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Blackbeard's Last Battle

By Colin Woodard 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: March 03, 2011 
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Admiralty policies fueled the piracy outbreak. During the war, sailors who managed to survive the brutal discipline, poor food, and unsanitary conditions aboard Her Majesty's ships rarely received the wages they were due; as the Admiralty ran out of money, sailors were given "tickets," official IOUs that they could sell only to loan sharks, and at a fraction of face value. After the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, the bankrupt Royal Navy rapidly contracted, shedding three-quarters of its manpower—36,000 sailors—in the first 24 months of peace. Many thousands more seamen were dumped on the wharves of England and the Americas when privateering commissions (government papers allowing captains to attack enemy shipping in wartime) were withdrawn. With all those sailors begging for work, merchant captains could slash wages in half; even those lucky enough to find work had to survive on little more than £1 a month. The waterfronts of ports like London and Port Royal, Jamaica, were crowded with aggrieved and impoverished sailors.

Reductions in Britain's West Indies fleet also created a security vacuum. During the War of Spanish Succession, at least two fourth-rate frigates, a fifth-rate, a sixth-rate, and two sloops of war had typically guarded Jamaica. Such a squadron had a combined firepower of 200 guns, manned by 1,000 sailors. Now there were usually only two fifth-rates, a tiny sixth-rate, and a sloop of war with a total of 100 guns and 400 men. "[We] humbly pray such a naval strength may be ordered for the protection of the island," read one of the many petitions Jamaican merchants sent to London, "to secure it from the dangers it [lies] exposed to."

Those dangers were very close at hand, and soon to expand tenfold. Taking advantage of the reduced naval presence, unscrupulous Spanish coast guard vessels based in Cuba began preying on Jamaica's shipping in late 1713. They would search English merchantmen at gunpoint and declare them smugglers if they found even a single Spanish coin—the de facto currency of the British Caribbean. Spaniards seized 38 Jamaican merchant vessels in the first two years of peace, incarcerating hundreds of sailors. Those who survived their time in Cuban prisons found that ship owners would not pay them for the time they were imprisoned, increasing their discontent. "Resentment and the want of employ," one Jamaican resident later recalled, "were certainly the motives to a course of life [i.e., piracy]…that most or many of them would not have taken up had they been redressed or could by any lawful mean have supported themselves."

The pirate outbreak began humbly enough. In the summer of 1713, Benjamin Hornigold, an ex-privateersman, gathered a group of 75 fellow sailors and led them from Jamaica to the Bahamas. The 700-island chain was a pirate's dream: a maze of uncharted islands, reefs, and hidden anchorages perched alongside perhaps the busiest sea-lane in the Americas. The square-rigged sailing vessels of the day could make little progress into the wind and so were compelled to follow the prevailing winds as they journeyed from place to place. Any vessel in the western Caribbean that wished to return to Europe or the busy trading ports of North America's eastern seaboard had no choice but to sail into the Straits of Florida and let the Gulf Stream carry them northward. It was a dangerous channel: to port lay the forbidding beaches of Spanish Florida, home to hostile Indians; on the starboard, the British Bahamas, which had been without a government for a decade.

With Hornigold's arrival, those straits got considerably more dangerous. Hornigold, who had an aversion to attacking English vessels, and his colleagues seized control of Nassau, organized themselves into three bands, and used swift sailing canoes to raid Spanish trading vessels in the straits and isolated sugar plantations on the Cuban mainland. They were spectacularly successful. In six months they had brought £13,175 worth of plunder into the ruins of Nassau, a sum 10 times the value of the annual imports of the entire colony of Bermuda. They sold their goods to the merchants of Harbour Island, 50 miles north of Nassau, who happily provided them a steady supply of naval stores, foodstuffs, alcohol, and weapons. By the end of 1714, the band had accumulated £60,000 and had begun to attract the attention of British authorities. Then two unforeseen events caused the pirate population to explode.

