Blackbeard: Power and Popularity

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.

Cover, Blackbeard’s Legacy

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.

Bath Harbor

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’s Business

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:

Blackbeard’s Flag

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!!!

 

Pirates and Law and the Development of Chocolate

 

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

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?

Diabetes.

 

Never eat more chocolate than you can lift.