My newspaper this morning delivered the news about dictatorship in the world, and the role of communication in supporting or defying it. The stories told about actions taken by dictatorial bosses who did not consult the general public. Consequently, whether they liked it or not, dictators had their acts communicated to the public.
For example, three unconnected stories illustrate similar truths:
- The dictator Lukashenko in Belarus called out troops to put down protestors who claim he stole a recent election. In the old days, he would have shot a few people and gotten away with it. The protestors are organized and communicating with each other and the international press. Subsequently, Lukashenko alerted his Russian patrons that he may need military help. In a timely way, I’m reading about it in my newspaper.
- Israel imposed a national lockdown forbidding large groups from gathering, on the eve of the Jewish high holidays. Most importantly, the lockdown will last till October, making impossible worship of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by large groups of people sitting together. Ultra-religious Israeli citizens are very angry, and my newspaper presents the details.
- The Dallas Symphony for the first time during the pandemic held a concert in its usual concert hall for some of its subscribers. The symphony hall holds more than 1800 seats, and this concert played for about seventy subscribers. The program consisted of three relatively short Beethoven pieces, short because no intermissions were allowed. A famous pianist played with an orchestra of 35, under an Italian conductor who entered the U. S. by special arrangements. First steps taken against rules imposed by government, and now people everywhere know about it.
Communication has Changed Form
This blog is about as old as the current pandemic lockdown. In a way it’s a child of current trends in communication. In my lifetime, communication has moved from newspapers, radio and movies, to television, and to digital communication. Print media gradually faded into the background, replaced by cable television and digital media.
Many newspapers, book publishers, and movie theaters failed well before the pandemic lockdowns. However, fifty years ago the communications media provided widely watched and respected national news, as well as high quality popular entertainment and artistry. Newspapers and books printed educated commentary and thoughtful essays.
Newspapers Used to be Numerous
Today, instant images of events, distributed to a world-wide audience by electronic devices, stand in the place of the news reported in the old media. The time consuming business of creating thoughtful commentary today is replaced by partisan shouting on television and in newspapers. As a result, newspapers keep dying and the old broadcast television and theater-based movie businesses continue to shrink. In other words, we are seeing a Gresham’s Law in communications: bad news drives out good news.
Communication and Dictatorship
Like most complex changes, there are pluses and minuses to the transformation of modes of communication. In days when literacy wasn’t widespread and small elites owned the newspapers, newspapers could sway national leaders and affect policy. Elites monopolized national communications and could excite the public. They created fervor for whatever interested them. Newspapers could start wars. Dictators also used them to support their actions and abuse opponents..
The old dictatorships manipulated radio, movie and print communication. If they didn’t like a newspaper, they sent thugs to destroy the printing presses. They could forcibly take over radio stations and stop the showing of movies they didn’t like.
The dictator has a harder time monopolizing thought and communication when everyone is a communicator. For example, if Lukashenko sends in troops to support his rule, the images of the event will appear on cellphones and mobile media instantly and world-wide. His Russian patrons know that.
Cell Phones Tell the News When it Happens
Lukashenko can’t stop cell phones from working in Belarus and throughout the world. When Israel decreed the lockdown, the government couldn’t stop loud complaints. When the Dallas symphony took small steps at reopening, it was reported not only in Texas but in The Wall Street Journal.
Forms of Communication and Content
About eighty per cent of the readers of this little blog use mobile devices. In other words, people are reading this mainly on smart phones. Since I’ve already reached my 80th birthday this delights me, At my age, the feeling of being relevant is very enjoyable.
The digital world has no geographic limits. My readers live in India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other places. Because I write in English, and mostly about the lessons of American history, I’m not surprised my readers live mainly where English is spoken.
I can’t tell which blogs do best in which place. I guess comments about the contributions of women to history and visions of grandchildren are appreciated everywhere.
Communication and the Breakdown of Dictatorship
As everyone probably knows, state governments have imposed a pandemic lockdown on those of us living in the United States. We are also enduring a national election.
Local governors have seized emergency powers, without resort to public approval. They are miniature dictators, imposing rules by emergency decree. They dictate the size of group gatherings, spacing for social distancing, and the opening or closing of various businesses. Governors decree what size of group can meet where and where people are required to wear masks. State governors decree whether restaurants can open and when they can serve indoors. They dictate the distances people must observe when out in public. Governors make decisions about placing sick people in nursing homes or quarantining nursing homes.
