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Blackbeard's Legend, Legacy Live on in North Carolina

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
March 7, 2006
 
In 1718 the pirate Blackbeard met North Carolina Governor Charles Eden
in the colonial capital of Bath and promised to help the local economy
in whatever way he could.

Nearly three centuries later, Blackbeard is still making a financial contribution to Bath. Visitors are drawn to the quiet, picturesque town to learn about the days when Blackbeard and his lawless crew ruled the seas.

"He's one of our biggest draws," said Bea Latham of the Historic Bath Visitor Center.

"Most people who come in do ask about Blackbeard's time here."

Blackbeard's brief but memorable residency in North Carolina is part of the story depicted in the new television feature Blackbeard: Terror at Sea. The docudrama will air March 12 on the National Geographic Channel.

(National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society, which is part owner of the National Geographic Channel.)

The film is based on research by London author Dan Parry and David Moore, a curator with the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. They uncovered the story of a man who seemed determined to be remembered long after his death.

Bath residents know that their town's most famous citizen is one of history's most notorious criminals. But they're still fond of him.

"We like to think that maybe he was a little bit different when he was here in town," Latham said.

Who Was Blackbeard?

The fearsome pirate left reminders of his legacy elsewhere on the North Carolina coast.

In Plymouth—about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Bath—actor Ben Cherry has made a full-time career of doing Blackbeard impersonations.

The 1996 discovery near Beaufort of a shipwreck thought to have been Blackbeard's vessel rekindled widespread interest in the pirate. (Read "'Blackbeard's Ship" Yields New Clues to Pirate Mystery.")

And there are enduring legends that Blackbeard hid some of his gold in the surrounding swamps, and that his ghost still frightens away anyone foolish enough to look for the treasure.

Details of Blackbeard's life before he became a pirate are sketchy.

He may have been born in England sometime before 1690. His real name is thought to be Edward Teach, or perhaps Thatch. He probably became a sailor during the War of Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714, when England's Queen Anne hired privateers to plunder French and Spanish ships.

Like many sailors who were out of work when the war ended, Teach turned to piracy. He joined the crew of pirate Benjamin Hornigold and apparently proved himself to be a skillful, cunning, and daring leader.

Around 1718, Teach—who'd grown a long, black beard that covered most of his face—took command of a captured French ship he renamed the Queen Anne's Revenge and embarked on his short, spectacular career as Blackbeard.

In the summer of 1718 Blackbeard astonished England and colonial America by blockading the port of Charleston, South Carolina. He could have leveled the city with his armada but decided it would be a more impressive—and memorable—display of power to spare the town.

When the Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground off Beaufort, Blackbeard went to Bath.

The colony's governor granted Blackbeard a pardon, and it appeared that the pirate was going to settle down and become a country gentleman.

But the governor also agreed to look the other way when Blackbeard occasionally snatched a passing ship. Teach's willingness to spend freely and sell captured goods at bargain prices made him many friends in Bath.

Blackbeard was killed in November 1718 during a bloody battle with the British navy at Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina. The British displayed Blackbeard's head on the bowsprit of one of their ships.

Blackbeard's Legacy

Moore, the North Carolina Maritime Museum curator, said he's often asked why Blackbeard is still remembered when other pirates have been forgotten.

"My stock answer is that it's the nickname," Moore said. "Blackbeard. That's easily remembered."

Parry, the London author, said that Blackbeard died a prestigious death, which helped secure his place in history.

"He wasn't killed by a jealous husband," Parry said. "He was killed by the Royal Navy."

Cherry, the actor who impersonates Blackbeard, said the pirate is remembered because he knew how to market himself.

"He created an image that scared the daylights out of people," he said.

That image conveyed the assumption that Blackbeard was a murderer. But, Moore said, while Blackbeard probably was "inhumane" and even "barbarous," he probably did not routinely kill people.

Blackbeard's reputation as a killer "was all done with smoke and mirrors," Cherry said.

It's also unlikely that Blackbeard buried any of his ill-gotten loot.

"He probably spent it," Parry said.

Tales of pirates' ghosts and buried treasure are "great entertainment," he said.

"I love the stories. They're great over a beer."

But Blackbeard was "a man of great excesses" and a determined hedonist who wasn't likely to plan for the future by saving his money.

"Pirates didn't believe in the future," Parry said. "They had a two- to three-year life expectancy."

North Carolina writer Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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