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A pirate looks at… Virginia.* May 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, ready to share a fun event and some piratical trivia with you. Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we’re a little pirate-obsessed. We’re not even immune to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, though we give thanks to God for the long-overdue departure of Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Much as we love Bill Nighy, the series hasn’t been the same since the departure of the evil British overlords.

But I digress. Our real obsession is real-life pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy. So we perked up when we saw that Hampton, Virginia, is holding a Blackbeard Pirate Festival from June 3-5, complete with street skirmishes and sea battles. Check it out for yourselves at www.blackbeardpiratefestival.com. We just wish we could attend! They claim that Blackbeard’s final battle took place at Hampton. (See our trivia below for a few thoughts about that.)

Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, is perhaps the best-known (though hardly the most successful) real-life pirate of all time, unless you count Captain Morgan. (Fictional pirates like Long John Silver and Captain Hook don’t count.) He certainly knew everything about successful theater: He regularly put flares in his hair and beard and lit them during attacks, giving his enemies the impression that the Devil himself was attacking them as flames rose up around his head.

Blackbeard was a huge, burly man, fierce and fearless enough to set the standard for pirates for all time. His pirate flag would have put the fear of God into anyone: a horned skeleton held an houglass, to show that time had run out for his victims, and in the other hand held a spear pointed at a bleeding heart. In addition to his famous beard, tied in octopus-like sections with red ribbon, Captain Teach was literally armed to the teeth, bristling with cutlasses, pistols, daggers, and assorted other weapons. 

But what do we really know about the man who was known as Blackbeard, the man who called himself Edward Teach (often spelled in a most flexible manner, as was common at the time, including Thatch)? Let’s check out some Blackbeard trivia and find out:

* Blackbeard was British. Given that he’s the official state pirate of North Carolina, basing his operations out of Okracoke, and is also claimed by Virginia and even South Carolina (he once held the entire city of Charleston, South Carolina for ransom, which was duly paid), you’d be forgiven for assuming that he, like his fellow pirate captain and sometime-colleague Stede Bonnet, was American. But he was actually from Bristol.

* We don’t know his real name. Blackbeard sailed the seas as Captain Edward Teach (or, as noted, some rather creative spelling of his last name). But pirates typically adopted “stage names” to protect their families back home from their notoreity, and it’s believed that Blackbeard did this too, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment; it’s proved impossible to trace anyone’s ancestry with the name Edward Teach or its variants back to Bristol at the time. (Stede Bonnet was a rare exception, as was Captain—later Admiral—Sir Henry Morgan.) One contemporary gave Blackbeard’s real last name as Drummond.

* He came from a wealthy, educated family. Many people assume pirates took to the high seas in desperation, to raise money because they were poor, had trained as sailors, and, out of a job once the wars that powered the British Navy came to an end, turned their hard-won skills to illegal uses. But in some high-profile cases, boredom, the lust for adventure, or the excitement of battle and/or living on the edge seemed the greater draw. This was certainly true of privateers like Sir Francis Drake and wealthy planter-turned-pirate Stede Bonnet, as well as the educated dandy Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, aka The Great Pirate Roberts, the most successful pirate of all time. Apparently, it was also true of Blackbeard, who was well educated in a time when this was a rarity, and could read and write fluently. Certainly the Drummond family was prominent; its head was the Earl of Perth. And his actions as a pirate tend to support the theory of a gentlemanly upbringing (see below).

* His behavior belied his appearance. There is simply no question that Blackbeard, tall, broad-shouldered, bristling with weapons, with a long, black beard that covered his face to the eyes (according to eyewitness accounts) and was tied into multiple tails, was the most ferocious-looking pirate who ever lived. And he apparently used his theatrically terrifying appearance to good effect, spreading his legend far and wide to intimidate his opponents. But in practice, he was a very different man: He never harmed a single captive, and he led his crews by consensus rather than handing down orders like the higher-ups in the British Navy.  

* His weakness was women. Women certainly weren’t Blackbeard’s downfall, but he was clearly addicted to them, given his practice of having 12 to 14 wives simultaneously like some Caliph or Satrap. (Contrast this to a fellow pirate, “Calico Jack” Rackham, whose fidelity to his consort Anne Bonny, or Bonney, caused him to break with pirate tradition and sail with her onboard in defiance of the pirate code.) However, Blackbeard’s appetites didn’t turn him into a fool: He spread his wives out over many ports, presumably to avoid domestic disputes, thus launching the concept of “a wife in every port” that still dogs sailors to this day.

* His death can be claimed by both Virginia and North Carolina. North Carolina, because he died in a battle at his home base there at Okracoke Island; Virginia, because its governor, Alexander Spotswood, commissioned the man who brought him down, Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Blackbeard remained brave, bold, and defiant to the last, toasting the man who was ultimately to claim credit for his death and take the reward money (by hauling Blackbeard’s severed head back to Virginia as proof) and by destroying both Maynard’s sloops.

* Blackbeard’s ship had the best name. Yes, The Golden Hind is pretty impressive, but not as impressive as Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was actually found and excavated in 1997, and you can see the spoils for yourself at the North Carolina Maritime Museum.

So aaarrr, yaaarrr, me hearties!!! If you’re in range of Hampton, Virginia, the first weekend of June, haul yerselves over and take in the festival while toasting that great and mysterious figure, Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. It’s time to take a pirate stand. You savvy?!!

                 Warmly,

                         Richard Saunders  

* With apologies to Jimmy Buffett.

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