Royal Navy Hunting Pirates

Woodes Rogers and Alexander Spotswood – Blackbeard’s Last Stand

After abandoning his flagship and most of his crew Blackbeard sailed north-east along the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Ocracoke Island. This was a remote and deserted place surrounded by shoals and sandbanks. The southern shores of the island faced the breaking waves of the Atlantic Ocean, but on the side facing the sheltered waters of Pamlico Sound was the narrow channel of Ocracoke Inlet. Here, in the summer of 1718, Blackbeard dropped anchor. For the next few months he used this as a base for his sloop Adventure. He also took a house in Bath Town, then a small settlement on the banks of a creek on the other side of Pamlico Sound. By the end of June he had secured a meeting with Governor Eden and had obtained the royal pardon for himself and his pirates. For about two months he seems to have lived a settled and respectable life, dividing his time between Bath Town and Ocracoke, but by August he had returned to plundering passing merchant ships. He was now in the sights of Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant Governor of the nearby colony of Virginia.

Spotswood, like Captain Woodes Rogers, was a resolute and determined man with an interesting past. He was born in 1676, the son of an army surgeon serving in the English military garrison at Tangier. At the age of seven he came to England and was educated at Westminster School. He joined the army in 1693 and spent the next seventeen years as an officer. He served under Marlborough in Flanders, was wounded at the Battle of Blenheim and was captured but later exchanged at the Battle of Oudenarde. In 1710 George Hamilton, Earl of Orkney and one of Marlborough’s most able generals, was appointed Governor of Virginia. Not wishing to leave Britain, he selected Spotswood as his Lieutenant Governor with full authority to run the colony. Spotswood proved an energetic Governor. As we have seen earlier, he had warned the British Government of the growing danger to the American colonies posed by the pirates and he now decided that Blackbeard was such a threat that he must be hunted down. As he later wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations, ‘I judged it high time to destroy that crew of villains, and not to suffer them to gather strength in the neighbourhood of so valuable a trade as that of this colony.’

There were two warships assigned to the Virginia station and they were currently anchored in the James River, not far from Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia. The largest of the ships was the 40-gun Pearl, commanded by Captain Ellis Brand. The other ship was the Lyme, 24 guns, commanded by Captain George Gordon. Both ships had orders from the Admiralty, ‘To correspond and act in concert against the pirates.’4 When Captain Brand and Captain Gordon were summoned to a meeting with Governor Spotswood and told that he wished to mount an expedition against Blackbeard they were happy to give him their support. The warships were too big to negotiate the shallows around Ocracoke, so Spotswood hired two local sloops, the Ranger and the Jane, and the navy provided the men – thirty-three from the Pearl and twenty-four from the Lyme. They were put under the overall command of Robert Maynard, the first lieutenant of the Pearl, and each sloop had a local pilot to guide them through the channels of the Outer Banks. Lieutenant Maynard’s log survives and his entry for Monday 17 November 1718 marks the day that the expedition set sail:

Modt. gales & fair Weather, this day I recd. from Capt. Gordon, an Order to Command 60 men out of his Majesties Ships Pearle & Lyme, on board two small sloops, in Order to destroy some pyrates, who resided in No. Carolina. This day Weigh’d, & Sail’d hence, with ye Sloops undr. my Command, having on board a month Proviso. Of all species, with Arms, & Ammunition Suitable for ye Occasion.

It was not known whether Blackbeard was on his sloop at Ocracoke or was staying in Bath Town, so while Maynard’s sloops sailed down the James River and along the coast, Captain Brand led an overland expedition to Bath Town. He had around 200 men under his command, including sailors from the warships and a company of Virginia militiamen. As it happened, Blackbeard was at Ocracoke with twenty-five of his pirates. (Israel Hands and the rest of his crew were across the Sound in Bath Town.) When Lieutenant Maynard arrived on the seaward side of Ocracoke Island on the evening of 21 November there was a local trading sloop anchored in the channel near Blackbeard’s Adventure. Samuel Odell, the master of the local sloop, and two or three of his crew were being entertained by Blackbeard and his men. Maynard decided to delay his attack till the next morning.