These rules vary from state to state. Some states permit large numbers of people to carry on public protests. If protests become too violent, governors make the decision whether or not to call out the national guard. Social media report events in real time, instantaneously. Newspapers and television follow up with partisan shouting and little objective analysis.
It is hard to measure the effects of widespread instantaneous communication. How soon do people make decisions on elections? Do they wait for debates? Which is more prone to partisan manipulation and outright deceit: newspapers, television news reports, or social media?
Dictators have a harder time with social media. They can’t ban the use of phones and digital media without harming the general economy: business requires regular communication and ease of data collection. But with that, you get twitter, and personal tweets from the president down (or up?) to everyone, including children, and the reverse.
It’s the reverse that counts: dictators now can hear what people are saying and can’t control everything that’s said.
During the Golden Age of Piracy (the early eighteenth century) royal governors treated pirates as criminals, even though no established law of the seas existed. Pirates operated outside the law, and brought prosperity, and even chocolate. Pirates when caught on land could be held in jail for ransom or executed for crimes against the king’s justice.
Ship owners, to avoid being labeled pirates and hounded by tax collectors, could pay for a charter issued by the king’s bureaucracy. They could then sail their ships for the mother country and pillage whatever other ships they could find. A pirate with a charter complied with the law. He became a privateer, and on the seas he could break all of the laws that existed on land.
Pirate Ships at Work
Who Became a Pirate under the Law?
The general public saw through this and didn’t think of pirates as criminals. If ships brought needed goods to the ports of the new world and sold them at a fair price, the pirates who sailed them became popular. Blackbeard was popular during his lifetime and remains so to this day.
Of course, if pirates didn’t pay the ransom demanded by the law established by royal bureaucrats and governors for their charters, they could sell their goods at a competitive price. They could charge less for the same goods, compared to privateers who paid the price of the charters.
In the early 1700s only people appointed by the established monarchy could become governors and bureaucrats. Civil service exams didn’t exist. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses exercised power over local taxation, but the bureaucrats in London decided the cost of a ship’s charter for ships crossing the ocean.
Pirates operated outside the law and freely. On the seas they could make their own laws. They elected their captains and adopted a system of sharing the profits from their voyages. In this environment, pirates could enlist whole crews of ships they seized at sea as volunteers. Sailors decided to join pirate fleets for the feeling of freedom and the hopes of sharing in the ship’s profits.
Pirate captains commanded large fleets. For example, historians estimate that Blackbeard commanded a fleet of more than forty ships when he blockaded Charleston harbor in 1718. For more on this, see my book, Blackbeard’s Legacy.
Pirates, the Law, Science, and the Development of Chocolate
Not only sailors on rival ships joined pirate fleets. Anyone with a skill that could be used on board a ship could try to join. For example, people who wanted to see the world volunteered. A ship needed navigators, doctors, and a variety of specialists. If a ship operator planned to load agricultural products and foodstuffs, he needed a specialist or botanist to help with the selection, loading and description of the cargo’s uses.
William Hughes, a serious botanist, served on ships that plundered the Caribbean in the 1630s. Hughes was interested in the characteristics of the New World’s plants. A low ranking sailor, he manned a long boat that took sailors to shore during various raids.
Hughes used his opportunities to explore unknown coasts. He met with native peoples and took detailed notes on his discoveries. After he returned to England he published a treatise on New World botany, The American Physitian (1672). In it he included notes on sugarcane which he described as “both pleasant and profitable”. He described lime as “excellent good against the Scurvie.”
The longest entry in Hughes’ book addressed chocolate which he described as “the American Nectar.” He included a recipe and a long list of potential ingredients. His hot chocolate recipe is discussed by Marissa Nicosia of Cooking in the Archives in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “First Chefs” exhibition.
Pirates and Law: Chocolate is Still with Us
When Hughes sailed, Spain and much of Europe already drank hot chocolate. Columbus had brought the cacao bean to Europe more than a century earlier. Hot chocolate had already become a popular drink sold from street carts and chocolate houses.
Hughes didn’t say much about his experience as a buccaneer, but returned to his profession as botanist and gardener. He ended his life working at the country estate of a noblewoman, Viscountess Conway. In his later years, he published a book on grapevines, and later his notes on the New World.
