Today, the Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the pirates off the North Carolina coastal islands in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The pirate era ended, for the most part, when Edward Teach, “Blackbeard,” met his end 298 years ago.
From the History of North Carolina, Volume I, published in 1919:
In none of the colonies, during the seventeenth century, was there that condemnation of smuggling and that horror of piracy characteristic of more highly organized communities and of more enlightened ages, and the freebooter with a rich cargo for sale knew well enough that neither in Boston nor in New York, in Philadelphia nor in Baltimore, need he fear too close a scrutiny into his title to his property if he were liberal enough with his presents and his rum, and if his prices were satisfactory.
Besides, the extent to which piracy flourished in Carolina and in the other proprietary colonies was greatly exaggerated.
Most of the reports on the subject came from crown officials, or from officials of crown colonies, who made but little distinction between smugglers and pirates.
Their reports moreover were part of the propaganda carried on for many years for the purpose of discrediting the proprietary colonies in order to pave the way for their seizure by the Crown.
Nevertheless the evil was serious enough and efforts to induce the colonial authorities to exterminate it proved unavailing.
Too many of the officials were hand in glove with the robbers.
In South Carolina, Robert Quarry, secretary of the colony, was dismissed from office “for harboring pirates and other misdemeanors;” his successor, Joseph Morton, was charged with permitting pirates openly to use Charleston harbor for securing their prizes; and John Boone was expelled from the Council for correspondence with the freebooters.
In North Carolina, it was charged that Seth Sothel actually issued commissions “to Pirates for rewards”; that John Archdale sheltered pirates “for which favor he was well paid by them;” that Governor Eden and Tobias Knight, the latter secretary of the colony and acting chief-justice, actually shared the pirates’ ill-gotten gains.
Perhaps some of these accusations were groundless, but that so many officials fell under suspicion indicates a low state of official morality.
Finally, near the close of the seventeenth century, the king, despairing of accomplishing anything through colonial officials, determined to take a hand himself in the matter, and by a judicious mixture of executive clemency and extreme severity soon drove the enemy out of all their strongholds except New Providence and Cape Fear.
In 1718, an English fleet captured New Providence.
“One of its immediate effects, however,” as Fiske observes, “was in turn the whole remnant of the scoundrels over to the North Carolina coast, where they took their final stand.”
Among the noted pirates who had made their headquarters at New Providence were Edward Teach, or Thatch, better known as “Blackbeard,” and Major Stede Bonnet.
The former was merely a pirate,— a swaggering, merciless brute without even that picturesqueness of personality which has clothed so many of his kind with romantic interest and robbed their careers of the horrors which the naked truth would inspire.
The latter was a gentleman of birth, wealth and education, who had already won distinction and rank as a soldier when, catching the contagion of the times, in a spirit of adventure, he turned his back upon all and joined “Blackbeard” in his career of crime.
After being driven from New Providence, “Blackbeard” made his headquarters at Bath, Bonnet at Cape Fear, and together they harried the coast from Maine to Florida.
But the day had passed when it was considered respectable to hold dealings with pirates, and the evil repute which their wild deeds brought upon North Carolina together with the lethargy of the officials in dealing with them, aroused the indignation of such men as Edward Moseley and Maurice Moore.
They could effect nothing, however, because, as it was currently believed and afterwards proved, some of the highest officials, including certainly the secretary of the colony, and possibly the governor, were beneficiaries of the pirates, and refused to move against them.
The blows which destroyed piracy in North Carolina waters, therefore, came from South Carolina and Virginia.
Governor Robert Johnson of South Carolina had suffered a deep official and personal humiliation at the hands of “Blackbeard” and was eager to wipe out the disgrace.
When, therefore, he learned in the summer of 1718, that a pirate was successfully operating off the coast of the Carolinas, he promptly fitted out an expedition under Col. William Rhett, a daring and experienced seaman, and sent him in search of the pirate.
Rhett found his enemy lurking behind the bars at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and after a desperate battle of five hours captured him.
He proved to be none other than the notorious Bonnet.
Carried at once to Charleston, Bonnet was tried, convicted, and hanged.
A few weeks later, Governor Spotswood of Virginia receiving information that Teach was in Carolina waters with a prize, secretly fitted out two sloops manned with crews from British men-of-war then stationed in the James River, placed them in command of Lieut. Robert Maynard of the royal navy, and sent them in search of the freebooter.
Maynard found Teach near Ocracoke Inlet and on November 22, 1718, attacked him.
The battle long hung in doubt.
Fortune finally seemed to favor the pirates when Teach at the head of a strong attacking party boarded Maynard ‘s sloop.
Maynard, however, had adopted a stratagem to bring about this very movement, and his men who had been hiding below, now rushed on deck, and in a desperate hand-to-hand conflict killed “Blackbeard” and overpowered his followers.
Of “Blackbeard ‘s” crew of eighteen men, one-half had been killed outright; the other half were made prisoners, carried to Virginia, tried and convicted of piracy.
The victories over Bonnet and Teach were decisive blows to piracy along the Carolina coast, and after a few more years the black flags of the buccaneers disappeared from our seas.
The Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s image of “Blackbeard,” circa 1725.