At dawn on 22 November Maynard commenced his approach. The sea was calm, the sky overcast and there was only the lightest of breezes to help them on their way. A boat was sent ahead with a sailor taking soundings. If heavy casualties were to be avoided it was essential to surprise the pirates because Maynard’s sloops had no guns and his men had weapons suitable only for a boarding action: muskets, pistols, cutlasses and boarding axes. The Adventure was armed with nine carriage guns which could do a great deal of damage before the attackers were within musket shot of the pirates. Although the various accounts of the action differ in many respects it seems that the element of surprise was lost because the pirates spotted the attackers while they were still some way off and fired a shot in their direction. A shouted exchange took place between Maynard and Blackbeard with Maynard telling the pirate that he intended to board him.

‘Teach understanding his design, told him that if he would let him alone, he would not meddle with him; Maynard answered that it was him he wanted, and that he would have him dead or alive; whereupon Teach called for a glass of wine, and swore damnation to himself if he either took or gave quarters.’6 Blackbeard ordered several of his carriage guns to be fired at the approaching sloops. These apparently did less damage than a discharge from a swivel gun loaded with swan shot, nails and pieces of old iron. The attacking force was decimated. Midshipman Hyde, commanding the sloop Ranger, was killed instantly and twenty other men were either killed or wounded. According to Maynard, the Ranger, having no one to command her, fell astern and took no further part in the action until it was almost over.

Blackbeard had cut his anchor cable and was intending to sail out of the channel but the attackers managed to shoot away the jib and fore halyards of the Adventure, which drifted on to a shoal and grounded. To save further casualties Maynard hid most of his men below deck as he approached the pirate sloop, so that Blackbeard, ‘seeing so few on the deck said to his men, the rogues were all killed except two or three and he would go on board and kill them himself’. It is not clear whether the final battle took place on board the Adventure or the sloop Jane, but what is in no doubt is that Blackbeard and Maynard engaged in a hand-to-hand fight as the rest of the British sailors swarmed on deck and took on the pirates. Maynard attacked Blackbeard with his sword but bent it on the pirate’s cartridge box. When Blackbeard’s sword broke the naval officer’s guard and wounded his fingers Maynard was forced to step back and use his pistol. His shot found its mark but had no immediate effect on Blackbeard, who was now surrounded by Maynard’s men. According to Captain Johnson’s vivid account of the action, ‘he stood his ground and fought with great fury’. The final blow came from a Scottish Highlander who struck Blackbeard with such force that he cut off his head.

There were several black Africans in Blackbeard’s crew and one of them had remained below, ready to blow up the ship if the order was given. He was prevented from doing so by two of the men from the trading sloop who had also remained below during the fighting. Blackbeard’s death marked the end of action. His headless body was thrown overboard and those pirates who were still alive surrendered. Every account of the action gives different figures for the casualties but it is evident that the fighting was exceedingly fierce and the deck must have been running with blood. According to Maynard, ‘I had eight Men killed and 18 wounded. We kill’d 12, besides Blackbeard, who fell with five Shot in him, and 20 dismal Cuts in several Parts of his Body. I took nine prisoners, mostly Negroes, all wounded.’

Maynard took command of the Adventure and, with Blackbeard’s head hung from the bowsprit, he sailed back to Virginia to rejoin his ship and report on the success of his mission. He reached the James River on 3 January 1719. It was a fine winter’s day with a light breeze. The warships Pearl and Lyme were still lying at anchor in the river. Lieutenant John Hicks of the Pearl recorded the occasion in his logbook, ‘Little wind & fair weather. Tache ye Pyrate Sloop commanded by Lieut Maynard anch’d here & Saluted us with 9 Guns we Answ’d with ye same number he brought Tache ye pyrates head undr his Bowsprette.’

Displaying the pirate’s head so prominently as a war trophy was an unusual action for a British naval crew but it was in line with the custom of displaying the dead bodies of notorious highwaymen, thieves and pirates in prominent public places as a warning to others. And Maynard needed to bring back the head of the notorious pirate as proof of his death and to enable him and his men to claim the reward. Back in November Governor Spotswood had issued a proclamation to encourage the capture or killing of any pirate or pirates within the vicinity of Virginia or North Carolina:

for Edward Teach, commonly called Captain Teach, or Black-beard, one hundred Pounds, for every other Commander of a Pyrate Ship, Sloop, or Vessel, forty Pounds; for every Lieutenant, Master, or Quarter-Master, Boatswain, or Carpenter, twenty pounds; for every other inferior Officer, fifteen pounds, and for every private Man taken on board such Ship, Sloop, or Vessel, ten pounds.

