men – including the eccentric “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, the scion of a wealthy Barbados plantation family – had caused the HMS Seaford, the warship charged with defending the British Leeward Islands. No surprise: at 250-tons and 22-guns, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was as powerful as any frigate posted in the Americas, but with twice the manpower.

Like other members of the Bahamanian pirate gang, Blackbeard was motivated by more than simple banditry. Most of these pirates were former sailors who saw themselves as engaged in a social revolt against the ship owners and captains who’d made their lives miserable. Blackbeard’s colleague, Samuel Bellamy, oversaw a crew who referred to themselves as Robin Hood’s Men. In an authoritarian age, the pirates elected their captains, and could depose them at any time by a popular vote. They shared their plunder equally and even provided primitive disability benefits. On Blackbeard’s vessels, Africans and Native Americans could serve as equal members of the crew.

Surprisingly, popular opinion was often on the pirates’ side. Colonial authorities regularly complained to their superiors that ordinary people regarded the pirates not as villains, but as heroes. The people of Virginia, Governor Alexander Spottswood fumed, have “an unaccountable inclination to favor pirates.” Books were written about them while many were still active, and became bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic.

But in late December 1717, en route from Puerto Rico to Cuba, Blackbeard suddenly disappeared from the historical record, only to emerge, three months later, at Turneffe Atoll in modern Belize. The timing was intriguing, as Blackbeard had vanished just days after learning that King George I was offering to pardon pirates who turned themselves in. Historians have speculated that he may have been laying low as he considered his options, perhaps concerned about the two Royal Navy frigates that had been pursuing him across the Caribbean.

But documents recently unearthed in the British National Archives show that’s not the case at all. Blackbeard wasn’t hiding from British power, he was trying to attack it dead-on. And he was using the Bay Islands as his winter lair.

Freshly discovered captive’s accounts indicate that Blackbeard spent the first weeks of 1718 in the Gulf of Mexico, prowling the approaches to the Mexican port of Vera Cruz in the hopes of capturing the Royal Prince, the flagship of the British South Seas Company, and her escort, the HMS Diamond, a xx-gun warship. It was one of the most audacious plans of his career.

Book of "Captain Letters" Volume 1597, contains letters of Royal Navy captains who served during the period Blackbeard was active. (Photo: Colin Woodard)

Book of "Captain Letters" Volume 1597, contains letters of Royal Navy captains who served during the period Blackbeard was active. (Photo: Colin Woodard)

The Royal Prince was what we would now call “a terrorist target of symbolic importance,” the first and only British ship allowed to trade with Spain’s American colonies under a peace treaty signed by the two nations a few years before. King George and his court attended her launching ceremony, after which they were feted on board. Her lucrative trade mission was so important to British prestige that the King himself chose to serve as the head of the South Seas Company and the Diamond was ordered to escort her across the Atlantic. Capturing either vessel would have shaken public confidence in the navy’s ability to protect the empire’s vital interests.

But, as the letters of the Diamond’s captain make clear, the ships were delayed in Vera Cruz by disease and other complications. Blackbeard, thinking he had missed her, gave up prowling prematurely and sailed to the Bay Islands for rest, repairs, and recuperation.

The Bay Islands had been a favored pirate hideout for decades, being far from the prying eyes of officialdom, but close to the Belizean coast, where vessels trading in dye-bearing logwood made easy and lucrative targets. Coxen’s Hole is named after the buccaneer John Coxon, who is believed to have been based here in the late 17th century, and Henry Morgan’s men stopped at Roatan for water during their Panamanian campaigns. Charles Vane, one of Blackbeard’s counterparts, set up camp on Guanaja for five weeks in early 1719 after his crew voted him out of office in favor of Calico Jack Rackham.

Blackbeard’s arrival at Roatan in early February 1718 was witnessed by William Wade, the captain of the sloop William & Mary, which was anchored in what was probably Coxen’s Hole, loaded with valuable logwood. There “came in a ship pf about 40 guns and a sloop of 10 commanded by…Edward Thatch having in all about 250 men (70 or thereabouts being Negroes),” Wade later reported. In addition to the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Stede Bonnet’s sloop Revenge, the pirates had two other vessels they had captured. They forced Wade to dump his valuable cargo overboard, then beached his sloop to act as a makeshift dock to allow them to clean their vessels. The Revenge and Queen Anne’s Revenge – two of the most famous pirate ships in history – underwent refits on the shores of Roatan.

v6-8-Feature-Notorious Pirate'sThe pirates stayed at Roatan for several weeks, seizing whatever vessels stumbled into the anchorage. They told Wade “sundry times” that they “doubted not but to take and have…His Majesty’s Ship the Adventure,” a 36-gun frigate that was at the time the largest British warship in the Americas. When they finally departed in mid-March, they burned the captured vessels they had arrived with, but gave the William & Mary back to Wade, who salvaged much of his cargo and limped back to Jamaica to tell his tale.

The pirates were sailing for the logwood coast of what is now Belize and Guatemala, but off the shores of Utilla a most peculiar thing happened. A small sloop tried to attack them. The Dolphin, a passenger vessel, had sailed from Vera Cruz the month before, but her crew had mutinied and turned pirate. Unfortunately they took Blackbeard and Bonnet to be helpless merchantmen. When they finally closed with one of the sloops that evening and hailed her crew, asking whence they came “their reply was: from the sea,” recalled a passenger, Martin Preston. Then Blackbeard’s men fired muskets at the upstart pirates and forced them to surrender.

Learning that the Dolphin had been in Vera Cruz, Blackbeard interrogated the crew for information about the Royal Prince and HMS Diamond. He learned that the Diamond’s crew had been weakened by tropical diseases. Preston reported the pirates “often threatened” to take the frigate.

Preston reported the pirate then sailed for Belize, where he reentered the historical record. After a spectacular raid of the logwood fleet there, he would sail to North Carolina, ditch Bonnet, his flagship, and a large portion of his crew, and ultimately accept the King’s pardon from that colony’s corrupt governor, Charles Eden. He lived in Bath, NC for several months, marrying a local girl and overseeing an underground piracy operation with the collusion of colonial authorities.

Blackbeard met his end in November 1718, when the governor of Virginia orchestrated an illegal invasion of North Carolina to capture the mafia don. He was killed in an epic hand-to-hand battle with Royal Navy sailors, and his head was carried to Virginia to be displayed on a pole. His presumably extensive treasure horde was never recovered. [/private]

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