Celebrating a Dangerous History at Hampton’s Blackbeard Pirate Festival



Hampton's Blackbeard Pirate Festival fireworks
Blackbeard Festival fireworks.

"What people know about pirates is what they've seen in the movies, and that's as far from reality as you can get," says Randy Gnatowsky. "Like walking the plank. That wasn't done until the movies came out." 

Gnatowsky, a retired 30-year veteran of the Hampton Police Department, is better known under his pirate alias, "Constable Heartless." He's the captain of Blackbeard's Crew, a group of living history interpreters who partner with the City of Hampton to throw the annual Blackbeard Pirate Festival. This two-day exploration of eyepatches, peg legs and cannon fire from tall ships invades Hampton's downtown waterfront each June, projecting visitors back in time to the early 18th century, when Hampton was awash in thieving buccaneers, and now forever linked with the most notorious of all, a certain flamboyant bearded pirate captain.

Decked out in period garb, the would-be swashbucklers in the nonprofit Blackbeard's Crew tell the story of piracy throughout the year at civic events, school functions and private gatherings, in addition to planning and staffing the annual Blackbeard Festival. "We do the heavy lifting. We find the crews that come in, we contract the entertainment, we work out all the logistics," the Constable says. Touted as one of the country's best pirate festivals by USA Today, their annual remembrance attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year, and that includes a bevy of kids dressed like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. "The festival is not just about piracy but about everyday life in the early 18th century. How people lived and made food, clothing, medicine."

Authenticity is key to the festival's success. "Doing this is challenging because you can't go down to your local living history store to buy stuff to use," Heartless says. "We have to make it ourselves, and a lot of the times, the old-fashioned way because that's the only way to do it. That's everything from the clothing to cooking utensils to the artillery ... I mean, you can't just go out and buy an 18th century cannon."


Meka II preparing for battle.

This year's installment will mark the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard's final, bloody battle, when Robert Maynard's troop was dispatched by Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood to stop the sea captain's skullduggery at Ocracoke Inlet in 1718. And while he may still have to die in the festival's reenactment this year, there's some good news for Blackbeard: He's getting his old ship back.

"One of the dreams of Blackbeard's Crew was to have our own pirate ship," the Constable reveals. Up to this point, the festival's sea battles have rented a period ship for the Captain. "We wanted one along the lines of the original Adventure [the sloop that Blackbeard perished in]. We've got a ship, and we hope to get the title to it and have it sitting in the docks in time for the festival. The anniversary year is the perfect and appropriate time to make this happen."

Mark St. John Erickson, Daily Press reporter and the author of Out of the Sea Came Pirates, has been watching the Blackbeard festival develop over the years. "I took my kid to one of the first ones; he wasn't even walking yet. We dressed him up as a pirate ... he had a skull necklace, bandana and a big pirate belt, and the pirates down there tried to buy him from me; it was very funny."

Erickson is complimentary of the 25-man Blackbeard's Crew and the work they do. "They are people who started off as enthusiasts, and now some of them can stand up to any of the living history interpreters in this area, and that's saying something." He thinks that their annual June festival—where you might learn how to bake bread the old-fashioned way, tie a Bowline or learn the words to an old sea shanty—is "genuine stuff, based on real history, it's not made up. Harborfest is fine, but it's not focused. It's just water and ships. But the pirate festival has got a real story and a real connection to a very dramatic part of Hampton's past."


A family-friendly event, the Blackbeard Pirate Festival features Little Scallywag's
Lagoon, where mermaids or pirates can explore a pirate ship, play swashbuckling
games and create pirate crafts.


Blackbeard engaging in battle with Lieutenant Maynard.

First off, a couple of things you need to know about pirates.

This plank walking is ridiculous, Heartless says. "If a pirate wanted to feed someone to the sharks, he threw him overboard. There was no pomp and circumstance involved."  

Pirates never said "arrrrr," or "matey," and they weren't all bad dudes, not even Blackbeard, he adds. In fact, the pirates' looting of British and Spanish ships during the Colonial period was a necessary evil that contributed to the growth of the nation. 

"You have to look at pirates as being the Walmart of the 18th century. If it wasn't for pirates, people in the colonies could not have afforded anything. Everything was so heavily taxed. So they would have a network of black marketeers. The pirates were actually an integral part of the new world, necessary to getting an economy going."

