Thursday, October 8, 2015

Defending Blackbeard

Blackbeard the pirate has been a fixture in pop culture since he first appeared during what we now call the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 1700s. He seems to have become increasingly present in movies and TV shows of the last decade, although his portrayals have diverged increasingly from his reality. This is unfortunate, because the man and his life are more entertaining than most of what screenwriters have devised for him.

Blackbeard's origins are unclear, as are origins for most people of that era. It seems he was born in approximately 1680, likely in the English city of Bristol, and was named Edward Teach (alternately Tach, Thatch, or other surnames similarly-spelled). He was a merchant seaman, then a privateer, and acquired solid seamanship experience before 1713, when he became an apprentice to Benjamin Hornigold, the most infamous pirate captain in the Bahamas at that time. By 1717, he was a pirate chief in his own right with three sloops under his command, including the slave ship he captured, refitted, and made into his flagship Queen Anne's Revenge.

Teach knew the value of presentation. He rejected fancy dress in order to draw more attention to his personal appearance. According to Captain Johnson: “So our Heroe, Captain Thatch, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which covered his whole Face, and frightn’d America, more than any Comet that has appear’d there a long Time....This Beard was Black, which he had suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small time of Action, he wore a Sling over his Shoulders, with three brace of Pistols, hanging from Holsters like Bandoliers; he wore a Fur-Cap, and stuck a lighted Match on each Side, under it, which appearing on each side of his Face, his Eyes naturally looking Fierce and Wild, made him altogether such a Figure, that Imagination cannot form an idea of a Fury, from hell, to look more frightful."

While Pyrates in general contains a good dose of mythology and sensation, this description is not contradicted by contemporary accounts, including one by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who led the final expedition against Blackbeard and fought him to his death. (Cordingly) Why fictional depictions of Blackbeard omit the detail of the lit matches in his hair, I do not know, because I find that detail the most fascinating.

But Edward Teach may have presented so fearsome an image that it led to his destruction. "Blackbeard was a victim of his own reputation, attacked and killed more for what he represented than what he actually did," Kostam writes.

The Golden Age of Piracy only lasted about ten years, its high point arriving in 1718. Blackbeard was one of the most famous names of the era, and captained one of the largest pirate ships in the Caribbean. But perhaps his most notably, he made his fame through his reputation rather than from committing acts of murder and violence. There is no evidence that he killed or tortured a captive, and rather, many reports to the contrary. "Blackbeard had the charm and charisma to ensure the loyalty of his shipmates, while he also had the Machiavellian intelligence to outsmart them," says Kostam. Teach was literate, intelligent, and capable. He possessed great charm and was popular with his crew.

Blackbeard's own variation on the Jolly Roger: A skeleton
stabbing a heart while toasting the devil.

But the pirates were driven from the Caribbean by Woodes Rogers, governor of Bahamas and former buccaneer, who teamed with Hornigold, who had himself taken the pardon offered by the British government and and become a pirate hunter. And thus Blackbeard moved his operations to America.

"Almost single-handedly he engineered the pirate crisis that swept North America in the summer of 1718," Kostam writes. Teach blockaded Charles Town, South Carolina, with four ships for almost a week and sent the town into a panic, although all he demanded was a chest of medicine (possibly to treat syphilis or yellow fever). "Blackbeard wasn’t there to make a fortune in plunder. He was there to make a point." 

Blackbeard then asked Charles Eden, governor of North Carolina, for a pardon in return for a promise to mend his piratical ways. He beached two of his ships, including Queen Anne's Revenge, and marooned a large part of his crew in order to set up a smaller base on Ocracoke Island. Two months later, it seems he had returned to piracy, though there is no hard evidence to support this--a fact which made no difference to his pursuers or the courts. During this time, the need to maintain control over what remained of his crew led to Teach's only recorded act of violence--in a drunken night with three of the crew, he fired two pistol shots under the table in his cabin, and hit his second-in-command Israel Hands in the knee. (Israel Hands has now been fictionalized as well, in Treasure Island and other pirate tales.)

When the infamous pirate Charles Vane passed through the area, his crew joined that of Teach for a week-long bacchanal, an association which helped lead to Blackbeard's destruction. Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, besieged by political opponents, was infuriated that North Carolina was unable to stop the predations of pirates. He may also have had financial and political reasons to pursue Blackbeard, including a hope of annexing the colony of North Carolina into Virginia. Spotswood sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy of Virginia to surprise Blackbeard in his settlement on Okrakoke Island. In the ensuing bloody fight, Maynard provided the death blow that put an end to the life and career of Edward Teach. 

