Sunday, July 05, 2015

Blackbeard's Capture of La Concorde or the Queen Anne's Revenge: the French Documents

Title page from A General History of the Pyrates by Capt. Charles Johnson [Nathaniel Mist], 2nd ed., published in December 1724.
Author of A General History of the Pyrates, Capt. Charles Johnson (who we know today was Jacobite newspaper publisher Nathaniel Mist) wrote that: "In the Spring of the Year 1717, [Edward "Blackbeard"] Teach and Benjamin] Hornigold sailed from Providence, for the Main of America, and took in their Way a Billop from the Havana, with 120 Barrels of Flower, as also a Sloop from Bermuda, Thurbar Master, from whom they took only some Gallons of Wine, and then let him go; and a Ship from Madera to South-Carolina, out of which they got Plunder to a considerable Value" and following these events, that "After cleaning on the Coast of Virginia, they returned to the West-Indies, and in the Latitude of 24, made Prize of a large French Guiney Man [La Concorde, later Queen Anne's Revenge or QAR], bound to Martinico, which by Hornigold’s Consent, Teach went aboard of as Captain, and took a Cruize in her; Hornigold returned with his Sloop to Providence, where, at the Arrival of Captain Rogers, the Governor, he surrendered to Mercy, pursuant to the King’s Proclamation."

Woodcut images from the first two editions of A General History by Capt. Charles Johnson. The first edition claimed "Thatch" was from Jamaica, but the second edition claimed him to be a "Bristol man born" named "Teach". The editions differed most in that Thache was paired with Stede Bonnet in the first edition, but with Benjamin Hornigold in the second. Why the variation?

Johnson/Mist wrote this passage in his second edition (December 1724), published a few months after the first (May 1724). These two editions are quite different. The first edition claimed "Thatch" was from Jamaica, but the second edition claimed him to be a "Bristol man born" named "Teach". The editions differed most in that Thache was paired with Stede Bonnet in the first edition, but with Benjamin Hornigold in the second. Most primary sources [generally, the Boston News-Letter] tell of Thache paired with Stede Bonnet. Only one report tells that Hornigold joined them in mid-October 1717 off the Virginia capes. Did something happen in those intervening months to change Mist's impression of Thache?Why did he suddenly make Hornigold Thache's mentor or master?

Historian Arne Bialuschewski, researching in Jamaica, found the deposition of Henry Timberlake in which he testified as to Hornigold and Thache sailing together (presumably in separate privateer vessels as Henry Jennings, James Wills, and Samuel Liddel had done the year before) to fish Spanish wrecks on the coast of Florida. This record from Jamaica was previously unknown to us today. The eleven wrecks were part of a flotilla of Spanish treasure ships caught in a hurricane and wrecked on July 30, 1715 near Cape Canaveral. Thache, who then lived in Kingston, joined Hornigold around the latter part of 1716 - perhaps part of early 1717. This happens to be when Johnson/Mist asserts that Thache met Hornigold in his second edition. It is not known if Thache had fished the wrecks before or if he and Hornigold received privateer commissions like Jennings, et al had. 

"X" Marks the Wreck Site from July 30, 1715

Johnson/Mist probably learned of this deposition after penning his first edition and and wrote his second edition which detailed Hornigold as Blackbeard's master with Blackbeard starring as the eager pirate pupil. He changed significant sections of text on both Thache's and Stede Bonnet's chapters. 

Mist, the polemicist, wrote from the standpoint of a financially-deprived criminal biographer and may have wanted his greatest and most "notorious" pirate to be shown receiving the wisdom and training of the "great pirate master," Benjamin Hornigold. The literary effect alluded to Eve plucking the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, unleashing evil upon the world. The bestowing of the QAR made the perfect "apple." Johnson/Mist may have waxed more rhetorical as he revised his first edition - and as he was frequently required to post bail and pay heavy fines.

