ON the respective summits of two of the hills of Charlotte Amalia there stands a castle. The larger is called Blue Beard’s Castle, the smaller Black Beard’s. It is claimed that they were the strongholds of pirates distinguished by those names. St. Thomas was certainly a favourite haunt of the buccaneer, and, although the sea rover had little leisure for building castles, he was not above occupying premises erected by others.
The two strong places in question are round towers of undoubted antiquity, each with a maximum of wall and a minimum of window. Blue Beard’s Castle has the appearance of a fortress or refuge of the block-house type, but the castle of Black Beard is singularly suggestive of a stone windmill deprived of its wooden caps and sails. It would be little short of profanity to hint that this pirate’s lair is no more than a discarded mill, for the people of the island, although hazy in their details, are firm in the belief that the tower was the fastness of Black Beard, the corsair. Of Blue Beard nothing whatever is known, nor do even the sellers of postcards suggest that he was in any way connected with the famous autocrat of the nursery tale. Black Beard, how-ever, was a definite character, a pirate of pirates, who in the early part of the eighteenth century was the terror of the Caribbean Sea. I can find no evidence that he ever held the mill-like tower which keeps green his memory in St. Thomas, but it would be rank heresy to suppose that such evidence is not forthcoming.
Black Beard’s non-professional name was Edward Teach. He was a native of Bristol, and a mariner. In the pursuit of his calling he came to Jamaica, where, it may be assumed, he was led astray by evil companions, picked up in the taverns of Port Royal. Anyhow, in 1716 Master Teach took to pirating. It is claimed that when a man adopts a calling he should strive with all his might to excel in it. Edward was evidently influenced by this teaching, and acted upon it, with the result that he attained to the very highest distinction in his profession. Indeed, such were his ability and application that in two short years he rose to the position of the world’s greatest pirate. In this anxious and dangerous vocation he is without an equal. The stage pirate with black ringlets and a belt full of knives, who sits on a gunpowder cask and scatters murder aimlessly around him, is a mere babe and suckling to Edward Teach.
This highly depraved mariner was no mere cut-throat, how-ever : he was the Napoleon of scoundreldom. There is a portrait of him in Johnson’s ” History of the Pyrates.” 1 He is here represented as a large man whose repulsive face is almost hidden by a mane-like beard, the hair of which, black as coal, grew up to his very eyes. So long was this beard that he twisted it into small tails tied with ribbons, ” after the manner of our Ramifies wiggs,” and turned the ends over his ears. He had a head like a brindled gnu. Under his hat, which was of felt and of the Dick Turpin pattern, he stuck lighted matches or fuses which, when he was at work, would glow horribly on either side of his eyes. He is depicted in a long-skirted coat with immense cuffs to the sleeves, and in breeches, stockings, and shoes. In his hand is a cutlass, while in his belt no less than six pistols are stuck. It is to be noticed that he avoids the open jack-boots, the hat feather and the immense belt buckle of the common stage villain.
Teach was an execrable and unholy rascal, who was a shuddering horror to every one with whom he was associated. He occasionally robbed and murdered his own crew. Once, when in a blithesome mood, he marooned seventeen of his men on a desert island. Here they would have starved to death, as he hoped they would, had not Major Stede Bonnet, the amateur freebooter of Barbados, come to their rescue.’ It was just about this period that Teach married as his fourteenth wife ” a young creature of sixteen.” It is not stated how it came about that she was drawn to Teach, or by what charms he won her budding affection.
Black Beard was a man of resource, who could be relied upon to invent means for relieving even the monotony of a dull voyage. Thus one bright afternoon, when the sloop was lying becalmed and rocking to the lazy roll that makes the ocean in the tropics appear as if it breathed, the pirates found the time pass heavily. They had polished their weapons until they shone like silver. They had gambled until half the company were penniless. They had fought until there was nothing more to fight about, and it was too hot to sleep. Indeed there was nothing to be done, but to lean over the rail and throw bits of rotten beef at the sharks. In this dilemma the ready-witted Teach, hatless and shoeless, and ” a little flushed with drink,” stumbles up on deck, and, holding on to the shrouds, makes this happy proposal to his bored companions. ” Come,” says this genial soul, ” let us make a little hell of our own, and see how long we can bear it.” Whereupon he and two or three others, helped by suggestive kicks, drop down into the hold and, having closed the hatches, sit on the stones of the ballast. Here in the reeking dark they set fire to ” several pots full of brimstone and other inflammable matters,” and so produced a replica of the atmosphere of the Pit. The captain’s playmates, livid with asphyxia and with faces streaming from the heat, soon made a rush for the sunny deck, but Teach’s ugly head was the last to come up the hatch, and it was always a pride and a pleasure to him to remember that he held out the longest, while he was always gratified to hear that his face, on emerging, was as the face of a half-hanged man.
This distinguished pirate had, besides his ready wit, social qualities of quite a rare order. For example, one night he was entertaining in his cabin two friendsIsrael Hands, the master of the sloop, and the pilot who had brought the ship into harbour. The entertainment seems to have consisted mainly in the consumption of tobacco and rum. The small cabin, lit as it was by a solitary candle, was probably close. During a pause in the conversation Teach, with a smile on his face, cocked two pistols carefully, then, blowing out the candle, he crossed his hands and discharged the weapons at his company. As the outcome of this unexpected attention, Israel was shot through the knee and lamed for life. “The other pistol,” the chronicle says, “did no execution.” When the candle was relit, the captain’s guests very naturally asked him what he meant by this display of musketry. He replied by damning them both to eternal fire, and, after cursing them at sufficient length, he explained, in a friendly way, that ” if he did not kill one of them now and then they would forget who he was.”