Blackbeard's body was decapitated, and his head hung from the bowsprit of Maynard's ship. And then, as if the man himself had not already made a dramatic enough tour of the eastern seaboard, his skull then made an equally colorful journey--at least according to local legend. From his head being displayed in Newport News, Va., the skull was next made into a drinking vessel in Williamsburg. An object purported to be that cup is now part of the Edward Rowe Snow collection at the Maritime Museum in Newport News.

In 1996, the wreck of the Queen Anne's Revenge was discovered off the coast of North Carolina, where it continues to provide a bounty of artifacts. 

J. M. Barrie referred to Captain Hook as "Blackbeard's bo'sun," but it seems likely this is only another one of Peter Pan's tales. Peter also believed he killed Blackbeard himself, which makes the rest of his story suspect. (As we find in The Stowaway, what we learn of famous figures is not necessarily what is true.)

Today Blackbeard continues to be an iconic personality, a trajectory started perhaps by Captain Johnson and later perpetuated by scores of stories and films. Perhaps he would be entertained by his continued popularity, especially given how neatly he orchestrated his reputation and thus his fame, but I imagine he would be bemused by some of the interpretations.

His first fictional adventure was the "serio-comic ballet of action, in two acts" Blackbeard; or, The Captive Princess, which debuted in London in 1798 and ran for many years. And Robert Louis Stevenson used the character for comedy in his 1889 novel The Master of Ballantrae.

Closer to our own time, West Country actor Robert Newton--he of "Talk Like a Pirate" fame--became a Blackbeard who is still an influence today . Evidently Newton had read Charles Johnston, and "by his overacting exuberance Newton also encouraged the perception of Blackbeard as a somewhat preposterous figure," Angus Kostam says. Kostam argues that Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, star of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, is actually closer to the truth. I think of a competent and frightening Jack Sparrow, and the result is impressive.

Blackbeard is currently played by Charles Mesure in ABC's "Once Upon a Time" and by Ian McShane in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean installment, On Stranger Tides. (Confession: I have a fondness for McShane that lingers from Deadwood, and at least he and Mesure both look the part.) Other current filmmakers and showrunners create stories about Blackbeard that are decidedly odd.

The three-hour Hallmark Channel 2006 miniseries seems
to be notable for its historical inaccuracies.

John Malkovich is the 2014 Blackbeard who has visions and did not die
in the battle of 1718, but went in search of the fabled
"longitude chronometer"

With Hugh Jackman's orphan-napping Blackbeard,
we have gone completely off-script.


Cordingly, David, Under the Black Flag, Random House, 1996

Johnson, Charles, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, 1724. (So popular was this book with readers that four revised and expanded editions were published within ten years. Captain Charles Johnson was a pseudoynym, but it's conjectured that he was in reality Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.)

Konstam, Angus, Blackbeard: America's Most Notorious Pirate, Turner Publishing Company. 2008, Kindle Edition.

Rennie, Neil, Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates, Oxford University Press, 2013.


  1. In the novel on which the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie is loosely based, Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides, Blackbeard's use of the lit matches is related to his magic, since Blackbeard had learned magic from "an old magician from England… [who] was trying out a heavy piece of resurrection magic. I don't think he was very skilled at it, but he had with him that day a sixteen-year-old boy who'd grown up among the free blacks in the Jamaica mountains, a boy who, though white, had been deeply educated in vodun and had, just the year before, been consecrated to the most fearsome of the loas, the Lord of Cemeteries, Baron Samedi, whose secret drogue is low-smoldering fire" (found in chapter 10). The sixteen-year old boy, of course, being Teach (Powers uses the spelling Thatch in the novel), and the matches are his "low-smoldering fire".

  2. I'm struck that, compared with these other examples, the greatest discrepancy here with Teach's real life is his youth in Jamaica. Heh.

    That book is in my TBR stack. Perhaps it's time to bump it to the top.

    1. Powers is always conscientious about his secret histories.

      I like the novel quite a bit, myself, and was saddened when the PotC franchise grabbed it mainly because it meant that the novel itself will now never be filmed (though I do like the film we did get, loosely connected to the novel as it is, so it isn't a total loss).