Johnson's fantastic creation doesn't quite meet with reality. To be mentioned in the deposition implied that Thache was a significant player (not just now, after building a "notorious" reputation, but even in December 1716, when he essentially had no reputation), an independent mariner, not merely a crewman aboard Hornigold's ship. Furthermore, there is clear documentary evidence that Hornigold was not in command of the pirates that took La Concorde [QAR], as Johnson/Mist asserted in the second edition. The original pairing of Thache with Barbadian aristocratic pirate Stede Bonnet from the first edition seems more likely. 

Johnson/Mist must have assumed that Thache and Hornigold stayed together after December 1716, but they were probably never really "together" anyway. They can be found on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas as equals in July 1717, but there is no reason to assume that they were anything more or less before or then.

There are no contemporary images of Queen Anne’s Revenge, formerly the French slave ship Concorde. Archaeologists believe that the 1730 French merchant ship Mercure, shown here, was close in size and rig to the pirate ship.

The critical moment from which to judge the accuracy of Johnson/Mist's narrative was the capture of La Concorde, which Johnson/Mist attributes to Hornigold and Thache as his subordinate. This occurred November 28, 1717. Recently discovered French documents, detailed by Jacques Ducoin for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Division of Archives and History expose Johnson/Mist for a fraud. 

[Documents held in Archives départementales de Loire-Atlantiquea Nantes, les Archives nationales Paris et la section outre-mer des Archives nationales a Aix-en-Provence.] These French documents have been published as Jacques Ducoin, "Research Report in French Archives Nantes on the ship La Concorde captured by pirates in 1717," North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Division of Archives and History (July 2001).
The details, independent of Johnson/Mist, were recorded by depositions given to French authorities by Capt. Pierre Dosset and his crew following the incident and even some months after the incident. These depositions neither mention Hornigold by name nor do they mention a ship as large as thirty-six guns, which Hornigold allegedly captained at the time, the Ranger.

The first document to appear after the capture came from Capt. Pierre Dossett when he made his report December 10, 1717 to Mesnier, steward of the Martinique:

"... on 28 November, being 60 leagues by 14 degrees by 27 minutes of latitude north, was attacked by two English ships pirates, one 12 and the other of 8 guns armed 250 men commanded by Edouard Titche Englishman."

Thache came directly from the Delaware Capes where, on 12 Oct 1717, he took Capt. Lindsey and then proceeded to the Virginia Capes where, on 18 Oct 1717, he and Benjamin Hornigold (in his 36-gun Ranger) worked together to take Capt. Prichard from St. Lucia. Perhaps this gave Thache the idea to head east of Martinique to capture La Concorde, or some other rich slave ships coming from the coast of Africa. Thache parted from Hornigold and sailed south from the coast of Virginia, probably traveling through the Florida Channel, north of Santo Domingo, where another pair of pirates, one with a 12-gun ship like Thache's, captained by one "Nicholas" took a French vessel on 20 Oct 1717. It would be impossible for this to have been Thache because he could not have gone that far in only two days, so the first report of it being him was wrong. He could easily have made Martinique by 28 Nov 1717, however, to take La Concorde. NOTE: It is interesting to conjecture that Thache may have received some intelligence about the French Nantais slave ship that induced him to travel south at the same time. The documents mention how friendly the inhabitants of Santo Domingo,  St. Vincent, and the Grenadines were to the pirates. Presumably, this was a general American attitude as opposed to British. Perhaps Capt. Prichard from St. Lucia, an island in that chain, or someone on his ship told Thache about expecting a large slave shipment to Martinique. Thache then rushed to that area to take advantage of the opportunity.