"Nobody is entirely good or entirely bad," says Ben Cherry. "One thing about Blackbeard, as a pirate captain, he never took a human life. Fact. And he didn't have to kill anyone. He created an image, he prided himself on being the devil himself. That's what he tried to portray."

Cherry is the man who portrays the devil himself at the Blackbeard Festival. He's been a professional Blackbeard, and dedicated pirate historian, for 31 years. The Plymouth, N.C. actor studied method acting in New York and had a stint chasing movie work, but after appearing in a long-running theater production about Blackbeard in North Carolina, he carved a niche as an impersonator (and before you ask, the long hair and beard are all his, but the stark, black sheen is courtesy of Lady Clairol, No. 122). "Blackbeard was supposed to be 40 when he died, and I'm considerably older than that," the 73-year-old actor says with a laugh.

Blackbeard
Official Blackbeard, Ben Cherry and his wife, Dolores.

Costumed in full regalia (Cherry has "12 or 13" different handmade suits) and with red ribbons in his beard, Cherry has been the Hampton festival's protagonist from its very beginning—"there's never been another Blackbeard"—and he also appears in costume at Harborfest, as well as Pirates Week in the Cayman Islands, Louisiana's Contraband Days and other pirate-related celebrations. "What I appreciate most about Hampton's festival is that we do an accurate reenactment of the battle of Ocracoke Inlet," Cherry says. "Of course, we do it on the Hampton River."

Most of Cherry's work is speaking in schools. "I begin my program by talking with the kids about the time in which Blackbeard lived, and the golden age of piracy, which was the late 1600s to the early 1700s, and remind them that piracy has been around for longer than just a few hundred years. The ancient Egyptians were plagued by pirates, Julius Caesar was captured by pirates in 75 BC, held for ransom for 38 days, before he was emperor of Rome." [Side note: Caesar was insulted that his ransom price was so low.] 

Cherry's portrayal of Blackbeard is colored with the knowledge that there is very little that we truly know about the mysterious scofflaw's early life. "The history is so unclear. We don't even know what his real name was. We know that Edward Thatch was not his real name. He did use several aliases. Some say he was born in London; most historians say he was born in Bristol. Some say he may have been born in Jamaica, and there are even theories that he was from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. So I have him born in Jamaica but moving to Bristol as a young boy and becoming highly educated. I mean, again, we don't have any facts."

History does record that Blackbeard studied under the resourceful wing of master pirate Benjamin Hornblower and that his unusual theatrical flair had developed even before he had his own ship. For example, he would twist candles in his curls before battle, and light them.

"I don't do that," Cherry says. "And I can't imagine a beard with candles. Actually, he used slow matches, a special type of fuse that was lit for the cannon in battle. Before they'd take over a ship, he'd go down in the galley, grab a handful and twist and braid them in his beard, maybe stick one in his hat, and set fire to them. He'd step out on the deck and he'd look like his head was on fire."

Hampton will forever be associated with this fiery renegade because of what happened after his final battle, Cherry reminds. "At the opening of the Hampton River, they drove a big board spike next to what had once been the custom's house, and they displayed his skull, and they did it as a warning sign for would-be pirates. And, yeah, if you see the severed head of the most notorious pirate in the world staked out on the Hampton river, you might think twice about the romance of being a pirate."


Pirates setting sail in preparation for Blackbeard's last battle.


The Brigands entertaining at Mill Point Stage.


Canons firing at the Blackbeard Pirate Festival.

"To my mind, Blackbeard is sort of a flash-in-the-pan," says Erickson, whose book about local lore was compiled from a popular newspaper series he wrote in 2012: "Hampton's pirate history is bigger than Blackbeard." 

Erickson doesn't find the bearded one—whose reign as pirate captain only lasted a little more than a year—as interesting as other scavengers of the period, such as the Welshman Bartholomew Roberts, aka Black Bart, who took more than 400 ships during his raids. "Blackbeard's real connection to Hampton was that at least one member of his crew, his quartermaster, had some Hampton property. And that will tell you again that this was a tightly-interconnected world."

Like many researchers, he thinks pirates were driven by circumstance, not malice. "Blackbeard worked for Great Britain as a privateer and then was out of work. That's what happened to most of them. That's one of the primary forces behind the great age of piracy—a lot of them are people who had fought for the English as hired pirates and when the conflict was over, they had no other way to make a living." 

