Imagine that you are a highly successful merchant on the coast of North Carolina. Your merchant ships are attacked and raided by pirates, and you lose a huge shipment. A few months and many attacks later you are left with little money. This was the harsh reality that many merchants along the Outer Banks of North Carolina had to deal with. Pirates such as Edward Teach and Stede Bonnet would raid shipments and sell the goods back at a much cheaper price. Often this would ruin businesses. Colonies were forced to pass very harsh laws and post bounties in an effort to prevent piracy. Even so, pirates during this period had a significant impact on the laws and economy during colonial times. They have left their mark on history.
In the late 17th-early 18th century the colony of North Carolina was considered a “place which receives pirates, runaways and illegal traders” (Hughson 51). It was generally a lawless colony, with barely any government. The officials that were active in North Carolina often collaborated and took bribes from the pirates. In 1713, Charles Eden was elected to be the new governor of North Carolina. Eden was a very idealistic person, attempting to change the colony for the better. He divided North Carolina into two provinces, Currituck and Roanoke (Hughson 74). Eden then began a campaign to end piracy. He gave pardons to pirates such as Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet in hopes that they would end their thieving ways. The two men would halt for a while, but it did little good as both men eventually resumed their activities along the coast of North Carolina. The governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, was more successful in his attempts to prevent piracy. Spotswood is famously noted for sending Lieutenant Maynard and his crew to capture Blackbeard, a venture that ended up being very successful.
The corruption in early North Carolina’s government did not stop when it came to making deals with pirates. In some cases officials and friends of pirates would try to defend them in court. During the trial of Blackbeard’s crew, efforts were “made by the North Carolina friends of the pirates to establish their innocence” (Hughson 79). These people protested that Spotswood had no right to send Lieutenant Maynard and his company of men without their permission (Hughson 79). Friends of the pirates attempted to delay or even stop the trials, but Spotswood found them guilty and hung them. Even after this series of events North Carolina officials continued to accept money from pirates and continued to collaborate with them. Pirates had entrenched themselves in the laws of the colony, effectively making it so they were protected from the law as long as no outside influence interfered. It would be a long time before this “lawlessness” corrected itself.
One particular pirate plagued many coasts around the seas, one of them being North Carolina. Blackbeard, also known as Edward Teach, was a highly influential pirate and arguably the most famous. Blackbeard’s origins are unknown, though it is thought that he was born in Bristol before 1690 (Kirkpatrick par. 5). He served as a privateer under Queen Anne of Britain, robbing ships during the Spanish War. After the war Teach turned to piracy and joined a crew in the Caribbean. He eventually came into possession of his own ship, which he named Queen Anne’s Revenge. Blackbeard made his home base in the Outer Banks, North Carolina and plundered along the coast. After a while the residents of North Carolina grew extremely tired of being robbed, and they could not rely on their own government since it was extremely corrupt. Instead they pleaded to Governor Spotswood of Virginia for aid. Spotswood sent a company of men commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard to capture Blackbeard and his crew “dead or alive” (Hughson 76). Blackbeard eventually met his death at the hands of Maynard and his crew at Ocracoke Inlet (Kirkpatrick par. 12 & 22). During the time Edward Teach lived in the Outer Banks, he made quite an impact. The pirate’s crew would steal goods from merchant ships along the coast and sell them back to the townspeople. Often these goods would be sold at a much cheaper price than the ones set by the merchant. Blackbeard’s operations would often cripple businesses overseas and his cheap goods would aid businesses in the Outer Banks. However, Blackbeard was not the only pirate that threatened the coast of North Carolina.
Another famous pirate known as Stede Bonnet sailed the coasts of North Carolina as well. Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate,” was born into a wealthy family in Barbados in 1688. He left the town in the middle of the night on a ship he had built called the Revenge. He began looting ships off the coast of South Carolina until a run-in with a Spanish warship which cost him nearly half of his crew. Bonnet escaped and fled to Nassau where he met with Blackbeard who took control of the ship. Later on, Blackbeard left Bonnet stranded in Beaufort Island, North Carolina. Stede Bonnet traveled to Bath and received a pardon from the governor of North Carolina. However, Bonnet eventually returned to piracy in 1718. He was captured and hung in Charleston, South Carolina in December of 1718. His hanging was only one of many to come.
In an effort to curb the amount of piracy the British government passed the Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy. Prior to this law, pirates could not be tried and punished on colonial grounds and had to be sent to England to await further legal action (Leeson 1221). However this new law made it possible to try and convict pirates in the colonies (Leeson 1222). The reasoning behind this law was that officials in the colonies would be more likely to convict the pirates than the officials in England since they dealt with pirates more frequently. The Act did not just allow pirates to be tried on colonial grounds—it also “treated active pirate sympathizers as accessories to piracy and stipulated the same punishments for them—death and property forfeiture—as for actual pirates” (Leeson 1223). The effects of this law were seen in the new few years. Before this law, the number of existing pirates hung in between 1704 and 1726 was thirty one percent. However, in between the years of 1719 and 1726 sixty nine percent were hung (Leeson 1225). The number of pirates hung would only go up from there.
Due to the fact that colonies did not have a significant military force, pirates were allowed to roam about quite freely and plunder with relative ease, affecting economies and causing new laws to be put in place. Pirates also serve as an important point in the history of North Carolina; they forced officials from other colonies such as Virginia to take notice of the lawlessness of the colony and make attempts to correct it. The pirates even forced the British government to instate new laws in attempts to stop them. Even though pirates do not roam about the coast of North Carolina in modern times, they do affect other areas in the world. The lawlessness and corruption that piracy represents is still alive in our culture, and the reputation the coastline of North Carolina and her government can only give support to the massive amounts of influence these seafarers held.
Hughson, Shirley C. The Carolina Pirates and Colonial Commerce. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1894. Print.
Kirkpatrick, Jennifer. “Blackbeard: Pirate Terror At Sea.” National Geographic. National Geographic
society. Web. 13 Mar 2011.
Leeson, Peter T. “Rationality, Pirates and the Law: A Retrospective.” Google Documents. Web. 27 Mar
Woodward, Colin. “Stede Bonnet.” The Republic of Pirates. Web. 13 Mar 2011.
About the Author
Dustin Holsenback is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently studying music performance.