My book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, recounts a fictionalized story of Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Thatch or Teach and his power and popularity.. Set in the early 18th century, the book tells about people who knew him, his business, and his eventual conflict with Governor Spotswood of Virginia. 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. In his business, he visited most major ports on the east coast and corresponded with governors and attorneys-general. Consequently, he had regular customers who paid for the goods he sold. Though he was very powerful, there has never been evidence that he killed anyone.
Under the rules that existed in his time, Blackbeard sometimes operated legally with a royal pardon, and sometimes without the pardon. However, Blackbeard’s power and popularity rested on his position as a sea captain and commander of a large fleet, regardless of legalities.
Blackbeard was, and still is, genuinely popular. For example, he became captain by election by his crew. A powerful and popular commander, seamen wanted to sail with him. Sailing with Blackbeard was safer and more profitable than the alternatives.
Pirates are Popular
Everyone knows Blackbeard as a pirate. Museums up and down the east coast present his story, telling 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 strong and fiercely independent: they were powerful and popular. 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 vessels wherever they went. On the sea, no law enforcement existed. The famous pirates, like Captain Kidd, who were caught and executed for crimes were seized on land surreptitiously, not at sea.
Blackbeard didn’t actually break laws, but conducted his business independently. He never sought the support of bureaucrats and politicians. When it suited him, he paid for a pardon, but he always decided the course for his business in consultation with his crew and not any public authority.
Blackbeard became powerful and popular by succeeding in his business: he delivered goods to virtually every port at prices that people were happy to pay. His success in trade led him to increase the size of his fleet. At sea, he seized many vessels and their crews often chose to continue sailing with him.
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 writes about writing 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 had so many wives!!!