Who was Blackbeard?

Notorious pirate's life is open for interpretation

By Trent Toone

Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 19 2011 2:45 p.m. MDT

When audiences clamor to see "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" in theaters today, they will meet a well-known, notorious high-seas villain with a cold and fearsome demeanor, clad in heavy black leather with a braided black beard.

His name is Blackbeard, and his infamous, legendary reputation precedes him, right?

"He had a really good press agent," says Lawrence Babits, a distinguished academic who teaches in the Department of History and Maritime Studies at East Carolina University, the home of the Pirates.

"There is no evidence that he killed anybody until his final flight, when people were trying to kill him," he said. "You can create an image of terror and mayhem and everything, then people are liable to bend and let you have your way."

Apparently, Blackbeard is not who we thought he was.

Babits and his colleague, Charles Ewen, a professor of anthropology at ECU in Greenville, N.C., are among many who are excavating the shipwreck of the Queen Anne's Revenge, believed to be Blackbeard's flagship that ran aground in shallow water offshore North Carolina in the early 1700s.

Who was Blackbeard?

"Nobody knows much about him," Babits said. "We don't even know what his real name is."

Here is what is known about the famed pirate, according to the experts.

Historians say his name was "Edward Teach" or "Thatch." He is reported to have served as a privateer during Queen Anne's War (1701-1714), then turned pirate.

Sometime in the fall of 1717, Blackbeard and other pirates captured a French slave ship called La Concorde. The slaves and crew were released on shore, and many believe this ship was remodeled with extra guns and renamed Queen Anne's Revenge. It may also be possible, Babits speculates, that this ship was traded for another one because of a foul-smelling stench.

In any event, Blackbeard and his pirates cruised the Caribbean plundering other vessels and adding to his fleet for a short period of time.

In May of 1718, Blackbeard laid siege to the harbor of Charleston, S.C., for nearly a week, holding hostages until his ransom demands were met.

Not long after leaving Charleston, Blackbeard's fleet attempted to enter Old Topsail Inlet in North Carolina, now known as Beaufort Inlet, and two of the ships, including Queen Anne's Revenge, ran aground and were abandoned. Some think Blackbeard did this intentionally to downsize his company of more than 300 pirates and escape with a select crew and the most valuable loot.

Blackbeard's career as a pirate ended six months later, when he encountered the Royal Navy at Ocracoke, N.C. In a desperate, bloody battle, the fierce Blackbeard was shot and stabbed numerous times before he died. His body was flung overboard, and his decapitated head was hung from the bowsprit of Lt. Robert Maynard's ship. Legend has it that Blackbeard's body swam around the ship several times before finally sinking into the murky depths.

No one knows for sure what became of Blackbeard's skull. Ewen once visited a museum in Raleigh, N.C., that claimed to have it. He has also heard the skull was lined with silver and made into a cup.

"Depends on who you believe," Ewen said. "That is the thing about Blackbeard. There is so little real data about him, so people feel free to make up a lot of stuff."

In the 1987 film "The Princess Bride," the only thing known about the Dread Pirate Roberts is that he never left captives alive. It's eventually revealed in the movie that Roberts is not one man, but a series of individuals who retire and pass the name and reputation to a chosen successor.

"He explained the name was the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear. You see, no one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley," said Westley, Cary Elwes' character in the film.

Babits and Ewen believe historical data suggest Blackbeard operated with a terrifying "Dread Pirate Roberts" reputation.

"I think that was the strategy of many pirates," said Ewen, co-editor of "X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy." "You wanted to scare whoever you were after so they just give up. You really don't want to sink their ship or blow them up; you just want to steal all their cargo. If you have an incredible reputation that people give up when you show up, that works well. The less you had to fight, the less you had to lose."

There have been a few Blackbeard movies produced since the 1950s. "Blackbeard, The Pirate" in 1952, "Blackbeard's Ghost" in 1968 and the made-for-TV "Blackbeard" in 2006.

Ian McShane plays Blackbeard in "Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides." The 68-year-old actor also played off Blackbeard's evil, merciless reputation.

"Blackbeard is probably the most infamous pirate who ever lived," McShane told reporters last November. "He's one of those characters for which most of your work is done before you start."

Email: ttoone@desnews.com

Twitter: tbtoone

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