The first was a powerful hurricane in July 1715 that reached the Straits of Florida just as the annual Spanish treasure fleet was passing through. Ten galleons loaded with gold, silver, silk, and jewels were driven onto what is now known as Florida's Treasure Coast. By the time the storm passed, a thousand corpses and some £1,750,000 in treasure were strewn on the beaches and shallows.

The news spread quickly. Soon, from every corner of British America, men were piling aboard vessels to "fish upon ye wrecks." In Jamaica, sailors were deserting HMS Diamond at a rate of five a day, even though she was about to return to England."If I had stayed a week longer," Capt. John Balchen reported, "I do believe I should not have had men enough to have brought me home."

Most of these treasure seekers would discover that Spanish divers had already recovered most of the valuables. But in nearby Nassau, hundreds were introduced to another method of securing treasure: raiding Spanish targets with Hornigold's gang.

The second event was the death of Queen Anne in August 1714, which sparked a succession crisis. Anne died without surviving children, and normally the throne would have passed to the next of kin, her Catholic half-brother, James Francis Edward Stuart. But following religious wars in Great Britain between Protestants and Roman Catholics, Parliament had passed a law in 1701 forbidding Catholics from sitting on the throne, and Anne's closest Protestant relative was one of her second cousins, a Hanoverian princeling who didn't speak English and wasn't interested in learning it.

When he was brought over and crowned King George I, many Britons were outraged, including much of the Scots nobility. (The Stuarts—originally spelled "Stewarts"—were the Scots royal family.) Several formed a conspiracy to put James Stuart on the throne. These so-called Jacobites included the governor of Jamaica, Lord Archibald Hamilton, and several leading planters and merchants in the British West Indies.

For the Royal Navy, the Jacobite threat meant more ships had to be kept in home waters to prevent James Stuart and his supporters from crossing over from exile in France. But there was more.

Governor Hamilton's part in the planned uprising appears to have been to create a pro-Stuart naval squadron in the West Indies. He helped a group of trusted associates purchase vessels and armaments, issued them "privateering commissions," and set them loose on French and Spanish shipping. One detachment was sent to attack the Spanish salvage camp in Florida, where it carried off £87,000. These would-be Jacobite patriots were forced to join the disgruntled sailors, slaves, and treasure hunters of Nassau when the 1715 Uprising failed and Lord Hamilton was dragged back to England in chains. With that addition, the pirate republic had become strong enough to challenge the navy's control of the seas.

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One Response to “Blackbeard's Last Battle”

  1. 1
    Steve Fussell says:

    Blackbeard's brief arc coincided with the emergence of the South Sea Company, a stock corporation with a monopoly on the slave trade and the Asiento, a 30-year contract to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies—the sole 'prize' of Queen Anne's War, and the result of a secret conspiracy that involved Britain's top ministers.

    The South Sea was formed in order to create a stock bubble that would—once share prices rose to their greatest height—eliminate the royal debt that ballooned as Queen Anne's War (War of Spanish Succession) dragged on.

    Blackbeard and the Caribbean pirates represented a direct and highly public obstacle to the commercial media 'hype' that was inflating South Sea shares at precisely the moment the South Sea Company was beginning to assume Britain's royal debt (and thus desirous of as much hype (and share price inflation) as could be cajoled from the likes of 'journalists' Daniel DeFoe, Addison and Steele and others).

    Virginia Gov. Spotswood warned that Blackbeard's antics threatened the commercial aims of the South Sea Company. The fact that Blackbeard aimed to seize the South Sea flagship makes me think the conflict between Blackbeard and the South Sea Company was mutual.

    Blackbeard (as the most infamous of the Caribbean pirates) put himself in the crosshairs of a secret cabal that aimed to turn the slave trade into a corporate dynasty that could fund a British Empire.

    I think his "last battle" was more an assassination than a military or law enforcement effort, and an effective one.

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