Three authors have combined their talents to produce a fascinating search for the truth about Blackbeard. The book is seamless and absorbing. Whether they succeeded in their quest is arguable but following their discoveries and conjectures is entertaining and informative.
NAME: Blackbeard, The Hunt for the World’s Most Notorious Pirate
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Craig Cabell, Graham A Thomas, Allan Richards
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Seventeenth Century, Pirates, Privateers, American Colonies, Blackbeard, Thach, Thache, Teach, Carolina, Virginia, RN, HMS Pearl, Lt Robert Maynard, Alexander Spotswood, anti-piracy patrols
DESCRIPTION: Three authors have combined their talents to produce a fascinating search for the truth about Blackbeard. The book is seamless and absorbing. Whether they succeeded in their quest is arguable but following their discoveries and conjectures is entertaining and informative.
When we look back into history it is through the prism of our contemporary experiences. In today’s global community, where any minor comment can become viral, spreading through millions of computers, it requires imagination to go back to the Seventeenth Century, where the fastest communication was limited to the speed of a racing horse or a sailing ship. Britain was already building a network of colonies and trading factories around the world and the richest area was along the east coast of America and through the Caribbean. The control of these out-flung trading posts and settlements was fragile. There were few Royal Navy warships, spread very thin across the trade routes and a succession of campaigns, wars and armed disputes. The Governor of a Colony was not even required to travel to his seat of Government and the authors have considered this because Lt Governor Spotswood was hired by the Governor to go out to Virginia in his place.
The Colonies had their own local Parliaments made up of the wealthier land owning, or renting, businessmen. The Law was tenuous because the colonials were a mixture of criminals, traders, social outcasts, and remittance men, with a growing slave population. In that environment, the relatively small local ruling class were little removed from the pirates that preyed on their settlements and shipping. Tax evasion was a local sport and the Governor, or his Deputy, was required to walk a thin line between his duty on behalf of the Crown, and the need to be pragmatic and work uneasily with the local representatives who mostly represented their own personal and narrow interests. If tax evasion was the colonial sport, unseating Governors and Lt Governors came a very close second. The colonists wanted to do as they pleased and in freedom from taxation, until a threat appeared when they suddenly demanded troops and ships to be sent for their protection.
There was a lucrative trade in privateering during times of war. The privateer operated his own auxiliary warship at his own cost and recovered his costs and made his profits from taking merchant ships and claiming the prize money from the sale of the vessel and its cargo. During intervals of peace, privateers often continued to operate but then illegally as pirates. A succession of pardons was offered by the Crown and some pirates became important local businessmen and even Governors. It was not uncommon for a pardoned pirate to continue in his trade covertly and there were many, probably justified, claims of pirates working with the local colonial administration. In time of war some of the money and goods taken by privateers never reached the courts but was divided between pirates and administrators.
Given that written records were sparse, often uninformative, or deliberately deceptive, communications were very slow and often intercepted or lost in transit, it is hardly surprising that historians face great challenges in finding anything close to the truth. The stories of Blackbeard are a typical example.
Blackbeard enjoyed a brief career and to many it is a great mystery that he should become one of the most well-known pirates of the “Golden Age” of piracy. His real name and place of birth are mysteries, the story of his career depends on a very small number of individuals who all had vested interests in giving a conveniently distorted account. There are even some suggestions that the man eventually cornered and killed was not the real Blackbeard, but one of his associates. Lt Governor Spotswood certainly had a very strong vested interest in achieving a high profile victory over piracy as he fought a protracted battle with the colonial representatives who tried to frustrate his political intensions and to have him dismissed from his post. The Captain who is responsible for a series of stories about pirates, and particularly about Blackbeard, may not have been a former Captain, merchant or naval, and was certainly seeking to establish himself as a storyteller. Some of his sources of information, and some surviving court records of these individuals, were motivated by a desire to avoid hanging and their statements might be considered partial in the extreme. Of course this is again coloured by the nature of seafaring in those times. A captain might only ever have sailed as a Mate, or as a Sailing Master. His position in command depended on convincing a ship owner that he was capable to trust with ship and cargo. Some ship owners sailed as captains but left the running of the ship and its navigation to others. This was a time not of certificates and licenses, but of money. A commission at sea or on land could be purchased, the road to seniority was marked by money or demonstrated achievement.
Much has been made of claims that Blackbeard was an educated man, but that might mean only that he had some ability to read and write, or it could mean that he had received rare and costly education. Some have suggested that he was in fact the son of a wealthy family who had fled for some yet to be identified reason. This was not unusual at the time. Young men often fled creditors or the authorities, to sail in American waters, or to become colonists. At a time when most people never travelled more than a few miles from the place of their birth, it was very easy to create a new identity in another place. There are suggestions that Blackbeard relocated from Bermuda because a newly appointed Governor might know and recognize him. The authors have covered these points by declared conjecture because there simply is no hard evidence and even some stories circulated at the time have later been denied by the individuals who may have known the truth.
This foggy part of history is further confused by American writers who have attempted to paint the colonists as men of principle and good character who were oppressed by a greedy foreign power. Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century, some colonists, who were a mixture of slave owners, dubious businessmen and lawyers, with a sprinkling of professional revolutionaries and criminals rose up and threw out the British Colonial Administrators. One man’s rabid revolutionary and criminal can become another’s freedom fighter and it is to be expected that later historians of the newly created nation state should turn a blind eye to some of the less attractive characteristics of the founding fathers of their nation.
The authors have been forced to complete their account of Blackbeard with conjecture, but they have been honest in identifying those areas where there is no certainty, only probability, and sometimes low probability. That makes the book no less entertaining and adds to its charm. Many readers will feel that effective new light has been cast on the legend of Blackbeard and the authors have done an effective job of painting a picture of the times and pulled together the sparse information from many sources to increase the amount of reasonably solid facts. They have also pointed out that every pirate needed to establish a violent reputation to spread fear and reduce the likelihood that his prey would stand and fight. This was very important because, although Blackbeard’s “Queen Anne’s Revenge” was a large pirate ship, with an armament of perhaps 40 guns, most pirate vessels were small schooners that were lightly armed with less than 10 guns, and depended on being able to board the victim and rapidly subdue resistance. From the fragments of information available, a pirate might mount 20 guns, but only have a few of those in firing condition with shot and powder available onboard. There are also accounts of some pirates carrying wooden guns to make their armament appear stronger than it was. There would also have been weapons mounted that were intended to control the crew in the event of mutiny and which were unable to be used against another vessel. Many victims carried more guns than the pirate vessels and a few could even rival the number of crew. In those situations, pirates were not assured of success and a determined merchant captain could fight off an attack by one or two pirate schooners.
One reason that pirates used small lightly armed schooners, other than because they were easier to capture from the original owner, was that they could operate in shoal water that was too dangerous for a warship. That meant that they could sail out, take a few merchant ships or simply take part of the cargo, and then sail back into shallow reef and sand bank strewn waters where the RN could not follow them. In the event, Spotswood had to persuade two Royal Navy captains to provide the crews for schooners, paid for by Spotswood, and lightly armed, to enable them to attack Blackbeard in his base in another Colony and beyond Spotswood’s jurisdiction.