So—the carpenter with the dead eyes, the man with the ageless knowledge, had moved on from plantations to slave ships. That made sense.
“The Princess. Cheers, Thatch.”
The British were coming after Blackbeard, of course. I later found out it was a force led by Lieutenant Maynard of HMS Pearl. A reward had been put on Blackbeard’s head by the governor of Virginia after merchants made a noise about Blackbeard’s habit of sailing from Ocracoke Bay and taking the odd prize here and there; the governor worried that Ocracoke inlet would soon become another Nassau. The governor didn’t like having the world’s most infamous pirate in his back-yard. So he put a bounty on his head and so they came, the British did.
• • •
The first we heard of it was a whispered alarm. “The English are coming. The English are coming,” and looking through the gun hatches of Blackbeard’s sloop the Adventure, we saw that they’d launched a small boat and were trying to sneak up on us. We would have completely destroyed them, of course, but for one crucial thing. You know that party I was talking about? The wine and the wild boar? It had gone on. And on.
We were very, very catastrophically hung-over.
The best response we could manage was warning the row-boat off with some shot.
There were very few of us aboard Blackbeard’s ship that morning, perhaps twenty at the most. But I was one of them, little knowing I was about to have a part in the ultimate fate of the world’s most famous pirate.
And give him his due, he might have been hung-over—just as we all were—but Blackbeard knew the water-ways around Ocracoke Bay and so off we went, weighing anchor and making haste for the sand-banks.
Behind us came Maynard’s men. They flew the Red Ensign and left us in no doubt as to what they intended. I saw it in Blackbeard’s eyes. My old friend Edward Thatch. All of us aboard the Adventure that day knew the English were after him and him alone. The governor of Virginia’s declaration had named only one pirate, and that pirate was Edward Thatch. I think we all knew we weren’t the real targets of these dogged English; it was Blackbeard. Nevertheless, not one man gave himself up or threw himself overboard. There was not a man among us who was not willing to die for him—that was the devotion and loyalty he inspired. If only he could have used those qualities in service of Nassau.
The day was calm, there was no wind in our sails and we had to use our sweepers to make progress. We could see the whites of our pursuers’ eyes, and they could see ours. Blackbeard ran to our stern, where he leaned over the gunwale and shouted across the still channel at Maynard.
“Damn you, villains, who are you? Where did you come from?”
Those on the ship behind gave no answer, just stared at us blank-eyed. Probably they wanted to unsettle us.
“You may see by our colours we are no pirates,” bellowed Blackbeard, waving around himself, his voice echoing strangely from the steep sand-banks on both sides of the narrow channel. “Launch a boat to board us. You’ll see we are no pirates.”
“I cannot spare a boat to launch,” called Maynard back. There was a pause. “I’ll board you with my sloop soon enough.”
Blackbeard cursed and raised a glass of rum to toast him. “I drink damnation to you and your men who are cowardly, dog! I shall give nor take any quarter.”
“And in return I expect no quarter from you, Edward Thatch, and nor will I give any in return.”
The two sloops under Maynard’s command came on, and for the first time ever, I saw my friend Edward Thatch at a loss for what to do. For the first time ever, I thought I saw fear in those eyes.
“Edward . . .” I tried to say, wanting to take him to one side, wanting us to sit together, as we had so many times at The Old Avery, to plot and plan and scheme, but not for the taking of a prize this time, no. To escape the English. To get to safety. Around us the crew worked in a kind of booze-soaked daze. Blackbeard himself was swigging rum, his voice rising along with his inebriation. And, of course, the more drunk he became, the less open to reason, the more reckless and rash his actions, such as when he ordered the guns be primed, and because we had no shot, filled with nails and pieces of old iron.
“Edward, no . . .”
I tried to stop him, knowing there had to be a better, more tactful way to escape the English. Knowing that to fire upon them would be to sign our own death warrants. We were outnumbered, out-gunned. Their men were not drunk or hung-over and they had the burning light of zealotry in their eyes. They wanted one thing and that thing was Blackbeard—drunk, angry, raging and probably, secretly, terrified Blackbeard.
The spread of the guns’ shot was wide, but we saw nothing beyond a shroud of smoke and sand which obscured our vision. For long moments we waited with bated breath to see what damage our broadside had inflicted, and all we heard were screams and the sound of splintering wood. Whatever damage we’d done, it sounded grievous, and as the fog cleared we saw that one of the pursuing ships had veered off to the side and beached, while the other seemed to have been hit as well, with no sign of any crew aboard and parts of its hull shredded and splintered. From the mouths of the crew came a weak if heartfelt cheer and we began to wonder if all was not lost after all.
Blackbeard looked at me, next to him at the gunwale, and winked.
“The other one’s still coming though, Edward,” I warned. “They’ll return fire.”
Return fire they did. They used chain-shot, which destroyed our jib, and in the next moment victorious cheers had turned to shouts as our ship was no longer seaworthy, lurching to the side of the channel and listing, its splintered masts grazing the steep-sided banks. Meantime, as we bobbed uselessly in the swell, the chasing sloop nosed up on our starboard side, giving us a good opportunity to see what strength they had remaining. Precious little, it looked like. We could see a man at the tiller, with Maynard by his side gesturing as he cried, “Pull alongside, pull alongside . . .”
Which is when Thatch decided attack was the best form of defence. He gave word for the men to arm themselves and prepare to board, and we waited with our pistols primed and cutlasses drawn, a final stand in a deserted back channel off the coast of an American colony.
Powder-smoke shrouded us, thick layers of it hanging like hammocks in the air. It stung our eyes and gave the scene an eerie feel, as though the English sloop was a ghost ship, appearing from within the folds of a spirit-mist. To add to the effect, its decks remained empty. Just Maynard and the mate at the helm, Maynard shouting, “Pull alongside, pull alongside . . .” his eyes wild and rolling like a madman. The look of him, not to mention the state of his ship, gave us hope—it gave us hope that maybe they were in even worse shape than we’d at first thought, that this wasn’t the final stand after all, that maybe we’d live to fight another day.