Blackbeard’s Jolly Roger. A very similar flag was used briefly by Edward Low, but the design is much more commonly associated with Blackbeard.
“So our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared there a long Time. This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramilies Wiggs, and turn them about his Ear.”
-A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (1724).
Of all the pirates who have ever lived, none have earned a more fearsome reputation than the infamous Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Although his overall record is overshadowed by pirates such as Ching Shih and Bartholomew Roberts, Blackbeard’s infamy and popularity in modern culture is unrivaled. He was reported to tie his long black beard into braids using black ribbons, and tuck lit, smoking fuses under his hat to give himself the appearance of a demon. Contrary to the modern idea that Teach was a brutal, merciless tyrant, he was actually very calculating, and avoided using force whenever possible. He also only commanded ships if their crews first gave permission, and there are no accounts of him ever harming or killing any of his captives.
Not much is known about Blackbeard’s background. He is assumed to have been born around 1680 due to accounts of him being 35 to 40 years old at his time of death in 1718. Most records of his name list him simply as Blackbeard, Edward Teach, or Edward Thatch, but there are multiple other similar names. Even this is slightly disputed however, as pirates often used false names, so it can be said that his true name is unknown. He was likely born in Bristol, England, possibly to a well-off family. It is possible that he arrived in the West Indies aboard a merchant vessel, and Charles Johnson wrote that Teach had for a while been a privateer operating from Jamaica fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession. Johnson also wrote of Teach during this point in his career, “he had distinguished himself for his uncommon boldness and personal courage.”
After the war ended, Teach took advantage of the skills he had learned plundering Spanish and French ships as a privateer and took to piracy. In 1716, Teach joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, another British privateer-turned-pirate, and was given command of a sloop that Hornigold had captured. Together, Hornigold and Teach captured a few more sloops, including the Revenge, a vessel owned by the pirate Stede Bonnet, who willingly gave Teach command after a miserable defeat at sea. Sometime later, Hornigold was demoted due to his refusal to attack English ships, his former allies, and retired from piracy, leaving Teach in command of the remaining fleet.
Teach went on to capture a large French merchant vessel carrying a cargo of slaves called La Concorde. Teach outfitted the ship with 40 guns and renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge. He used this powerful new vessel to loot many more ships, capturing a few sloops in the process to enlarge his fleet. From here, Teach sailed north to Charleston (then known as Charles-Towne), South Carolina, and conducted his famous blockade of the port city. His fleet stopped any ships that attempted to leave, and held the sailors prisoner on his ship. He demanded a chest of medical supplies from the colonial government of South Carolina, and threatened to execute his prisoners, send their severed heads to the Governor, and burn all captured ships. Teach initially only granted a period of two days, but due to difficulties encountered by his messenger, he extended the deadline. After a few more days with no word from the Governor, he moved eight ships into the harbor, which caused a panic in the town. He was quickly given the medicine he requested and released his prisoners unharmed, albeit stripped of their valuables.
While at Charleston, Blackbeard learned of a royal pardon for pirates from the English government, and of Woodes Rogers sailing to the West Indies with several men o’ war ships who sought to annihilate all pirates that did not accept the pardon and its conditions. His flotilla sailed to North Carolina and, while attempting to careen the Queen Anne’s Revenge, accidentally ran it aground, leaving only Bonnet’s former ship Revenge and another sloop in the fleet. Blackbeard sent Bonnet to Bath town to negotiate his pardon with the Governor, but then abandoned Bonnet and a portion of his crew with a ship that had been stripped of all food and loot. Days after Bonnet had left Bath, Blackbeard returned and received his pardon. A few months later however, he had returned to piracy, operating out of Ocracoke Inlet.
Teach encountered Charles Vane, another English pirate, sailing into Ocracoke Inlet. Vane had rejected Rogers’ pardon, escaped Nassau, and was now on the run from Rogers and Benjamin Hornigold, Blackbeard’s former commander, now turned pirate hunter. Teach and Vane threw an impromptu days-long party on the island that was attended by many other pirates such as Israel Hands and Calico Jack. Alexander Spotswood, Governor of Pennsylvania, heard of the party and in the following weeks created a plan to capture Teach. He sent two sloops under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy to Ocracoke. Because of the sand bars, Maynard essentially had Teach trapped in the inlet. When the battle began however, Teach cleverly maneuvered his ship around the sand bars and, in pursuit, Maynard ended up grounding his ships. This allowed Teach a clear shot at Maynard, completely destroying one ship and badly damaging another. By doing this however, Teach was unable to avoid grounding his own ship on a sandbar in the process. Maynard managed to free his remaining ship and sailed over to Blackbeard’s, ordering his men to hide below deck. When Blackbeard and his pirates boarded, they were ambushed. Teach himself and Maynard became locked in a duel, and just before Teach struck the killing blow, he was attacked from behind by a navy seaman and his throat was slit. His head was cut off and hung from the bow of Maynard’s ship as a warning to pirates everywhere.