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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

The Pirates of
Colonial North Carolina

Hugh F. Rankin
North Carolina
Department of Cultural Resources
Raleigh, 1993

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p62  Chapter 5

The End of "The Pest of Pirates"

The death of Blackbeard marked the end of the "Golden Age of Piracy" in North Carolina, although as late as 1720 it was reported that the people of North Carolina were still "entertaining pirates." Yet never again were these freebooters so bold as to operate only out of the colony's shallow sounds and inlets.

The legend of Blackbeard, despite his cruelty and past crimes, continued to grow into something of a romantic tradition in American literature. The legend began to spread even while the memory of his cruelty was fresh in the minds of his victims. Among those who aided in its growth was the youthful Benjamin Franklin, at the time of Blackbeard's death a "printer's devil" working in the Boston newspaper office of his brother. One of his first bits of writing was in verse, which he printed and hawked about the streets of Boston. Although no copy of this work is known to exist today, the lines below are sometimes thought to have been taken from what Franklin called "a sailor's song on the taking of Teach (or Blackbeard) the pirate":

Then each man to his gun,

For the work must be done

With cutlass, sword and pistol.

And when we no longer can strike a blow

Then fire the magazine boys and up we go

It is better to swim in the sea below

Than to hang in the air and feel the crow,

Said jolly Ned Teach of Bristol.

The life of the famous pirate also attracted the attention of playwrights. In 1798 "Blackbeard; or the Captive Princess" ran for 100 performances. And thirteen years later, in 1811, a Boston theater presented "The Nautical Spectacle, Blackbeard the Pirate." That same year in South Carolina, actors of a Charleston theatre gave two performances of "Black Beard, the Pirate." There have been other versions down through the years. Lemuel Sawyer's "Blackbeard," published in 1824 was, so far as we know, the first play written by a native North Carolinian, with a North Carolina setting and North Carolina characters.

 p63  Robert Louis Stevenson in his famous book, "Treasure Island," borrowed the name of one of Blackbeard's pirates, Israel Hands, for a character. The real Israel Hands, after his narrow escape from the gallows, returned to London. There he seems to have spent the remaining years of his life limping about the streets of London, a whining beggar.

Even before Blackbeard's men were executed, Governor Johnson of South Carolina continued his vigorous campaign for the extermination of all buccaneers operating in that colony. The governor, personally assuming command of a local fleet, was responsible for the capture of the notorious Captain Richard Worley. Worley's six‑months career as a pirate was brief, but in the short time before he turned south his black flag with its whole skeleton had terrorized the coast of New York and Pennsylvania. In the battle with Governor Johnson's men, Worley was killed, but twenty-four of his pirates were taken prisoner. A number of these were dangerously wounded, and in order to hang them before they died of their wounds, a court was hurriedly called. Within five days nineteen were tried, sentenced and hanged. Only five of Worley's men were able to prove their innocence and escape this swift justice. Incidentally, one of the ships used by Governor Johnson to defeat the pirates was Stede Bonnet's old "Royal James."

After 1718 an occasional pirate would still throw the Carolinas into a spasm of fright. In 1722, for instance, George Lowther appeared off the coast, but he did little damage. He is supposed to have spent the winter of 1722‑1723 in one of North Carolina's inlets, but he was in hiding and making repairs to one of his damaged ships, too frightened to venture out.

Captain Low, mentioned earlier as a partner of Lowther's, also captured some vessels off the Carolina coast in 1723, but his "bloody flag" disappeared after that year, for he was soon captured and hanged in Rhode Island.

There were, however, pirates and rumors of pirates operating off the coasts of the southern colonies as late as 1724.​a Certainly there were enough to give a great deal of concern to Alexander Spotswood, former governor of Virginia. Although his official duties were over, he had not dared to return to England to make a personal report of his administration to the Lords of Trade. He gave as his reason his responsibility for causing so many of Teach's men "to swing in the open air of Virginia." He explained that he was afraid to take passage on any ship across the ocean  p64 for fear of what pirates might do to him should they capture him on the high seas.

The victim of Spotswood's planning, the pirate known as Blackbeard, lived much longer in the memory of men than did the former governor of Virginia. One possible explanation for this continued interest lies in the many tales that were circulated about his buried treasure. One story reports that on the night before his battle with Lieutenant Maynard, one of his crew asked if his wife knew the whereabouts of his treasure, should anything happen to him on the morrow. Supposedly the captain answered "that nobody but himself and the devil knew where it was, and the longest liver should take all." This story, if true, implies that there may have been a buried treasure. Many years later, a Portuguese sailor claiming to have once been a member of Blackbeard's crew maintained that the treasure was buried on a place called Mulberry Island in Virginia's York River.

The surface of the earth has become pockmarked with searchers digging for Blackbeard's gold, but no one has ever reported finding it. It appears unlikely that any such treasure was ever buried. The explanation for this is quite simple. Blackbeard was too much of a spendthrift and caroused too often to have ever saved enough of his loot to bury.

His greatest fortune, along with that of the other pirates, was that he became a byword in history. The legends which have come down to us through the years paint these buccaneers as stirring figures. Alas, they are but romantic tales.

Thayer's Note:

a And Spanish privateers in the 1740's (Connor, History of North Carolina, I.264).

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