Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
lie-rates of the caribbean
Or, why Blackbeard was the Lady Gaga of the early 18th century.
Apologies for the slightly-longer-than-usual wait between newsletters. I’m once again working on revisions, and my ability to balance three-plus competing priorities is apparently not what once it was.
For the past several weeks, like a pretty decent-sized part of the internet, I’ve been incapable of thinking about anything that is not the new Taika Waititi queer pirate romcom Our Flag Means Death. Which means—and I suspect you know where this is going—that today’s dirtbag is:
Blackbeard, The Fanciest Nautical Asshole on the Spanish Main!
The early years of Blackbeard’s life are a mystery, which really matches the adult Blackbeard’s whole ethos of “truth? what truth? just make up the scariest shit you possibly can and people will eventually believe it.” He was born around 1680ish, in Jamaica or maybe Bristol or maybe Philadelphia or maybe North Carolina or maybe who even knows. Edward Teach is probably not his real name, but we don’t have any better ideas about what it might actually be, so I’m rolling with it.
At some point in his early thirties, Teach enters the actual historical record as a privateer in the British Royal Navy, a job title that roughly translates to “pirate, but a pirate doing the king’s business and fucking primarily with the Spanish, so nobody was that fussed about it.”
But the thing about robbing Spanish ships and taking their gold is that, well, you start to notice that there sure are a lot of English ships, and those ships sure do have a lot of gold also. So, to the great surprise of no one, Teach made the natural transition from privateering to piracy.
Nassau What You Did There
At this time, the home base of pirates in the Caribbean was not Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, but in fact New Providence, an island in the Bahamas and home to the unofficial pirate capital city of Nassau. (If you’ve watched Black Sails, you know what Nassau is. If you haven’t watched Black Sails, kindly log off and watch every episode, then get back to me with your thoughts, including who your favorite character is and why it is Jack Rackham.)
The pirate life seemed to suit Edward Teach well, and in 1716 he joined up with famous pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold, a guy who only pirate nerds really know much about these days but who, I assure you, was very famous at the time. Teach sailed alongside Hornigold swashbuckling and robbing ships, and eventually became a captain in his own right.
Hornigold was trying to do this awkward dance of being a pirate but also a good British citizen, and eventually he gave up and accepted the king’s pardon. Which left Teach in charge of all of Hornigold’s ships, making him basically the most powerful pirate left in the region.
Never Enough Guns
By this point, it’s about 1717, and our man Ed is really getting ramped up and ready to go. He takes over a massive French slave ship, kicks off all the French sailors, possibly recruits some of the formerly enslaved people to serve in his crew as free men, and decides to make this ship—which he renames the Queen Anne’s Revenge—his flagship.
By which I mean, he packs it with an absolutely ludicrous number of guns. I picture his crew members re-enacting the “that’s enough slices” TikTok as Teach tricked out the ship, except instead of pizza slices, it’s guns.
From there, he just kinda…fucking went for it.
With the Queen Anne’s Revenge as his home base, Teach cruised all over, pirating ships, stealing stuff, and basically making an unholy nuisance of himself on the high seas. He famously held the entire port of Charleston, South Carolina under siege, giving the colonial government of the state an absolutely massive migraine as he raided nine ships one after the other.
Pathological Lie-rates of the Caribbean
“But Allison!” you ask. “This all sounds like literally the dictionary definition of every pirate. What made Edward Teach so special?”
Well, dear reader, I can give you an answer in one word:
If there’s one thing Edward Teach knew how to do, it was create a goddamn public spectacle. He was the Lady Gaga of the Golden Age of Piracy, and frankly god bless him for it. If he could have made a captain’s coat out of meat, he would have.
Let me introduce you to just a few of the more unhinged antics this messy bitch who lived for drama got up to.
Stage Name: We love a guy who picks a dramatic pseudonym. Iconic decision, much scarier than “Edward,” no notes.
The Flaming Beard Trick: Blackbeard allegedly would stick flaming fuses in his beard and hair to make it look like his whole head was wreathed in smoke as he boarded ships to pillage them. This was three hundred full years before the smoke monster on LOST, so I give him real points for innovation.
Badass Flag: Not satisfied with a boring old skull and crossbones, Blackbeard made the absolutely metal decision to make his flag have a skeleton stabbing a bleeding heart with a spear while raising a glass of booze to Satan with the other hand. As a former Hot Topic kid, the fact that I didn’t come up with this first saddens me.
Talking a Big Game: Blackbeard spread rumors all over the Caribbean that he was the most fearsome, bloodthirsty, badass pirate ever to live, and anybody who crossed him would get robbed and beheaded on the spot. It worked, obviously, because every merchant ship in the region was fucking terrified of him, so they surrendered almost immediately. Honestly, the rumor mill was so effective that Blackbeard may never have actually murdered a single person himself ever.
Can I just pause there to emphasize the sheer dirtbag energy of that fact? This man sailed around yelling “Oooh sure hope I don’t have to keelhaul anyone!” loud enough that everyone literally just handed him their money. Incredible. A+ grifter shit.
The Worst Pirate I’ve Ever Heard Of: On that note, what’s truly amazing about Blackbeard is that I’m willing to bet money every single one of you has heard of him, and yet, he wasn’t even that good of a pirate. Blackbeard spent so much of his effort on theatrics and making himself sound spooky that he didn’t, uh, really rob that many ships. He spread all kinds of rumors about the great buried treasure that he’d hidden on some far-flung island, which historians are pretty sure is absolute bullshit and a cover-up for the fact that he barely made any money.
And yet he is the most famous pirate in the history of ever. So who won in the end, Benjamin Hornigold?
The End of the Dirtbag Era
Of course, no Nautical Drama career can last forever, and Blackbeard’s was especially short-lived. In 1718—literally one calendar year after he really started pirating—he was cornered by some asshole member of the royal navy called Robert Maynard, who engaged him in a pitched sea battle.
Literally to the last moment of his life, Blackbeard was lying through his goddamn teeth, and bless him for it. Here’s the exchange that went down between Maynard and Blackbeard, not verbatim but absolutely true to the spirit of it:
Maynard: Surrender! We have you surrounded!
Blackbeard: My crew of ninety men and I will never surrender!
Maynard, suspiciously: Ninety men?
Blackbeard, looking at the exactly 13 people left on his ship, as the rest are on shore having a tea party (basically true): You’re right! I meant THREE HUNDRED MEN. And my FOURTEEN OTHER SHIPS.
Maynard: My man, I can literally see you.
Blackbeard, raising an entire bottle of rum to the sky as if daring God himself to fuck with him: I’ll sooner die than surrender!!
Anyway, Maynard and his crew shot Blackbeard about five times and stabbed him about 20 times, then cut off his head and hung it from the front of their ship. Eventually they hung the head in Chesapeake Bay, where it stayed for multiple years, in what I would call one hell of a design choice.
Rumors still circulate that Blackbeard’s ghost roams around Chesapeake Bay at night searching for his severed head. Which I love, because if Blackbeard were around he’d have come up with that rumor himself, that dramatic son of a bitch.
Anyway, this has been your pirate corner for this fine Monday afternoon.
Be well, and maybe tell someone a wild rumor about yourself today, just to see what happens,