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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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British naval strategy assumed that the mere presence of a man-of-war would keep pirates at bay. But when pirate and naval vessels came in close proximity, the former often had the upper hand. In September 1716 a naval detachment consisting of the Winchelsea (20 cannons), Tryall (10), and Swift (6) anchored off Panama, where pirates in the band of Josiah Burgess observed them. Burgess's gang was outgunned—they had a 10-gun sloop, an 8-gun sloop, and a pair of periaguas—but they were not frightened off. Instead, Burgess sent 33 well-armed men out to observe the naval vessels from periaguas hidden in the mangroves. On September 12, Lieutenant Durrell sent a 12-man landing party out in the Swift's pinnace (the largest of ship's boats) to collect fresh water. As Durrell and his colleagues watched helplessly, the pirates paddled out from their hiding spot, overwhelmed the pinnace's crew and carried them all away. The Swift had already lost a number of sailors to disease and was now so undermanned that Durrell had to borrow sailors from the Winchelsea to weigh anchor.

Even when the Royal Navy was lucky enough to surprise the pirates, the latter often got away. Francis Hume, captain of the fifth-rate Scarborough at Barbados, was the most successful pirate hunter in the West Indies fleet. On two separate occasions he discovered and trapped pirate bands in remote anchorages. On June 21, 1717, he bottled up John Martel's gang at St. Croix, where the pirates were looting several captured sloops and refitting a 22-gun slave galley, the John & Marshall; some of Martel's men fired on the Scarborough from an improvised four-gun battery on shore, but they were soon silenced by the frigate's six-pounders.

However, the Scarborough was too large to enter the harbor, which gave the pirates an opportunity to escape. Under heavy fire, Martel's men got the John & Marshall underway, but ran aground on the reef. With the Scarborough tacking back toward them, Martel ordered his men to abandon ship before setting her afire, with 20 slaves still chained in the hold. Martel and 19 of his loyalists made their escape in one of the prize sloops and the other 100 pirates and slaves escaped into the woods. Captain Hume was left with eight slaves, two vessels, and salvageable cargo worth £450.

Eight months later, Hume surprised the infamous pirate commodore Olivier La Buse and his 77-man gang at Isla La Blanquilla, a popular hideaway off the coast of what is now Venezuela. Seeing the Scarborough bearing down on their six-gun sloop, La Buse's men made a mad scramble onto a small merchant vessel they had been plundering, which was apparently better prepared for a speedy departure. Cutting her anchor lines, La Buse fled out of the harbor with most of his men and their treasure. "I gave chase, but with night coming on, [he was] gaining to windward [so we] stood away again for the [harbor]," Hume later reported. He would return to Barbados with just 17 captives.

Naval officers and crews were supposed to share the proceeds from the auctions of captured pirate vessels and their cargo, but colonial officials regularly tried to steal these modest perks. Barbados governor Robert Lowther confiscated all the Scarborough's prizes, despite Hume's heated protests; he was forced to carry the matter all the way to the king, who in 1721 ordered Lowther to compensate the men. The king also had to intervene twice on behalf of the crew of HMS Squirrel: once to force Massachusetts authorities to return five sloops they had captured, the second time to force the grasping Governor Lowther to return a captured pirate vessel. In this second instance, Lowther had gone so far as to have the Squirrel's captain, Thomas Smart, placed under arrest.

In 1719, Virginia authorities briefly arrested Capt. George Gordon of HMS Pearl (40 guns) for "false imprisonment" of Blackbeard's quartermaster, who had been engaged in lucrative black market dealings there. Such actions not only dampened naval officers' enthusiasm to go after the pirates but poisoned their relations with the colonial governments whose security they were supposed to ensure.

By the spring of 1717, the pirates had the Royal Navy on the run. Several of the Bahamian pirates had traded their way up to full-fledged men-of-war. These sleek, heavily armed ship-rigged vessels were every bit as powerful as any frigate Britain had posted in the Western Hemisphere. Samuel Bellamy had converted the 300-ton English slave ship Whydah into a 28-gun warship, which was accompanied by a 10-gun sloop. La Buse was sailing a 250-ton ship with 26 guns and 200 men, giving him roughly the same firepower as a fifth-rate frigate but twice the manpower.

