It happened today - November 22, 2015
November 22 isn’t a great day to die. For one thing, you’ll be dead. For another, you’ll have a hard time getting people to notice. It’s still remembered overwhelmingly in that regard as the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, an event oddly traumatizing to a nation that still idolizes their 35th president in ways he didn’t deserve. Yet it was on the same day, in the same year in fact, that C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died, and arguably both were better and more important men than Kennedy.
Also, matey, it’s the day the famous pirate “Blackbeard” was killed by the British navy in the battle of Ocracoke Island in 1718. OK, maybe the second most famous pirate after Long John Silver. But the most famous really alive pirate. Briefly.
It’s a curious thing about Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, that his terrifying bloody career was also extremely short. Details are sketchy for some reason; pirating not being like major league baseball there aren’t records of every aspiring scurvy knave who stepped definitively onto the wrong side of the law and the deck of a buccaneer’s vessel. But he is thought to have been English and to have taken up pirating in 1713 as a crew member under Benjamin Hornigold, who had the good sense to accept a British amnesty in 1717 and hang up his cutlass, eyepatch, hook, wooden leg or whatever.
Not Blackbeard. He took over a captured French merchant ship (originally British, taken by the French and used as a slaver, then captured by Hornigold, increased its arsenal from 26 to 40 guns, renamed it “Queen Anne’s Revenge” for reasons that are unclear, and wreaked havoc for six months with a flotilla of up to four ships, capturing dozens of vessels, butchering prisoners, sometimes lighting his beard on fire to scare his enemies (frankly I would have thought seeing the captain’s face in flames would have scared his own men but perhaps they didn’t frighten easily) before accepting an amnesty from the governor of North Carolina in return for much of his loot, returning to pirating, and meeting a squalid and brutal end.
Despite fancy speeches by paper pirates like Long John Silver about “gentlemen of fortune” Blackbeard’s fate is unsurprising. It was a grubby as well as a brutal business and it didn’t just usually end badly, it usually ended quickly. There are exceptions; Edward Morgan having the sense to concentrate on England’s enemies wound up as deputy governor of Jamaica and a rum. Francis Drake was basically disguised as a pirate while secretly working for the English Queen Elizabeth I, though he died of dysentery rather than retiring in comfort. But most were squalid and vicious and soon dead.
Indeed, it’s odd that Blackbeard should have become so iconic despite having lasted so short a time. The legend says it took five musket balls and 20 sword thrusts to finish him off. But it would say that; for all we know a yard-arm fell on his head.
Perhaps the fact that he died on Nov. 22 has rather obscured the end of his career recently. But the truth is he was a wretched awful man who for once met exactly the fate he deserved roughly when he deserved it.