Pirate and Tourist Haunts in Golden Seas
The U.S. and British Virgin Islands host a wide range of visitors from North America and Europe. Eco-tourists, sailors, bar hoppers and simple beach lovers savor the majestic mountainous islands and clear turquoise waters. Another group of guests enjoyed the sanctuary, entertainment and trade opportunities of the Virgins during the “golden age of piracy.”
Mostly British and Dutch, some of the most celebrated pirates lived and worked in these isles. waters. Many carry their names. The pirate Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Thatch, is memorialized by the uninhabited Great Thatch and Little Thatch Islands in the B.V.I. And, in the historic town of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, he is honored by a 17th century Danish military tower that has been known as Blackbeard’s Castle for more than 100 years.
The British island Jost Van Dyke is the largest Virgin named for a pirate. Now, the home of two internationally celebrated beach bars — the Soggy Dollar and Foxy’s — and a small picturesque village, the mostly empty island is named after the Dutch slaver and pirate Joost Van Dyke. In the early 1600s, Van Dyke founded the first settlement at Tortola’s west end. Just off Tortola’s east end is Bellamy Cay, home of The Last Resort bar and restaurant. The Cay bears the surname of Black Sam Bellamy known as the “prince of pirates” for his sound leadership and great wealth.
Blackbeard, though, is the most famous pirate to have sailed these waters in the early 1700s. He also has the distinction of being ordered captured or killed by the colonial governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood. Like Blackbeard, Spotswood is also memorialized in geography: the town and county of Spotsylvania, Virgina.
Ironically, Spotswood, Blackbeard and Black Sam Bellamy (a Blackbeard associate) all served on behalf of the British against the French in Queen Anne’s War (1702 to 1713). Spotswood, though, ran in a vastly different circle, having fought under the Duke of Marlborough.
Blackbeard and Black Sam Bellamy sailed together out of Jamaica as lawful privateers attacking and capturing French and Spanish vessels. As the mysterious Captain Charles Johnson (who may have had friends in the business) wrote in 1735: “Blackbeard had served many years in the late wars in a Privateer in which he had often distinguished himself for his boldness. He was never thought fit to be entrusted with any Command, till he went a-pirating in the Year 1716.”
Blackbeard and Bellamy knew the advantages of the secluded harbors and weak governance of the Virgin Islands. Situated near Spanish Puerto Rico and along main shipping routes from South to North America and Europe, it was a perfect pirate lair. St. Thomas offered special attractions. Known as Taphus (Danish for beer hall) in the late 1600s, the town today called Charlotte Amalie was a free-port run by the neutral Danish.
Jean-Baptist Labat, a French priest and explorer visited St. Thomas in 1701. He praised the peaceful port as providing a place where French, English, Spaniards and Dutch could trade even during European wars. On the other hand, privateers and pirates also brought and sold captured ships and goods there. “Many small vessels proceed from St. Thomas to the coast of South America, whence they bring back much riches in the form of gold and silver coins or bars and valuable merchandise,” Labat wrote.
Even at the turn of the 20th century, locals in the islands recalled those free-wheeling days. The spoke “of the fortunes made, the sacks of doubloons, the boxes and kegs of Spanish dollars,” bewildering,” wrote Luther Zabriskie, who was U.S. Counsel in St. Thomas during its’ last days under Danish rule. “St. Thomas must have been a virtual paradise for fortune hunters in those days,” Zabriskie added. Charlotte Amalie’s Danish colonial architecture and duty-free jewelry provide glimpse of past riches.
In 1717, Blackbeard in his flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge, the most powerful naval vessel in the Caribbean, led a flotilla attacking towns and merchant vessels up the Lesser Antilles from Guadeloupe town, which he partially burned, to St. Kitts, where he plundered ships within sight of the most imposing British fort in the Caribbean.
He was heading north to East Coast British ports. Along the way, he likely stopped in Tortola and St. Thomas to visit friends and possibly women. Blackbeard had 14 wives (one in every port?), although he apparently didn’t confide in any. When asked if a wife knew where his loot was stored, he reportedly said: “Nobody but me and the devil knows where it is, and the longest liver should take all.”
It is known that Blackbeard did spent a few days at rest on St Croix, the largest Virgin Island. Many visitors today enjoy Blackbeard’s Ale, brewed on St. Croix and sold throughout the islands.
Blackbeard, though, enjoyed stronger drink. He reportedly mixed a dash of gunpowder with his rum. He then ignited it, enjoying the popping and flame. People with whom he drank, though, had to be careful not to get nosy. He told one who asked where he hailed from: “I come from hell and I’ll carry you there presently.”
His fun, though, was coming to an end. During that winter of 1717-18, when his raiding continued northward up to the Carolinas and Chesapeake Bay, he attracted the attention of Virginia Governor Spotswood. Blackbeard had already made a business deal with the colonial governor of neighboring North Carolina — a portion of his loot in return for a safe harbor in the Outer Banks. But, in Virginia, Spotswood was under pressure from wealthy and influential merchants to stop the brigand. Learning of Blackbeard’s location from an informer, Spotswood ordered troops to go by land to the then North Carolinian capital of Bath, a river town not far from ocean inlets. Spotswood also ordered naval forces to search the island of Ocracoke and Pamlico Sound. In effect, Virginia was invading North Carolina without legal authority.
At sea, two sloops of war under the command of Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who’d been offered a reward of 100 pounds for capturing or killing the pirate, caught up with Blackbeard on the bay side of Ocracoke. After an exchange of cannon and musk fire, which killed 20 of Maynard’s 60 men, the Lieutenant ordered his men to hide below decks. Captain Charles Johnson, writing just a few years later and possibly using eyewitness reports, describes what happened next:
“Then Blackbeard’s men pour’d in grenadoes; after which, seeing no Hands aboard, he told his men they were all kill’d; “Let’s jump in, and fall to Plunder,” Blackbeard says.
“Which they had no sooner done, but the Lieutenant and his men gave them as unwelcome a reception as ever they met with before. The Lieutenant and Blackbeard fired first at each other, and then they went to it sword in hand, whilst the men on each side were as warmly engaged as their Captains, until the vessel was all over blood. Blackbeard stood it till he had received above twenty wounds, five of them being shots, before he fell down dead.”
Lieutenant Maynard had Blackbeard’s head cut-off and taken to Governor Spotswood as a trophy. It was mounted on a tall pole on a Hampton Roads peninsula, where it was displayed for several years. Likely an 18th century tourist attraction, the place is now called Blackbeard’s Point.
Written by: Jeff McCord