After 300 Years, Blackbeard’s Legacy Lives On
As the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death nears, Ocracoke Island is preparing to welcome the world to its doorstep.
“There’s a lot of interest and there’ll be a lot more interest as the day gets closer,” says island native Phillip Howard, who traces his Ocracoke roots back to Blackbeard’s quartermaster William Howard.
The day Howard refers to is Nov. 22, Thanksgiving this year, when the Ocracoke Preservation Society will hold a much-anticipated 300th Anniversary Commemoration at Springer’s Point Nature Preserve to recognize the fallen mariners of the Battle of Ocracoke.
The commemoration will include a visit from the dignitaries of the British Royal Navy and pay special tribute to the role Lieutenant Robert Maynard played in ridding the Colonies of the most nefarious pirate of his time.
“It’s a unique way to recognize the event, but an absolutely appropriate one,” Howard said.
The story of Blackbeard’s demise begins on November 18, 1718 when, under the orders of Virginia’s Governor Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant Robert Maynard of his Majesty’s Navy set sail from Hampton Roads to deal with the scourge of the Eastern seaboard – Edward Teach – once and for all.
Maynard’s instructions were simple – to bring back the pirate’s head to Virginia. Whether the head was attached to the body was irrelevant.
Maynard was the first lieutenant on the HMS Pearl, one of two British warships that Spotswood hoped to send to Ocracoke, but the ships were not ideal for the shoals around Ocracoke. Instead, Maynard was to take command of two unarmed sloops, the Ranger and Jane.
“The plan that Maynard came up with was he would outnumber him and with two boats approaching, he was hoping to catch Blackbeard by surprise,” says Ruth Toth of the Ocracoke Preservation Society. With superior numbers, he was confident he would overwhelm the pirate and his crew.
And in response to concern that he was hunting dangerous prey with unarmed ships, Toth says Maynard reportedly replied: “This battle will be determined by bare cutlasses.”
On that fateful day back in 1718, the tide was rising when the British sighted Blackbeard’s ship, the Adventure. Maynard signaled for the Adventure to pass, which signaled back they were there for him and came about.
The Ranger ran aground on the shoal. Blackbeard, with eight cannons aboard his ship, fired. He killed Midshipman Hyde and the coxswain. Half the crew was wounded or killed.
Blackbeard then ran aground and the wind died.
“It was completely calm, so they were rowing, trying to get there before he [Blackbeard] could swing around and get them with his cannon,” Toth said of the Jane. “But with the tide rising, they must have not been aground that much. They’re rowing furiously and Blackbeard’s ship is floating, so [Maynard’s] response was to row faster to get underneath the cannon. Unfortunately they got blasted again.”
Dead and wounded lay across the deck of the Jane. Undaunted, Maynard devised a bold plan, telling his remaining men to hide beneath the deck, leaving the bloody evidence of the cannon fire for Blackbeard to see.
“Seeing all these bodies on the ship, Blackbeard boarded…and that’s how Maynard got him to where he wanted him,” Toth said. Accounts of what followed indicate that Blackbeard boarded with only ten men, but the encounter was violent with no quarter expected.
Maynard and Blackbeard fought furiously. Blackbeard reportedly broke Maynard’s sword, cutting Maynard’s sword hand. Maynard fired his pistol at Blackbeard, but still he came on, preparing a thrust of his sword to kill Maynard when a British sailor finally cut the pirate’s throat.
After Blackbeard’s death, the remaining pirates of the Adventure, now without leadership, were quickly overwhelmed, either dying or surrendering.
Maynard examined the body of his fallen foe, and recorded that there were at least five gunshot wounds and evidence of 20 thrusts from a sword. To fulfill his orders, Maynard removed Blackbeard’s head, mounted it on the bowsprit of the Jane and sailed for Norfolk.
One of the enduring mysteries surrounding the death of Blackbeard is Maynard’s strategy, and evidence of his knowledge of Blackbeard and his crew, as well as the pirate’s cannons aboard the Adventure.
“Maynard’s intelligence was spot on,” Toth notes. The question is, “Where did it come from? I think there’s a direct link between the arrest of William Howard, the former quartermaster of the Queen Anne’s Revenge.”
Blackbeard had scuttled his flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge in June of 1718, planning on taking advantage of a general amnesty for pirates. His good behavior certainly did not last very long, but the sinking of the ship brought quite a number of pirates ashore.
“…he basically let loose a few hundred pirates on the colony of North Carolina,” Toth continued. Among them was Howard, Blackbeard’s quartermaster and a resident of Ocracoke.
Chip Stevens, owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge and director of the annual Ocracoke Pirate Jamboree, confirms that Howard, his great (many times great) grandfather, was at the Virginia Colonial capital in late October or early November of 1718.
“He went to Willamsburg for two reasons – to party and to buy land. When he was in Williamsburg, he got quite rowdy,” Stevens said. So rowdy the authorities were called.
“They knew who he was and what he did,” Stevens said.
Howard was arrested during that visit to Williamsburg, and there is some conjecture that he was the source of Maynard’s intelligence; however, after being arrested he was condemned to hang, so it is unclear what he would have gained.
He did not die at the end of a rope, though. As Stevens recounts the tale, Howard was one day away from hanging when a general pardon that had been issued to pirates arrived. The prison ship he was on was the first to receive the letter.
Howard returned to Ocracoke and lived a long life. “He lived to 108,” Stevens said. “His name is in the 1790 Ocracoke census.”
Three centuries later and the tale still lives on among the residents and visitors of Ocracoke Island, an island that will forever be steeped in the legend of the dread pirate Blackbeard. ♦
Kip Tabb is a freelance writer living on the Outer Banks. He has covered a wide range of community interest stories as well as environmental and related topics for a number of publications.
Blackbeard Calendar of Events
Don’t miss these Ocracoke Island events celebrating the 300th Anniversary of Blackbeard’s death:
A Tale of Blackbeard
Mondays at 8 p.m. through August 13
Ocracoke’s Favorite Musical by Julie Howard. Celebrate the 300th anniversary by attending this island favorite held at the Ocracoke School Gym. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7 for children. Doors open at 7:30 pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit ocracokealive.org.
Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree – 300th Anniversary
October 25 to 28
This year’s annual Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree will commemorate the 300th Anniversary of Blackbeard’s last battle. Experience pirate life as reenactment crews re-create this historic battle on Silver Lake complete with pirate ships, cannons and swords. There’s something for everyone at this three-day event that includes musical entertainment, magic shows, pirate encampments and more.
300th Anniversary Commemoration
November 21 to 23
At Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. The Ocracoke Preservation Society and Ocracoke Business and Civic Association will host a memorial service on Nov. 22 at 10 a.m. Royal Navy attaché Commander Dickie Underwood will be on hand to honor the dead and place wreaths. An English Tea will be held at the Berkley Manor following the service. The public is invited to attend.
*An oyster roast on November 21 as well as a Pig Pickin’ on November 23 are ticket events. For more information on these events, call 252-928-7375.