Hampton was home to many prosperous privateers, like Erickson's "favorite guy," the adventurer William Dampier. "Dampier and his crew went around Cape Horn, raided the West Coast of South America, and then Dampier left. He went across the Pacific, the wrong way, and had many adventures. Those were the inspirations for the books, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels." Dampier's crew was caught and captured with their loot. "They ended up working out a deal with the Crown where they paid their way out of jail, and that money ended up helping to found the College of William & Mary." 

The city became a place where pirates settled with their loot. "There were waves of people who came to attack this area, but there were waves that came from this area and went to attack somebody else." One local pirate, an English sea captain, Owen Lloyd, had a house on Hampton's Queen Street near St. Johns Church.

"Lloyd carried peas, corn, barrel-making supplies to the West Indies, came back with sugar, rum and molasses," says Erickson. "He's also the guy who took advantage of a Spanish ship that was stranded in the Outer Banks ... they hired him because they thought he knew the waters and he knew the way, and he said, 'yes I do,' and next thing they know, he and his [peg-legged] brother were gone with the ship." Lloyd's accounts formed the basis for a little book by Robert Louis Stevenson called Treasure Island

"You can't underestimate the immediacy of these stories," the writer says. "There was talk years ago of a downtown pirate museum. If there's a place for a pirate museum, it certainly ought to be in Hampton. They'd have a good reason to have one."


Pirates surrounding Governor Spotswood.


Battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay.
Featured in the 
Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers exhibition.


Blackbeard buries his treasure from Howard Pyle's 
The Book of Pirates. Courtesy
North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill.
Featured in the 
Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers exhibition.

People are fascinated by pirates, and new discoveries are still being made. The wreckage of Blackbeard's other ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, was discovered in 1993 off the coast of Atlantic Beach, N.C., and artifacts are still being excavated from the site (earlier this year, a paper fragment from the book, A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, by Captain Charles Cooke, was unearthed). In anticipation of the Blackbeard Festival, and to celebrate this year's 300th anniversary, the Hampton History Museum will be presenting a special exhibit, in conjunction with the South Carolina State Museum, called Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers. It will tell the story of piracy's golden age, including the story of Blackbeard's most brazen act—the blockade of Charleston Harbor.

"I don't think they were hated by the Crown for being bloodthirsty pirates," says Constable Heartless, when asked about Blackbeard's death, which signaled the end of the pirate age. "I think they were hated because the established order didn't want the pirate version of democracy to spread. You see, everything that was done on a pirate ship was done by vote. It didn't matter what station in life the sailor was, and the only time the Captain's reign was solid and unquestioned was during battle."

There's a lot that we should know about the pirates, he says, and the new ship will make a great teaching tool. According to the vessel's GoFundMe page, set up to solicit donations to help with the cost of acquiring the ship's title, Blackbeard's new tall ship Adventure is a cutter rigged ketch built in 1980, 36 to 39 feet long on deck and 60 to 65 feet overall. While it has a diesel engine, stove and other modern features, those will mostly be hidden from landlubbers.

After a careful renovation, the decks, rigging, sails, hold and master's cabin will all be made authentic to 1718. The new Adventure is sure to be a grand vessel, one worth losing your head over.

"I thought one year at the festival that it might be nice if Blackbeard actually survived the battle," says Heartless, with a soft cackle. "But that wouldn't be history."

The Blackbeard Pirate Festival will be held on June 2 and 3 on the Downtown Hampton Waterfront. Saturday 10 a.m.–10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.­–6 p.m.  The event is free. Facebook.com/BlackbeardFestival

The Blackbeard Grand Pirate Ball, a fundraiser for the pirate festival on June 1, will feature food, adult beverages, live music and more at The Historic Post Office, Hampton. 8 p.m.–midnight. $35 in advance; $40 at door. 757-727-8314. Hampton.gov/Parks

Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers, an exhibit developed by the South Carolina State Museum, will be on display through July 31 at the Hampton History Museum. $5 admission except June 2–3 when exhibit is free. HamptonHistoryMuseum.org

To donate to Blackbeard's tall ship Adventure fund drive, visit GoFundMe.com/http-www-BlackbeardsCrew-org.

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