Probably Hands as he lay on the floor, watching the blood spurt out of his knee, may have muttered that he did not believe in artificial aids to memory.
Edward’s end was not peace. He and his allies had so harried the American Main, that in 1718 the Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia offered a reward of 401. for the capture of any pirate captain, and the special prize of 100£ for Edward Teach, alive or dead.
Black Beard at the moment was resting from his labours. He had hit upon a green sheltered cove at the mouth of the Ocracoke inlet, a romantic spot that pleased his fancy. His whereabouts was revealed to a certain Lieutenant Maynard, of H.M.S. Pearl, who lost no time in manning a sloop and starting for Teach’s quiet haven. Now Teach was informed that Maynard was after him, but the pirate declined to stir. He had no regard for Maynard and, moreover, the placid scenery of the creek comforted him. Indeed he prepared to meet the man-o’-war’s man by drinking all night with a merchant skipper who chanced to have dropped in.
As the morning dawned Maynard crept up the inlet, and there to his joy was the pirate craft lying at her anchor, a picture of peace. As the Pearl’s sloop approached, Black Beard. seized a hatchet and cut his cable, with the result that his vessel, on which was now hoisted a black flag, drifted ashore. This was a nimble move, for the buccaneer saw that the sloop drew too much water to come near him, and Maynard, realising that fact also, anchored within half-gunshot of his quarry. Neither vessel carried any ordnance.
Maynard was determined to get alongside the pirate, so with desperate haste he began to throw his ballast overboard, together with the kedge and every spar and scrap of iron he could spare. More than that he staved in every water cask ; until feeling that he had freeboard enough he slipped his anchor, set his mainsail and jib, and bore down upon the stranded sea robber.
As he came on Teach, with the fuses glowing under his hat, “hailed him in a rude manner,” cursed him and defied him in fact, and standing on the taffrail drank to his speedy damnation in a goblet of liquor. The man-o’-war’s man now sent off a boarding party in small boats, which same Teach met with such a volley of small shot that he killed and wounded twenty-nine men, leaving scarcely crew enough to row back to the sloop for shelter. After this incident Teach’s ship ” fell broadside to the shore,” with her deck all aslant.
Maynard sailed slowly nearer with his canvas hanging slack, for the wind was very light. He sent all his men below so that he and the helmsman, who was lying down ” snug,” were the only people on the silent deck. Teach, surrounded by his sullen and villainous gang, shrieked out the chorus of a sea song as the sloop drew near, and when she had drifted close enough he pelted her deck with grenadoes.
At this moment the two vessels touched, whereupon Teach and his crew, with hideous yells and a great gleam of cutlass blades, leapt upon the sloop’s deck. They leapt through the smoke with which the ship was still smothered, and out of the cloud the awful figure of the buccaneer emerged, making for Maynard. At the same time the men hidden in the sloop scrambled up from the hold, and the riot of the fight began.
As Teach and Maynard met they both fired at each other point blank. The lieutenant dodged, but the robber was hit in the face, and the blood was soon dripping from his beard, the ends of which were, as usual, tucked up over his ears. There was no time to fumble with pistols now. So they fought with cutlasses. Teach, spitting the blood out of his mouth, swore that he would hack Maynard’s soul from his body ; but his opponent was too fine an adept with the sword to be easily disposed of. It was a fearful duel : a trial of the robber’s immense strength against the officer’s deftness.
They chased each other about the deck, stumbling across dead bodies, knocking down snarling men who, clutched together, were fighting with knives. Ever through the mirk could be seen the buccaneer’s grinning teeth and evil eyes ; ever above the hubbub and scuffling rose his murderous war cry. Both were wounded, both breathless.
At last Maynard, in defending himself from a terrific blow, had his sword blade broken off at the hilt. Now was the pirate’s chance. He aimed a slash at Maynard. It fell short and only hacked a few of his fingers off, for as the blow fell one of the sloop’s men brought his cutlass down upon the back of the buccaneer’s red neck, making a horrible wound which might have been done by an executioner’s axe. Teach turned upon him and cut him to the deck.
For the moment the current of the fight changed. The decks were very slippery from blood. Teach kicked off his shoes so as to get a better hold of the planks. Half a dozen of the sloop’s men were against him now. He stood with his back to the bulwarks, a scarcely human figure. Panting horribly, he roared like a maddened bull. His dripping cutlass still kept those he called dogs at bay. He had received twenty-five wounds, five of which were from bullets. Blood was streaming down his hairy chest. Blood clots dangled from his fantastic beard in place of the bows of ribbon. The muscles of his neck having been cut through his head fell forwards hideously, but there was still a defiant smile on his lips.
At last he drew a pistol and was cocking it at arm’s length, but before the trigger was drawn, and before a man touched him, his beast-like eyelids closed and he fell back on the railing, dead.
His few remaining men dropped overboard and the little creek became still once more. Lieutenant Maynard cut off Teach’s head (it was already nearly severed at the back) and hung it up on the ” boltsprit end ” of his sloop. With this strange ornament swinging from the bows, and with thirteen pirates safe in the hold, Maynard set sail for Bath Town in North Carolina. Here the thirteen were promptly hanged.
The only one of Black Beard’s men who escaped was Israel Hands, who was ashore at the time, nursing a pistol wound in his knee.