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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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The Royal Navy was in no condition to confront a maritime insurgency in the Americas in late 1716 and early 1717. The 1715 Uprising—in which James Stuart had managed to land in Scotland—had rattled the nation and made defending the shores of Britain a top priority. Large numbers of warships were tied up with convoying merchant vessels in the Baltic, where Russia and Sweden were at war. The Americas were a low priority. From Newfoundland to Barbados, the Royal Navy had only 10 small ships—4 fifth-rates, 4 sixth-rates, and 2 sloops of war—with which to patrol 17 colonies, tens of thousands of miles of shoreline, and thousands of square miles of open ocean. Half of these vessels were generally posted at Port Royal, Jamaica, headquarters of the West Indies squadron, leaving just two frigates—HMS Seaford (20 guns) at Antigua and HMS Scarborough (30) at Barbados—to protect all of the Lesser Antilles. Important ports like Bermuda, Charleston, and Philadelphia had no permanent naval presence at all.

Nor could warships stationed in various colonies help one another. Simply getting from one place to another could be next to impossible since square-rigged frigates couldn't sail into the wind closer than about 70 degrees and would make no progress at all if heavy winds or high waves pushed their bows off the wind. In the Caribbean, the trade winds generally blew from the east, so it was easy for the Scarborough at Barbados to sail downwind to the Leeward Islands or Jamaica, but nigh impossible to return.

If Barbados or any of the British Leeward Islands—Antigua, Nevis, Montserrat, St. Kitts, and Virgin Gorda—were under attack, there was little hope of anyone at fleet headquarters in Jamaica coming to help them. Small, nimble sloops or merchant schooners might carry messages between the islands, but even then it could take several weeks to have a round-trip communication with headquarters. (A reply to an urgent dispatch to the Admiralty took several months.) For the most part, the captains of the isolated station ships were on their own.

To make matters worse, the warships were rarely prepared for combat operations, in large part because their commanding officers were forbidden from acquiring necessary supplies, provisions, and services in the West Indies. Frigates spent months in ports teeming with fresh pork, poultry, fruit, and vegetables, but their men were forced to eat bread infested by weevils and poorly preserved salt meats they had brought from England because the Admiralty believed American food prices were too high. This did little for the health of the crew, who suffered from malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, and a host of tropical diseases for which they had little resistance.

Warships were regularly unable to set sail because of sickness compounded by poor nutrition. In August 1717, Capt. Thomas Jacobs, the Diamond's new commanding officer, was crossing the Atlantic to begin a yearlong posting in the West Indies when he discovered his provisions were already decaying. "The beef was termited and boiled very black, the pork was rusty and tainted," he reported home after doubling his crew's rations in an effort to use up the supplies before they were inedible. By the time he arrived at Veracruz three months later, Jacobs's crew was so sick with "agues and fevers" he was forced to delay his departure for Jamaica by more than two months. When provisions ran low aboard their ships, captains were under orders to sail for England, guaranteeing that few cruises would last more than a year and that there would be a constant loss of local knowledge. Those captains who purchased provisions in the Americas might find themselves bankrupted when the Navy Board docked the charges from their pay.

The Admiralty also discouraged captains from properly maintaining their ships. In the tropics, wooden hulls were quickly fouled by marine plants and attacked by shipworms. To maintain maneuverability and prevent the destruction of the hull, each vessel had to be careened every three months: emptied of guns, supplies, and extra rigging, then leaned on its side so that the bottom could be scraped, singed, and treated with pitch. The process required heavy tackle to pull the vessel onto its side and some sort of base to lean against: a sloping, protected beach or wharf. Smaller vessels could do this on a beach with the right slope, but the larger frigates had to rent space alongside an aging Port Royal hulk because the Admiralty refused to build a careening wharf at fleet headquarters. By January 1716, Balchen reported the hulk "is so much gone to decay, I question whether we could heave down [the 530-ton Diamond] by her." Like many captains, he was forced to forgo careening and hope for the best.

Some ships became completely useless. HMS Shoreham, a 25-year-old, 28-gun fifth-rate, took up her station guarding the Chesapeake Bay in July 1715, but she was so weakened by shipworms and rotting masts that she didn't leave the shelter of the navy's Hampton Roads, Virginia, anchorage for nine months. When she did—to patrol the pirate-infested coast of South Carolina—she ran aground and suffered such damage she was forced to spend the next year undergoing repairs in Charleston. She finally returned to her Virginia station in May 1717, and limped home a year later. The naval carpenter who examined her in London reported she was taking on three feet of water an hour while at anchor suggesting "most of the sheathing…her seams and buttheads…and planks [are] worm eaten."

The pirates, by contrast, had none of these difficulties. They sailed relatively nimble vessels. Many started their depredations in large sailing canoes called periaguas that could carry 25 men. These could be paddled straight into the wind to head off prey or escape from predators. When they captured an appropriate sloop—fast, agile, and still able to carry 10 cannons—pirate gangs would often incorporate the vessel into their fleet. Either vessel type was of shallow draft, allowing them to easily evade naval frigates and armed merchantmen by taking shortcuts over reefs and shoals. "By this advantage they have made their escape into shoal water from His Majesty's Ships Winchelsea and Tryall," Lt. Thomas Durrell, commanding officer of HMS Swift, a sloop of war posted in Jamaica, informed the Admiralty. "If I had my full complement [as] during wartime, it's my humble opinion that I should be of great service in these parts, I drawing less water than the pirates commonly do."

Because they were constantly trading up as they captured newer, better vessels, the pirates could avoid long-term maintenance problems, though they regularly careened their ships in remote hideaways.

At their base in Nassau—which had some 3,000 inhabitants by 1717—they soon accumulated a vast boneyard of plundered vessels that could be picked over for spare parts or used as platforms against which to careen larger ships. Securing naval stores, armaments, and provisions was never a problem: the "respectable" merchants of Harbour Island developed a teeming black market bazaar supplied by profit-seeking traders from Charleston to Boston. Although the Bahamas were known far and wide to be a notorious pirate base by 1717, the official customs house registries of American ports are filled with approved clearances for vessels that were bound there; some customs officials personally traded with known associates of the pirates, and did their best to prevent the disruption of this lucrative business.

Health and morale were enhanced by the abundance of food, drink, and plunder aboard pirate vessels and the egalitarian way in which they were shared. The articles pirates signed—a ship's "constitution"—guaranteed equal shares of food and drink, which were often generously distributed. Captives regularly witnessed riotous parties aboard pirate vessels, particularly after they had seized a cargo of wine or spirits.

Slave ship captain William Snelgrave watched a pirate crew feast on "cheese, butter, sugar and many other things" and then break open barrel after barrel of claret and French brandy and become so drunk that they soon "threw full bucketfuls of each sort upon one another.…And in the evening they washed the decks with what remained." Later they broke into barrels of what proved to be Irish beef, which they dumped overboard because they preferred the English variety.

Partly because of such excesses, the pirates had ample manpower. While pirate captains sometimes forced a skilled carpenter or surgeon to serve aboard their vessels, large numbers of newly captured sailors volunteered to join. When the pirate Sam Bellamy seized a sloop bound for Antigua, a 10-year-old passenger named John King begged that he be taken away with them. When the boy's mother tried to stop him, an observer later wrote, "He declared that he would kill himself if he was restrained."

Most volunteers were older but just as enthusiastic; seen side by side, life on a pirate vessel appeared far more attractive than on a merchant vessel, where food was scarce, pay was poor, and working conditions miserable. As a result, pirate sloops typically carried 30 percent to 100 percent more men than a naval sloop of war, a critical advantage in an era when boarding actions were common.

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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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