Here is Marissa Nicosia’s plate of ingredients for hot chocolate (cocoa nibs, chopped dark chocolate, cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla, breadcrumbs, chili flakes, and milk):
Ingredients for Hot Chocolate
Jokes about Chocolate
An elderly man lay dying in his bed.
In death’s agony, he suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs.
Gathering his strength, he lifted himself from his bed. He slowly made his way out of the bedroom, and, with even greater effort, forced himself down the stairs, gripping the railing with both hands. With labored breath, he leaned against the door, gazing into the kitchen.
Were it not for death’s agony, he would have thought himself already in heaven: there, spread out on the kitchen table, were hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.
Mustering one final effort, he threw himself toward the table. His aged and withered hand painstakingly made its way toward a cookie when it was suddenly smacked by a spatula.
“Stay out of those,” said his wife, “they’re for the funeral.”
If Bob has thirty chocolate bars, and eats 25, what does he have?
Never eat more chocolate than you can lift.
Stuck in my house since March due to the pandemic, I now write short essays and letters instead of major 50,000 word pieces. I think short pieces are easier to follow, and from letters I seek understanding.
Last year, I completed a document detailing my experience being treated for lymphoma. Now I hate to remind myself about anything to do with that. I can’t look at the piece. It sits in my computer, like a sulking neglected child. It cries to me and makes demands, but I resolutely ignore it.
Instead, I started a blog. I also write letters to my grandchildren. These are actual paper letters, written by hand, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and delivered by the post office. Remember what those are?
Last week I received my first response, from my fourteen- year- old granddaughter. She writes, “It’s been forever since I’ve had to write a letter. Emails just aren’t the same.”
What a clever girl!!
She can write, and her handwriting is less cursive and much easier to decipher than mine. My writing is cursive destroyed by years of practice and annoyance at how long it takes to put my brain on paper. After all, there’s much more in my head than a few written words can say.
When I started my essay about lymphoma, I thought about my own personal history. For my generation, major events were communicated by letter. People understood what was happening from letters. I guess that’s why I write to grandchildren.
Understanding Letters and Family History
For example, in my family, letters went back and forth constantly. My mother lived in New York City, as did two sisters and three brothers. Two more sisters and a brother lived in Richmond, Virginia. My two aunts from Virginia came to visit every year when my grandfather was alive. They took the train and spent their time on board playing canasta, evidently with numerous other people taking the same trip. Always arriving with pockets full of cash and newly minted silver dollars which they used for gifts to the children, they came with stories, gossip, and jokes. The rest of the year, they exchanged letters with the New York family.
My mother wrote her letters using Hebraic letters, but they were not in Yiddish. She used the Hebrew script to write letters in English, as did her sisters in Richmond. The Virginians always ended their letters with a “Love y’all,” phonetically written out using Hebrew script. They understood each other’s letters without difficulty, though I’m sure I couldn’t decipher them easily.
In contrast, my father treated a letter from a brother in Europe or a sister in Brazil as a major event. He wrote most of his correspondence in Russian and kept his family’s letters to himself. The letters told him about the events of World War II, the murders of his parents and his brother’s serving in the Russian army at Stalingrad. He hid a few photos in a small drawer away from everything else, as though if we were to touch or see them they would bring harm of some kind. My father never spoke out loud about these letters, although in response to them we sent regular CARE packages to his family in Europe after World War II ended.
Letters, Meaning and Understanding
Letters aren’t like electronic texts. When we understand them, they show force and strength, weakness and sorrow, love and happiness. Every person has a unique handwriting and choice of how to say things. Understanding written letters allows us to know something personal about the person who wrote them.
Physical writing isn’t easy. A writer looks at the blank page and knows that somehow it needs to be filled with something meaningful that another person can understand. The way a person writes can tell a lot about the writer, apart from the words being inscribed. Letters are about understanding meaning.
All of my historical novels introduce fictional characters who read and write authentic letters that carry the story. The more recent the time period, the more material exists in libraries. Letters held in libraries sometimes are originals; sometimes they have been transcribed into typed versions. Seeing the old letters, the wording, the size of the script, and the force with which script was put on paper, gives us some understanding of the character of the writer.
Revolution and History as Seen from an Understanding of Letters
My latest book, Washington’s Shadow, is based on the personal correspondence of Leven Powell with his family and about his work for George Washington. Powell knew Washington personally and worked for him in many capacities for over thirty years. In his later years, at Washington’s request, he ran for office and served as an elector in the 1796 election.
