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Pirates of Topsail Island
The terrors of the high seas and the pirates who roamed the bays and inlets of Topsail Island.
Origin of the Topsail Name
Topsail Island was a quiet barrier island at the end of the graveyard of the Atlantic. The island’s tall pines and the wide-spread shrub oaks were perfect for concealing pirate ships that hid in the island’s bays and inlets, waiting for unwitting merchants to sail by. Local legend says the name of our island comes from the topsails of the pirate ships which were just visible over the treetops. The merchant ships became wary of the topsails of pirate ships and kept a sharp watch as they navigated the island. Thus became the name of Topsail Island.
Edward Teach, or Blackbeard, was the most notorious pirate on the coasts of North Carolina near Topsail Island. He was a giant of a man and ferocious in battle, with a long dark beard decorated with colored ribbons that gave him his name. The cunning pirate-inspired terror in the minds of his foes by placing lit matches in his beard. The smoke curled around his face in battle, and make him look like the devil himself.
Blackbeard sailed the Queen Anne's Revenge up and down the coasts of eastern North America and his notoriety grew with every ship he captured. Not even warships were safe after Blackbeard fought the Scarborough south of Saint Kitts.
In 1718, Blackbeard made his boldest move yet when he led a band of pirates to blockade the Charleston harbor, one of the richest ports off the coast of North America. Before Charleston could raise arms against the pirate, Blackbeard had captured nine ships and taken hostages and cargo worth 6,000 in gold. The townsfolk of Charleston were forced to hand over chests full of medicine to the pirates before they released the prisoners, naked and stripped of their wealth.
Eventually, he became so rich that he took up the King’s offer of a pardon and lived several years as a citizen of Bath. He bought a house in the town and married a local girl, but soon he grew restless. Some say he hid his ship on Topsail Island and disappeared for months on end to roaming the high seas. Far from being under the rule of the crown, Blackbeard attacked friend and foe alike.
When Blackbeard sailed back with his latest prize, a pair of British warships cornered him off the coast of Ocracoke. The men were drunk and surprised by the sudden appearance of the Navy, and were slow to return fire. Cannons raging, Blackbeard's men injured the first ship and boarded it, only to find half the crew had been lying in wait. A brief but fierce battle began, sword to sword and pistols blazing. Blackbeard himself matched swords with the daring Captain Maynard and he knew he had met his match. When the smoke cleared, the cutthroats had been put to the sword and Blackbeard himself had been slain. They strung up his head from the bowsprit, a grisly trophy of their mighty battle, and flung his body into the sea.
Blackbeard wasn't the only pirate in Carolina waters. Stede Bonnet was a gentleman that took up piracy after experiencing marital problems at home with his nagging wife. Despite his total lack of experience sailing ships, he bought a sloop he renamed the "Revenge" and hired a crew of rapscallions to sail it from his home in Barbados, taking his entire library with him. Bonnet was not like other pirates. He paid his crewmen wages instead of a share of the booty and let the ships he captured go after plundering all their valuables. However, no ship from Barbados was spared as, in an attempt to keep his life of piracy from the ears of his wife, he set them ablaze.
For a man who had never commanded a ship before in his life, Bonnet was very successful until he met Blackbeard in the Bay of Honduras. As soon as Blackbeard took one step onto his ship, Bonnet became a prisoner in all but name. He was confined to his cabin as Blackbeard took control and put his lieutenant, Richards, in control. Bonnet eventually regained control of his ship, but after several years of successful piracy, he and his men had become rich enough to retire. Leaving his ship in the command of his crew, Bonnet secretly visited the governor of Carolina to gain the King's pardon. While he was gone, however, Blackbeard double-crossed him. When he arrived back at the ship, he discovered that Blackbeard had sailed off with his share of the plunder and any man who would join him. Those faithful to their captain had been marooned on a sandbank without bread or water. Bonnet rescued his men after two nights and set off in pursuit of the Queen Anne's Revenge. He never caught her. After several more years of piracy, he was caught sailing up the Cape Fear River and was hanged for piracy.
Edward Teach, Anne Bonney, and Mary Read
Though pirates like Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach went down in history as terrors of the seas, not all great pirates were male. Anne Bonney and Mary Read were famous female swashbucklers that gained almost as much renown as their male counterparts. Anne Bonney was the daughter of a prosperous Carolina plantation owner who dreamed of a life of adventure. At 13, she killed a servant girl in a fit of rage but she wasn’t disowned by her father until she ran away with a poor sailor for a life on the seas. She stayed with Bonney until she reached the West Indies, where she met and fell in love with a pirate captain named Calico Jack Rackam. The two sailed off together aboard the Revenge, where she met her longtime friend Mary Read.
Like Anne Bonney, Mary Read was aboard the Revenge disguised as a man. Since women were considered unlucky aboard a pirate ship, Anne and Mary had decided to live as men in order to stay close to their lovers. After meeting, the two women quickly discovered they were both hiding the same secret and became fast friends. Mary had lived most of her life as a man and had found her way aboard the Revenge after falling in love with an artist who had turned to piracy. As one story tells it, Mary’s artist was once challenged to a duel by a black-hearted seaman aboard the Revenge. Knowing he would never survive the encounter, Mary slapped the seaman and challenged him to a duel, killing him instantly before her lover was put into peril.
The women proved their courage when the ship was under attack by the Royal Navy. While the rest of the crew were drunk below decks, Anne and Mary fended off the attackers until they were overrun. The crew of the Revenge was tried for piracy and all were sentenced to hang. Only Anne and Mary escaped the noose after pleading they were pregnant. No one knows the fate of the two women, but some believe Anne’s father took pity on her and spirited her back home to live a new life under an assumed name.
Who Landed on Topsail Island
No one is sure if pirates ever landed on Topsail Island. Although local legend says that pirates hid in the inlets and preyed on passing merchants, no one knows if this really happened.
Let’s look at the facts. Certainly, Blackbeard was very active in this area of the Atlantic and his brief stint in Bath would mean that he would have sailed by the island. Some stories even suggest Blackbeard hid his ship along Topsail Island while he lived in Bath and returned whenever he wanted to do some legal privateering. The fact that Bath is not too far down the coast from Topsail Island gives the story some merit, but who can say for sure? As for the whispers of Blackbeard’s hidden treasure, no one is sure that Blackbeard ever buried treasure at all. Blackbeard was known for enjoying himself at ports with wine and women, and many suggest he lost his gold the honest way. However, some still believe Blackbeard stashed his treasure on Topsail Island before he faced his end at Ocracoke. It could still be out there, buried in the sand, just waiting for a great storm or an intrepid treasure hunter to uncover it.
As for Stede Bonnet, his travels with Blackbeard and the brief pardon he received from the governor of Carolina would have meant he would have sailed past Topsail Island many times. Just like Anne and Mary, Stede Bonnet was not based out of the Carolinas. However, experts say that Topsail Island would have been the perfect hideout for pirates and it’s hard to imagine the buccaneers would pass up the ideal setup for ambushing passing merchants. We may never know. Dead men tell no tales.