By the fall, Blackbeard was in command of a 250-ton slaver, the Queen Anne's Revenge, with 40 guns, 200 men, and two escorts: a 12-gun sloop and a 10-gun brigantine. Blackbeard, who appears to have learned his trade under Hornigold, cultivated a fearsome image, going into battle with lighted fuses tied into his signature beard. His men bore muskets, axes, and homemade grenades, and were clad in a hodge-podge of clothes seized from wealthy passengers. Spanish authorities dubbed him "the Great Devil." There was no naval force capable of stopping him outside of Port Royal harbor. Fear stalked the navy's commanding officers, and crept into their reports to the Admiralty. Sloops of war that had spearheaded anti-piracy operations in 1715–1716 were now considered prey.

"The Tryall sloop takes this opportunity to go to her station at Antigua [but] it [is risky] for her to venture alone," Commodore Bartholomew Candler, the senior officer on Jamaica, reported in July 1717. "For…the least pirate in these seas has 100 men and most of them have many more, and here there are many of them." With only 40 men, HMS Swift was considered so undermanned that Candler forbade her to leave the harbor unaccompanied.

Larger vessels were just as vulnerable. When the 24-gun Seaford arrived in the Leeward Islands in May 1717, Governor Walter Hamilton was immediately concerned she was "such a small bauble" that she "would be in danger of being overpowered" were she to confront pirates, he wrote the Admiralty. The governor was forced to cancel a planned tour of his colony's far-off islands when La Buse was sighted in the area, and when he finally did make the trip a few months later, a Blackbeard sighting "gave the people of [St. Kitts] such just apprehensions [for] my safety that they [sent] a good sloop to attend the man of war to bring me [home]."

The pirates pressed their advantage, carrying out ever-more-audacious operations. Bellamy occupied Virgin Gorda, seat of the deputy governor of the British Leeward Islands, for several days, the pirates treating the colonial outpost as one of their prizes and leaving with fresh recruits. Charles Vane blockaded Charleston, seizing every vessel that came in or out of the harbor entrance, while Blackbeard set Guadeloupe Town on fire, burned half the merchant fleet at St. Kitts, and threatened to torch Philadelphia.

In the winter of 1716–1717, Blackbeard and the "gentleman pirate" Stede Bonnet, who had been a well-to-do planter on Barbados before turning to crime, stalked the flagship of the South Seas Company, the Royal James, and her escort, HMS Diamond, across the Gulf of Mexico, intending to seize them both.

The Bahamian pirates continuously threatened to launch an amphibious invasion of Bermuda. "The negro men…are grown so very impudent and insulting of late that we have reason to suspect their rising [and]…fear their joining with the pirates," that colony's governor warned his superiors before asking that 100 soldiers and "one fourth-rate man-of-war or two fifth-rates" be sent to defend the island.

Officials in London were being bombarded by similarly alarming reports and calls for action. In December 1716 the governor of Jamaica reported that pirates "take more than half the ships and vessels" bound for his colony. The empire's top diplomats warned the Crown that "unless some effectual and immediate protection is sent" to repress the American pirates, "the whole trade from Great Britain…to those parts will not only be obstructed, but [will be] in imminent danger of being lost."

There were also suggestions that the pirates' successes were fomenting social unrest. Governor Spotswood fumed that Virginians had "an unaccountable inclination to favor pirates," while his counterpart in South Carolina weathered a pro-pirate riot in which Charleston narrowly avoided being burned to the ground. Operations against the pirates had to be kept secret even from colonial governing councils for fear secret sympathizers would pass intelligence to the outlaws.

King George's response was crafted not by the Lords of the Admiralty or the foreign office but by a former privateer, Woodes Rogers. A Bristol slave trader, Rogers was the most famous privateer active in the War of Spanish Succession, having circumnavigated the world to raid Spanish shipping and settlements in the Pacific, where he captured a treasure-laden Manila galleon. After the war, he had become obsessed with pirates, having encountered a settlement of Indian Ocean pirates on Madagascar during a postwar slave-trading cruise. He became convinced that with a careful combination of carrot, stick, and religious propaganda, piracy could be quelled, allowing a productive, law-abiding colony to rise from what had been a pirate's nest.

Rogers had spent 1715–1716 lobbying his friends in government—he was a friend to the king's secretary of state and the son-in-law of the third-highest-ranking officer in the navy, the recently deceased admiral of the White, William Whetstone—to allow him to test his theories. When the depredations of the Bahamian pirates reached fever pitch in the summer of 1717, the Crown decided to give him the chance.

The scheme went like this: The king would outsource the reoccupation and governance of the Bahamas to a corporation of private investors Rogers had assembled. The corporation would send soldiers, colonists, supplies, and several private warships to Nassau; the Admiralty would contribute a squadron of frigates to support the initial landing, and the Crown would issue a pardon for any pirate who peacefully surrendered to the new governor, Woodes Rogers. Diehards would be put down by force of arms.

