Psychoanalysis of Blackbeard

Blackbeard's flagI haven’t seen the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie yet but I understand that Blackbeard makes an appearance, so I decided to write a few words about that wild and crazy guy.

I do think he was crazy and very easily bored, so probably not a very happy guy at all. He wasn’t the most successful of the Anglo-American pirates by any stretch of the imagination but he is the best known and I think his questionable sanity is the reason.

Now by crazy I don’t mean that he was an idiot. On the contrary, he was pretty smart, accomplishing whatever he wanted in short order. But I don’t think he was ever happy with what he got.

Blackbeard called himself Edward Teach and he was probably born in the English sea town of Bristol, but other than that little is known about him until he joined Ben Hornigold’s pirate crew in the Bahamas around 1716.  He had enough education to read and write well and he mingled with governors as easily as with pirates, so there is reason to believe he was born into a family of education and means.

He knew how to behave in society –he just chose not to most of the time. In an age when most men appeared in public with smooth, clean-shaven faces, he grew a black, bristly beard that covered almost his entire face and stretched down to his chest. In battle he wore a colorful sling full of pistols and a belt stuffed with assorted blades and additional pistols. He is said to have worn slow-burning fuses in his hat that wreathed his face in smoke to complete the satanic appearance.

I don’t think he was crazy for doing this – his intimidating appearance saved him a lot of time and effort convincing victims to give up without a fight. But the intimidating appearance carried over into intimidating behavior toward both his victims and his own crew and that’s where his behavior strikes me as that of a man teetering on the edge of sanity.

He drank a lot, rum being his favorite. Possibly all the pirates=rum connections can be traced to his massive consumption of the spirit. During one bout of heavy drinking, he decided to fill the inside of his ship with burning brimstone and close the hatches so that the interior filled up with smoke. Then he held a contest to see who could last the longest in this “hell” they had created.

Probably the most famous example of Blackbeard’s intimidation tactics was when he fired a brace of pistols under the table without warning, crippling one of his most trusted associates. When asked by his crewmembers why he did it, he is supposed to have said that “if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was.”

Except in times of battle, pirate crews usually operated as sort of a democracy, in which a captain had to be responsive to the needs of his crew or risk being voted out of power. Rather than keeping his crew happy, Blackbeard apparently chose to keep his men scared.

For all his fame, he was in the public eye for less than three years, beginning his career as a pirate in 1716 and then meeting his end in a epic battle in 1718. And during part of that time, he was officially “retired” from piracy.

Just after he blockaded Charleston harbor for a week in May of 1718, he deliberately grounded his largest ship on a sandbar in North Carolina. He then moved all the plundered loot onto a smaller vessel and sailed away with a much smaller crew, marooning the other crewmembers on a small island.

After cutting most of the men out of their share of the booty, he obtained a pardon from governor and moved into a house in the town of Bath, right across the creek from the governor’s house. For a time, he settled into a planter’s lifestyle, visiting and entertaining the best of local society and marrying the daughter of a local planter.

This was said to be his fourteenth wife. (Apparently, he had a weakness for women and frequently “proposed” to tavern wenches who went through with a fake wedding on board his ship just for the celebrity status.) 

In any case, his quiet life didn’t last long. Within a short time, he was back at sea again and soon every attack on local shipping was blamed on him, whether he was guilty or not. His reputation made him a target for colonial governments embarrassed by the success of pirates in their waters. In particular, Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia had become almost obsessed with the idea of capturing Blackbeard, both to safeguard his colony and to win popularity with a Virginia government that wanted him out of office. He didn’t consider the proprietary government of North Carolina to be either genuine or honest and had no problem ignoring the pardon issued by the colony, but he needed to gain local allies to justify invading a neighboring colony to apprehend one of its most popular citizens. With that arranged, he outfitted an expedition, expecting to claim some of the pirate’s rumored treasure for himself.

The expedition succeeded, culminating in a dramatic (though small) battle in Ocracoke Inlet. Drunk and with an incapacitated crew, Blackbeard was eventually killed. No treasure was ever found.

I think whatever he had, he spent. He captured a number of ships during his career, but no caches of gold or jewels. And when he blockaded the harbor of Charleston, his only demand was for a chest of medicine (probably to treat syphilis). Personally, I think he grew easily bored with predictability and liked to stay drunk to amuse himself. And while drunk, he would give in to bouts of sentimentality (falling “in love”) or cruelty, bullying and scaring people just for the entertainment value. I think he felt trapped in a conventional life and so turned to piracy and then found that to be an equally confining role. In the end, if Spotswood hadn’t sent ships after him, I think he eventually would have gone after navy ships on his own just to force a showdown.

So there he was, a wild and crazy guy, who achieved long-standing fame, if not a happily ever after.

I wonder how he liked taking a backseat to Johnny Depp?

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Much of the information in this article comes from Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times by Robert E. Lee (not that Robert E. Lee- this book was originally published in 1974)  The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort is about to open new exhibit featuring artifacts from The Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship Blackbeard grounded on the outer banks­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ in 1718. To learn more, visit www.ncmaritimemuseums.com.

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6 Responses to “Psychoanalysis of Blackbeard”

  1. Interesting! I did not know that Blackbeard terrorized the Carolinas! Having been born in Charleston, I’m surprised I didn’t hear that I was related to him somehow 🙂

    • Kate says:

      You never know… with all those “wives,” you might be a pirate’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter…

  2. Interesting post, I just saw Pirates of The Caribbean the other day.

    • Kate says:

      We just saw Pirates of the Caribbean tonight. I was glad they tried to go back to something more like the first movie (although I wish they hadn’t tried to copy it so closely in places). There were some great moments! I loved the scene where he was fleeing through the streets of London. And when Jack was trying to get information about Blackbeard when no one had actually seen him. They did a great job with Blackbeard but they didn’t need to give him supernatural powers – we was initimidating enough without them.

  3. April says:

    Wow, what a cool and fun – not to mention informative post!! Great job, Kate!

  4. While I have enjoyed all your posts, this one, I must say, is outstanding. Perhaps you should consider penning a compendium of mini-texts like this based on historical events or people. Very well done, Kate :^)