Washington Surveying the Field
Leven Powell was a supporter of revolution and an owner of a mill and a farm. Like Washington, he looked to the west. He wanted growth and expansion, and the settlement of new land. Serving as a colonel in the field during the revolution, he spent much time writing his wife detailed letters. Here is one excerpt, describing his feelings about a meeting of truce with representatives of his enemy, the British military:
I have been uneasy at not hearing from you for some time… Since my last letter, this neighborhood has been honored by the company of great men… As the head of a flag of truce…I had the honor of breakfasting on the best Hyson Tea with the Commodore, General Clinton, Lord Dunmore and several gentlemen Officers. I was received and treated with great politeness by the whole…On board the “Kitty” vessel I found 12 or 15 Officers, the most hospitable, kind people I ever met. …their treatment of me was so exceedingly kind that on my return I sent them a present of 20 bushels of oysters, 30 loaves of bread, a goose and a turkey. It grieves me to see men of such sentiments as those engaged in such a cause.
What His Letters Say About Leven
Understanding this letter tells a lot about Leven. When he wrote it, he held the rank of colonel and led a small army. Favoring the American cause from the earliest days leading up to the first hostilities, he’d served in militias and was a friend of George Washington. And he was a gentleman. Leven didn’t see the British officers he met as monsters and enemies to be slaughtered. He found them to be kind, and favored them with a generous gift of food.
Washington’s Shadow is a novel, a story of Leven Powell’s children and the first wave of western expansion. Washington’s presence permeates their decisions. They took meaning from their father’s letters. The plot is mostly fiction, but the place and the events are historic and recorded in letters.
The Written Record and More Recent History
In 1940 Germany began massive bombing of Britain, known euphemistically as “The Blitz.” Letters, films, and official and private postings showed the bombings and their effects. When we understand the personal letters, films and postings we can see what it was like to live at the time.
For example, Britain’s Richmond Golf Club posted the following temporary rules after German bombs hit the course in 1940:
- Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the Mowing Machines.
- In Competition, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
- The positions of known delayed action bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.
- A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.
- A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.
These written temporary rules meant, “Let’s muddle through.” Muddling through at this golf club meant keeping the game going, regardless of circumstances. They were serious. In golf, a player normally can replay a ball from the same place and take a one stroke penalty. Bombs, in this club’s rules, are to be ignored.
Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently. They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.
After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.
Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action. Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships. Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.
But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children. When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history. Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago? Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.
Susan Constant docked on James River
History and the Need for Women
The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other. These people didn’t have descendants.
So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort. They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.
In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area. Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort. Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.
Indian Cooking Site outside Jamestown Fort
After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure. The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.
Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy. From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses. The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.
Women in Colonial Virginia
This is all basic stuff, but think. What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people. Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.
The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure: the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.
Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.
Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade. Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.
History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children
Is that so different from what we have today? Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households. They have the children and raise them. They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia. When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area. Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.
Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement. In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.
This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him. From that, the plot thickened.
Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.
Pirates and privateers influenced early American colonial history from its beginning. The original colonies depended on trade for survival. For example, in Virginia, the first large colony, trade involved the sale of tobacco in exchange for virtually all manufactured goods.
Mercantilism ruled the day. European countries attempted to monopolize their trade for the benefit of home countries. Royal authorities licensed ships and shipowners had to pay a fee for the right to operate. English trade with Virginia was financed through a system of credit against the following year’s tobacco crop. Goods in both directions came on ships.
Trade required peace and is depicted in the cover image for my first historical novel, The Wealth of Jamestown. The image is of a painting by Keith Rocco and is the property of the National Park Service.
Jamestown, 17th Century
Privateers, Pirates and Trade
Virginia prospered and grew, but for a good part of the seventeenth century England fought wars with European neighbors. Sometimes the wars resulted in the shifting of ownership of various territories. Thus, New Amsterdam became New York in 1667 as a result of an Anglo Dutch War. The Dutch won that war: they gave up a small settlement on the tip of Manhattan and received in its place the Spice Islands of Indonesia. They also won the right to sail ships up the James River to pick up tobacco, breaking the English monopoly on that trade.
European navies were small. During times of war, ships financed by the various crowns of Europe were supplemented by private vessels. Private merchant vessels received commissions and payments from the various governments. These privateers could conduct their business while acting in support of their kings and queens. The ships shown in the harbor in the painting were likely commercial ships owned by privateers. Depending on the year, they could have been owned by local Virginians.
