As a young boy, I was fascinated by tales of swash-buckling pirates … three decades on and not much has changed. So where better to discover stories of real life pirates than Bristol – a city where echoes of the name ‘Blackbeard’ are still heard today. What happened here at Bristol’s docks and harbour during the 18th Century? Why do locals speak of historic pubs in reference to pirates? Who was the legend known as ‘Blackbeard’? With my detective hat firmly on, I visited Bristol to find out …
Bristol’s harbour has been a bustling hub of marine trade for centuries. The booming tobacco and slave industries of the 18th century were much kinder to the city than those exploited by them, generating wealth and prominence. The other by-product came in the form of piracy . Pirates were drawn to the harbour like a magnet, looking for a particular kind of treasure… profit.
These were indeed strange times. While piracy was an illegal act, privateering was not. With a letter of marque from the government, privateers had permission to loot and commandeer enemy ships, as long as they provided a percentage of the bounty in return. If you ask me, the ‘people in power’ did rather well here. Not only did they have other folks doing their dirty work for them… but they also got paid for it! Despite this supposedly ‘legal’ practice, piracy was big business during the 18th century, and Bristol is rumoured to have had quite a few of them.
‘Blackbeard’ and Friends…
So was there an infamous pirate named Blackbeard? Who lodged smoking fuses within his hair to appear intimidating? The answer by most accounts seems to be yes. Was this (over) dramatic, ship-snatching villain from Bristol? Allegedly so. Blackbeard the man is thought to have been Edward Teach (or ‘Thatch’), born in the Redcliffe area of Bristol around 1680. In adult life, Teach’s involvement in piracy earned him a crew 400 strong. His long distinctive facial hair led to him being called ‘Blackbeard’, and a fearsome reputation proceeded. The story goes that Blackbeard captured and looted some 23 ships during his reign of terror around the seas of the Caribbean. One such vessel which was captured in 1717, he famously renamed ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’. In November 1718, Blackbeard was killed by a group of soldiers and sailors during a sea battle off the coast of North Carolina. It is said the infamous pirate had his throat slashed, and suffered 5 gunshot wounds and 20 sword cuts.
Another pirate known to Bristol from the 18th century was Bartholomew Roberts. He was originally in the merchant navy and sailed from Bristol on slave ships bound for the Caribbean and West Africa. In 1719, pirates boarded a ship he was stationed on which resulted in his capture. Before long, Roberts himself turned to piracy and ended up becoming captain. Not only that, he was actually a pretty good one, taking 456 vessels in just 4 years. Just as Blackbeard had a few years earlier, Roberts met with an undesirable end at the hands of the British Navy. He was killed in battle in 1722, and his body buried at sea.
So where does one find hints of Bristol’s pirating past? Through the concrete mazes of streets and eateries, I discovered 5 spots that can easily be reached by foot
1. The Harbourside
Walking around Bristol harbour I could imagine the atmosphere busy with ships and merchants in the 18th Century. Slave-traders set off from these docks with Bristol-made rum which was used as currency in the Caribbean. While pirates returned here with booty in search of increasing their profits. According to old-wives-tales, Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) was born in a house just a stone throw’s away from the harbour. While on the look-out for pirates, there is plenty to see here including Brunel’s SS Great Britain, and M Shed Museum. It’s also a great place to have a drink and bite to eat while enjoying all the vibes that Bristol has to offer.
2. The Hatchet Inn
My walk around the harbour had caused me to feel rather parched, and so I stopped by at the Hatchet Inn to quench my thirst. Situated on historic Frogmore Street, the quirky pub dates back to 1606, and was supposedly the go-to drinking establishment for pirates, including Blackbeard. It is also said that the legend himself supplied the ale here! As I entered through the entrance a regular bellowed “watch the door, it’s covered in human skin!” At first I thought this remark to be the result of one too many shandy’s. Though it was soon confirmed by the bar staff that skin allegedly lies under centuries of shiny black paint layers. Photograph © Google Street View
3. Queen’s Square
In the 1700s, Queen’s Square would have been full of activity. Taxes from imported goods were collected at the custom house here. While dawdling, my attention was drawn to a plaque on a Georgian house displaying the name “Woods Rogers”. It turns out Rogers was a famous privateer who became Governor of the Bahamas. Born in Bristol in 1679, he is well known for rescuing his marooned comrade Alexander Selkirk from a South Pacific Island. This tale inspired writer Daniel Defoe to create ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Rogers was dedicated to suppressing piracy, and it was his men that fought and killed Blackbeard. Photograph © NotFromUtrecht/Wikipedia
4. Llandoger Trow
Llandoger Trow is Britain’s oldest pub and was apparently Blackbeard’s favourite haunt to kick off his boots and have a skinful. It is also believed to be the place where Daniel Defoe (our Robinson Crusoe innovator) met the rescued Alexander Selkirk. What’s that you want more? Fine, the Llandoger Trow is rumoured to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Admiral Benbow pub in Treasure Island. Add stories of secret smuggling tunnels underneath the floorboards, toss in a few ghost sightings, and top it off with some traditional pub grub. done. Photograph © NotFromUtrecht/Wikipedia
5. Hole in the Wall
My last choice… another pub (I’m following the footsteps of pirates – not a drinking habit). With a lovely green lawn to welcome and rustic decor within, this place is worth a stop-off. It is named after an 18th Century spy hole believed to be an old look-out used by sailors and smugglers. This could warn them of approaching press gangs – sailors were often tricked into getting drunk and forced to work on slave ships to repay their debts. The Hole in the Wall is also linked with Treasure Island. It is thought to mirror the Spy Glass Tavern in the novel (for obvious reasons!). Fortunately, I didn’t meet Long John Silver on this occasion. Photograph © Google Street View
Exploring Bristol’s pirating past was a great way to spend a few hours. To my relief, I made it through without any plank-walking whatsoever. My advice to take away from this experience? Watch out for: doors containing human skin, ghosts, the lure of ale, and most of all pirates! Escaping all these, there is so much to see and do in this cosmopolitan delight of a city … Read More for Further Suggestions of Things to do in Bristol.