Political considerations and bureaucratic delays held up the payment of the rewards for several years. There was less delay in the trial and execution of the pirates. Captain Brand had rounded up Israel Hands and one or two others in the vicinity of Bath Town and on 12 March 1719 sixteen men were put on trial in the Capitol building at Williamsburg. Samuel Odell, the captain of the trading vessel which had been anchored alongside Blackbeard’s sloop, was acquitted. Hands was allowed the benefit of the royal pardon, probably because he had agreed to testify against his shipmates. According to Johnson, writing in 1724, Hands ‘was alive some time ago in London, begging his bread’. The fourteen remaining members of Blackbeard’s crew, including five black Africans, were hanged on the road leading out of Williamsburg.

These executions, together with the executions of Stede Bonnet and his crew at Charleston, and the executions at Nassau, were significant events in the campaign against the pirates but they did not relieve the pressure on Rogers. His reports and letters to London indicate the many problems he was facing. He had been so ill for weeks after arriving in Nassau that he had had difficulty in carrying out some of his duties. The local inhabitants continued to prove lazy and so unproductive that it was hard to find sufficient provisions to feed the soldiers of the garrison. But his chief concern was the withdrawal of the naval ships which had accompanied him to the Bahamas. In a letter to Secretary James Craggs he pointed out that the lack of a ship of war was likely to have grave consequences ‘by encouraging the loose people here and even some of my own soldiers’. He had uncovered a plot ‘to seize or destroy me and my officers and then deliver up the fort for ye use of the pirates’. He had dealt with the ringleaders of the plot by having them severely flogged but he continued to worry that the former pirates in the community would turn against him.

He was equally concerned that the absence of a warship in the harbour left the settlement extremely vulnerable to an attack by the Spanish. There had been growing hostilities between Spain and the other European powers throughout the summer of 1718 owing to the territorial ambitions of King Philip V of Spain and his forceful Italian wife Elizabeth Farnese. A Spanish expedition sent to conquer Sicily prompted the British to send a powerful naval force to the Mediterranean under the command of Sir George Byng. Although there had been no formal declaration of war Byng attacked the Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro on 31 July 1718. The Spanish were outnumbered and outmanoeuvred and by the end of an extended action stretching over several days twenty-two of their warships had been captured, burnt or sunk. War was officially declared on 17 December. Known as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, it pitched Spain against Britain, France, Austria and the Netherlands. Brief as it was the war had repercussions in the West Indies and the American colonies. By February 1719 Rogers had received news that the Spanish intended to attack and conquer the Bahamas. In May a Spanish invasion fleet sailed from Cuba. With four warships, eight sloops and around 3,000 troops this posed a formidable threat to New Providence, where the fortifications were still incomplete and there was only the Delicia and a few armed sloops to defend the harbour. Fortunately the Spanish fleet was diverted to Florida because the French had seized a strategically important fortress at Pensacola. Not till the following year did the Spanish make an attempt on the Bahamas, by which time Rogers was in a much stronger position.

When the invasion force arrived off Nassau on 24 February 1720 Rogers had at his disposal 100 soldiers and nearly 500 local militiamen; the fort was armed with fifty mounted guns and the 10-gun eastern battery had been completed; and in addition to his 40-gun guardship Delicia, there was a naval warship in the harbour – HMS Flamborough, 24 guns, which happened to be paying a visit. The logbook of the Flamborough recorded the first sighting and approach of the Spanish fleet: ‘at 6 AM saw 12 Sail in the Offing standing for the harbour mouth, We made ’em to be 3 Ships, 1 Brigantine and the rest Sloops, At noon the Ships anchored off the Bar and the Brig & Sloops sailed to the E end of Hogg Island & there anchored, They all hoisted Spanish Colours.’

