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.
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!!!
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.