Privateers armed their ships as law and order on the sea did not exist. Crews learned to operate cannons and could defend the ships if attacked. They did so partly because of their status. The governments and peoples of the day valued and admired the privateers, as mother countries and colonies needed trade for their survival and prosperity.
French and Indian Wars, Privateers and Pirates
In Queen Anne’s war (1702-1712), the English defeated the French and annexed large parts of eastern Canada including Hudson Bay. This was the second of three French and Indian wars.
A peace treaty ended the conflict in 1713, but Queen Anne died in 1714. She was succeeded by George I, the first Hanover King of England. Because the war ended, privateers lost their commissions and the revenue that went with them. England once again paid for a very small royal navy.
The English government required privateers to pay license fees (taxes) in order to sail and conduct business. Some paid the fees; the ones who refused to pay the fees were called pirates. With peace, trade expanded for all shippers, whether licensed or not. After 1714 pirates, who incurred lower costs than privateers, began to take over much of international trade. Privateers became pirates. They became a menace to their own mother countries.
The painting below, by Van de Welde the younger, shows the mother country’s ships (in this case Holland), fighting pirates:
War against Pirates
Blackbeard and the Return of Law and Order
In 1717 Blackbeard sailed a captured French warship known as the Concorde and renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge. With this flagship and a fleet of about forty other ships, he blockaded Charleston harbor. He became famous and his business thrived.
Authorities in London noticed . George I decided to beef up his navy. He also issued a pardon called a “Proclamation for Suppressing Pirates”. Under the King’s pardon the British Crown granted clemency to any pirate who surrendered to a governor of the colonies by September 5, 1718.
Blackbeard surrendered to the Governor of North Carolina and received an official royal pardon. As related in my book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, despite the proclamation from London, the Virginia House of Burgesses in November 1718 passed a law on “the apprehending and destroying of pirates.” With respect to Blackbeard, the House voted a reward of one hundred pounds, with ten pounds for each of his crew. The House, however, doubted their law’s legitimacy due to the king’s pardon, and refused to appropriate the reward money.
Spotswood, Blackbeard, the Courts and the Law
Spotswood disregarded the royal proclamation. At his personal expense he commissioned two sloops to find Blackbeard. He also appointed as commander of the force Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Maynard served on HMS Pearl, a royal navy ship anchored at Jamestown.
In October 1718, Spotswood learned that William Howard, Blackbeard’s former quarter master, had come to Williamsburg. The governor ordered a local justice of the peace to issue a warrant to detain Howard for trial. Soldiers arrested Howard, took fifty pounds from him, and arrested two black men who traveled with him. Fifty pounds in 1720 would be worth about $11,000 in today’s U. S. dollars. That was a lot of money in those days. Armed guards took the three men onto the Pearl.
Spotswood wanted Howard tried in an admiralty court without a jury, but the Governor’s Council disagreed. The Governor’s Council, an appointed upper house of the Virginia General Assembly, called for normal legal order. The Council declared that Howard and his two companions should be provided the normal course of law in civil court. Spotswood was determined and disregarded the advice of the Council. He insisted that Howard be indicted for crimes of piracy on the high seas. Spotswood insisted that Howard be tried by a special three-man jury Spotswood would personally appoint.
How Not to Try a Pirate
Well known around Williamsburg, Howard had powerful friends. On their advice, he responded by hiring a lawyer, James Holloway. Holloway quickly caused the arrest of the justice of the peace who signed the warrant for Howard’s arrest. Subsequently, the civil court, following demands made by Holloway, issued warrants for the arrest of Captain George Gordon and Lieutenant Robert Maynard who’d detained Howard on the Pearl. Holloway, on behalf of Howard, sued Gordon and Maynard for five hundred pounds in damages.
Spotswood wanted to demonstrate he still exercised the powers of government. In a trial conducted by jurors appointed by Spotswood, Howard was found guilty and ordered hanged. However, on the day before the hanging, Spotswood received a number of notices from London. One was a commission ordering him to pardon all surrendering pirates for all acts of piracy committed before July 23, 1718.
Spotswood released Howard and his two companions, and returned Howard’s fifty pounds. In response, Howard promptly asked his lawyer to pursue his case for damages against the naval officers in civil court.
To sum up, the English Crown, Virginia’s legislative representatives, and the courts replaced the pirates and privateers and the governor as arbiters of justice.