Rogers and his investors would then recoup their investments from the colony's profits. The king issued his pardon on September 5, 1717, and copies reached the colonies in December and January. The governor of Bermuda, Benjamin Bennett, immediately sent his son to Nassau to inform the pirates, who first considered killing the young man.

Ultimately, the news split the pirates into two factions. Moderates like Hornigold, Burgess, and Henry Jennings—men eager to return to society with their ill-gotten gains—celebrated by climbing to the top of Fort Nassau and raising the Union Jack.

The diehards, led by the bombastic Charles Vane, stormed the fort to raise "the Black Flag with the Death's Head in it." The latter group apparently included many Jacobites, since they passed a message to the Stuart court-in-exile asking it to send "such a person as has borne some character in the Royal Navy of England" to serve as the Jacobite "Captain General of America, by Sea and Land."

When HMS Phoenix (20 guns) arrived from New York in February to learn how the pirates would respond, the situation remained tense. While 209 of the 500 pirates then in town came aboard to sign surrender pledges, Vane's men made a point of bringing a merchant ship into the harbor and plundering it in full view of the frigate.

In the middle of the night, the Phoenix's captain, Vincent Pearse, sent a boatload of sailors to storm Vane's sloop, but they were repulsed by a fusillade of musket fire. In the coming weeks, the mood ashore turned defiant, and Pearse received messages "to be gone or it should be worse for him." He departed on April 6, 1718, after three of his own men had defected to the pirates.

A single sixth-rate frigate may not have intimidated the pirates, but the expedition Rogers led, which arrived July 24, was another matter. The fleet consisted of HMS Milford (30 guns), HMS Rose (20), and HMS Shark (10), the corporation's armed merchantman Delicia (36), the Willing Mind (20), the Buck (10) and the Samuel (6), plus 100 soldiers and 130 colonists. It was the largest military force deployed to the Americas since the Peace of Utrecht.

Still, Vane's diehard faction was uncowed. As the Rose entered the harbor, Vane fired on her from his recently captured 30-gun ship before retreating to a sloop in the eastern end of Nassau harbor, which was separated from the main anchorage by a shoal-draft sandbar and had its own entrance. He then waited until the British fleet anchored and night fell before setting his now-cornered 30-gun ship ablaze and sailing her straight at the Rose and the Shark; their crews hacked away the anchor lines, frantically raised their sails, and only narrowly escaped destruction. In the morning, Vane and 100 followers made their escape before the shallow-drafting Shark and Buck could cut them off.

With all the firepower in the harbor, the 500 to 700 remaining pirates did not oppose Rogers when he landed on the 27th. The Rose and the Shark fired 11-gun salutes as the new governor stepped ashore to be welcomed by pro-pardon residents. Hornigold and Burgess had their crews form orderly lines on the road to the fort and fire a running musket salute as Rogers walked past. A crowd of 300 listened to a welcoming speech he gave from the walls of the fort and, in the words of Rogers, "showed many tokens of joy for the re-introduction of government."

The honeymoon was not to last. Vane's gang harassed the island's commerce. Rogers and most of his colonists and soldiers fell ill with some epidemic disease that killed 86 of them. Over Rogers's strenuous objections, Commodore Peter Chamberlaine departed for New York with the Milford and the Shark on August 16. The Rose followed on September 14, leaving Rogers critically vulnerable. Many of his subjects returned to piracy, one party actually making off with the Buck. Abandoned by the Royal Navy, Rogers's administration and, by extension, the anti-piracy campaign, nearly foundered.

But it did not. Thanks to the support of Hornigold, Burgess, Jennings, and other pro-pardon pirates who manned the fort, a coup was nipped in the bud and many of their former colleagues were brought to justice. While the control Rogers held on the island would remain tenuous for years, he deprived the pirates of their primary sanctuary and supply lines, allowing them to be picked off, one by one.

The Royal Navy, despite reinforcements and direct orders to hunt pirates, seldom succeeded. Civilian-led, well-manned expeditions using agile sloops apprehended the vast majority of the pirates still at large in the Americas. A posse based in Charleston ambushed Bonnet's gang in North Carolina. A Jamaican privateer apprehended Calico Jack Rackham and the women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. The notorious Charles Vane, who lost his vessel in a storm, was brought to justice by an ordinary merchant captain; a Jamaican court sentenced him to death.

The Royal Navy's greatest triumph—the destruction of Blackbeard's gang at Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, in November 1718—came after the navy abandoned its ships and tactics in favor of those used by civilian posses.

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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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