Later information revealed that the Spanish invasion fleet was led by the flagship San José of 36 guns; she was accompanied by the San Cristóforo, 20 guns; a third ship of 14 guns; a 12-gun brigantine; and eight armed sloops. They were carrying a military force of between 1,200 and 1,300 men. In theory the Spanish were considerably superior in ships and men to the British defenders, but an amphibious invasion force was invariably at a disadvantage when faced with well-manned forts and gun emplacements; and on this occasion the Spanish also had to contend with the weather. For some reason the Spanish admiral decided against launching an immediate attack but waited until the next day. And the next day a strong north wind built up during the morning so that the fleet found itself on a lee shore with waves breaking on the shoals and reefs off the harbour entrance. By 3 p.m. the situation had become so hazardous that the vessels in the fleet cut their anchor cables and headed for the open sea. The three ships never came back but at around eleven that night the brigantine and the sloops returned and, according to the Flamborough’s log, ‘attempted to land their men but two Negroes firing into their Boats they put back again to their vessels’. That was the end of the invasion. Some of the sloops remained off the coast for the next few days but on 1 March they headed back to Cuba. Several weeks later Rogers received a letter from two Englishmen in Havana who had been informed that the Spanish fleet had been hit by a storm two hours after arriving off Nassau and had been forced to lose their anchors and bear away. The Englishmen had some doubts about this version of events and reported that most of the ships ‘have all returned again to their safe harbour whether it was distress of weather or fear (which we are more apt to believe) that hath thus baulked their attempt we doubt not …’. However, the danger from the storm was very real because on the return voyage the San Cristóforo was wrecked on the Bahama Banks.

Having successfully prevented a Spanish invasion and having expelled the pirates from New Providence, Rogers had every reason to expect a favourable reaction to the reports he sent home. He also deserved a sympathetic and practical response to his requests for the reimbursement of the money he and the copartners had spent on defending the island. Instead he heard nothing and received nothing. There was no response from the Council of Trade and Plantations to his first detailed report, and no replies to the many letters he wrote to Secretary Craggs updating him on progress. It is little wonder that the opening sentence of his second report to the Council, written two months after the abortive Spanish invasion, revealed his sense of abandonment: ‘My Lords, Its about twenty one months since my first arrival here attended with as great disappointments, sickness and other misfortunes as almost can be imagined of which I have continually advised in the best manner I could, and I have yet no account from home what is or will not be done for the preservation of this settlement.’ He went on to point out that ‘having no news of my bills being paid at home I am forced to run into too much debt and its with great difficulty that I have hitherto supported myself and the garrison’. In December of the previous year Samuel Buck, on behalf of the copartners, had sent a petition to their lordships pointing out that they had already spent £11,394 on the fortifications, and further sums on the seamen’s wages for the guardship Delicia and on commissioning the sloops and crews which had been despatched to track down the pirates. The total sum to date was more than £20,000 and he humbly besought their lordships to present the estimates to Parliament for payment.

During the summer of 1720 an incident took place which was minor in itself but revealed the tensions which Rogers was under. On the evening of 10 July the sentry on the eastern bastion challenged a boat which had set off from the shore and was heading across the harbour. The sentry challenged fifteen times without receiving an answer, and was therefore ordered by Rogers to fire two shots at the boat. The crew promptly yelled back that they were from the Delicia. Rogers immediately summoned Captain Wingate Gale, the commander of the guardship, to come ashore. When Gale refused to do so, Rogers collected his Provost Marshal and twelve soldiers and went out to the ship with a warrant to put its commander under arrest. Rogers’ justification for this was that Gale had disobeyed his commands and ‘I was driven to apprehend him myself by force to prevent the mischievous consequences of his ill example, or his raising a mutiny against me.’ According to one witness, Captain Gale armed his men in order to resist the soldiers coming on board but several other witnesses denied that the captain or his men were armed and that Captain Gale ‘offered no resistance until Governor Rogers called him a rascal and struck him with his pistol upon the head’. Rogers ordered Gale to be put in close confinement all night and the next morning called a Council, which agreed that if Gale gave his word for his future good behaviour he could be released from custody.

The incident gives added credence to the remarks of Dr Thomas Dover, who, it will be recalled, noted several instances of Rogers’ hot temper and his violent threats to those who opposed him. But it is clear from Rogers’ correspondence that it was not the Spanish, or problems with his Council or his colleagues, which were proving an intolerable burden. It was his grave concerns about the finances of the islands, and his own ever-increasing debts, which were making him ill. Soon he would be driven to seek leave of absence in order to recover his health. Before he did so the pirates caused another diversion. It was a diversion which had its origins in the Bahamas but would reach its much publicised conclusion on the island of Jamaica.

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