Does all this sound familiar? Here, a legislature passed laws without funding them, while an executive disregarded current laws to enforce abrogated laws. Irate citizens (the pirates and privateers) sought justice and compensation in the courts. Three branches of government checking each other, almost a hundred years before the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
My book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, recounts a fictionalized story of Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Thatch or Teach. Set in the early 18th century, it presents a story of Blackbeard’s use of power, the people who knew him, and his business. His eventual conflict with Governor Spotswood of Virginia forms the backdrop of the tale.
Blackbeard, a real person, commanded a fleet of over forty ships at the height of his power. He rivaled the navies of many countries of his day. For example, he blockaded Charleston harbor and lifted that blockade in exchange for a chest of medicines.
Blackbeard knew what he was doing. He visited most major ports on the east coast and corresponded with governors and attorneys-general. He had regular customers who paid for the goods he sold. There has never been evidence that he killed anyone.
Blackbeard was and still is genuinely popular. For example, he became captain by election by his crew. He was a popular commander, and seamen wanted to sail with him. Sailing with Blackbeard was safer and more profitable than sailing with weaker, lesser armed vessels..
Pirates are Popular
Blackbeard is known to everyone as a pirate. Museums up and down the east coast are dedicated to his story, especially about where he lived and how and where he died. The towns of Bath, Beaufort, and Ocracoke in North Carolina are very proud of their connections to Blackbeard. There you can see coves where he anchored and houses in which he supposedly lived.
At a book signing about a year ago, people from North Carolina with family members named Teach came to see me. They claimed to be relatives and descendants of Blackbeard and they were proud of the connection.
Why do people enjoy stories about pirates? A very old and rich literature depicts pirates as fiercely independent. They’re described as violent people, maimed in many battles but surviving them. They have lost eyes and limbs, show deep scars, suffer bad teeth, and wear peg legs. In the literature they prey on women, hide treasure chests, and leave complex coded maps. Little boys visiting the pirate museums love dressing up to the part: they wear eye patches, three-cornered hats, and shout “Aargh!!!” while waving little swords.
Blackbeard’s Use of Power: Reality Check
A pirate, by definition, is a seaman operating outside of the law. During Blackbeard’s day, local governments insisted that ships entering their ports be certified. They required ship operators to obtain licenses or pardons for which they paid. With the pardon, they were privateers; without the pardons, they were considered pirates. Accordingly, local governors collected fees from legal ship operators and shared in their profits.
In the eighteenth century, ships at sea had to fear larger better-armed ships wherever they went. On the sea, no law enforcement existed. The famous pirates who were caught and executed for crimes, for example Captain Kidd, were seized on land surreptitiously, not at sea.
Blackbeard’ use of power benefited his business. Whether or not he broke laws, he was very successful at what he did: he delivered goods to virtually every port at prices that people were happy to pay.
When he was assassinated in 1718 by hitmen hired by Governor Spotswood of Virginia, Blackbeard lived in North Carolina and held a legitimate royal pardon. Spotswood never consulted with the governor of North Carolina, disregarded Blackbeard’s pardon, and simply wanted a share of Blackbeard’s wealth. Who was the criminal then?
Have you heard of Spotswood? There’s a Spotsylvania County in Virginia and a golf course in Williamsburg that carries Spotswood’s name. In comparison, when Blackbeard died, he was a king of his day known virtually everywhere, and remains so. Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography mentions that he wrote poems about Teach when he began his newspaper writing career.
Blackbeard’s Popularity: His Flag
Blackbeard’s fleet of ships sailed under Blackbeard’s individual flag, easily recognized by many people in many locations. Today, we would call that marketing, and Blackbeard was clever at self-promotion.
From southeastern Virginia to Charleston there are numerous small museums devoted to Blackbeard. The stories they tell are multiple, and they sell a flag that is supposed to be the one he sailed under:
Does this flag frighten you? The skeleton wears a crown, is shaking something like a large drink in one hand, while his arrow points at a heart that he’s not looking at. He’s also smiling; in fact, the whole skeleton seems to be shaking with laughter. Was Blackbeard a comedian?
Some stories say that Blackbeard had fourteen wives. Others say his only wife was fourteen when they married. Apparently if a tavern maid could claim to be Blackbeard’s wife, that claim was good for business. That may explain why he’s said to have so many wives!!!