Edward Thache's Flag? Or Edward Low's?
Pirate flag usually attributed to Edward Thache. Confirmed to be the flag of the pirate "Nicholas" (without heart and blood drops) by a description given by the captain of a French ship taken in October 1717 before La Concorde was taken the next month by Thache. This ship was the St. Michel. The entire flag, including the heart and blood drops, actually appears in newspaper records in 1723 as that of Edward Low's.
These French documents also provide a surprisingly detailed description of the flag of a "large pirate ship" which confirms most of the flag details accepted by Blackbeard scholars today: "a black flag with a skeleton in the middle of a hand holding a dart and the other a clock." In fact, Jean Dubois, the captain of St. Michel, taken by pirates the previous October 20th, claimed that both pirate ships flew this flag. The pirate ships he described as a "British ship of 12 guns and 135 crewmen and the second pirate boat armed with 4 guns and 35 crew," which at first sounds like Thache and company. Captain of La Gracieuse, however, stated this pirate to be named "Nicholas." The only detail of the "accepted" Blackbeard flag not mentioned was the heart and blood drops. Dubois also mentioned a second flag of the "same color with a figure of a man who takes another under the feet that crosses his throat" on the secondary mast.

Note that Clifford Beal in Quelch's Gold: Piracy, Greed, and Betrayal in Colonial New England tells how the flag now attributed to Edward Thache, including the "three drops of blood" was once attributed to New England pirate John Quelch.  Beal states that no documentary evidence supports this and that it "appears to be an embellishment from an Edwardian-era [1901-1910] historian." This historian's name is not given. Interesting indeed that this flag is described accurately in the French depositions, though without the blood detail.

Edward Low's flag, however, is described in Mark G. Hanna's Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740, including all the details usually attributed to Edward Thache, on page 370 and 370n10:

When members of Edward Low's were executed in Newport in July 1723, newspapers reported that they were hanged upon the gallows, under "their black flag, with the Pourtrature of Death having an Hour-Glass in one Hand, and a Dart in the other, at the end of which was the Form of a Heart with three Drops of Blood falling from it... this flag they called Old Roger [reference to the devil], and often us'd to say they would live and die under it."
Reference: New England Courant (Boston), July 15-22, 1723; and...

... the crew hanged "under their own deep Blew Flagg which was hoisted up on their gallows, and had pourtraid on the middle of it, an Anatomy with an Hour-glass in one hand and a Dart in the Heart with 3 drops of Blood proceeding from it, in the other."
Reference: Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), Thursday July 18, to Thursday July 25, 1723,  Page [2] (shown in pic below)

Boston News-Letter of July 18-25, 1723
This description is the exact one later used to describe the flag of Edward "Blackbeard" Thache, including the heart and blood drops, but no known primary source attributes this flag design to Blackbeard.


The two ships: Stede Bonnet's 12-gun Revenge that he had built specifically to go "a-pirating" and the smaller vessel originally owned by Edward Thache or the "6-gun [with various size references]" smaller vessel described by Capt. Matthew Musson in New Providence earlier in July were apparently not the ones who plundered the St. Michael or flew the traditional "Blackbeard" flag. This record is important, for the traditional "Blackbeard" flag has never been recorded on Edward Thache's ship... but it has on another pirates'!

Thache met Bonnet and taken command of his 12-gun Revenge the previous month of September when Bonnet may have shown up at New Providence wounded from his Spanish encounter, as researcher Colin Woodard believes. Thache had the smaller vessel prior to their partnership of then six guns, perhaps his original ship from fishing wrecks with Hornigold and taking Henry Timberlake's Lamb, then of eight guns - maybe the one he used as a merchant-mariner living in Kingston. Either way, if the pirates who took the St. Michael had been Thache and Bonnet, the smaller ship would had to have been losing cannon quite a lot! Still, there were many pirates in the Atlantic waters at this time. The pirate using the traditionally-accepted "Blackbeard" flag did not have to be Blackbeard. It might have been "Nicholas" or even John Quelch... or even Blackbeard, assuming that the pirates were prone to excessive plagiarism.

The captain of the La Gracieuse, stated "Nicholas" to have taken him on October 20th: "the largest armed boat of 12 pieces of cannon and 140 men the small boat was armed with four guns and equipped with 30 or 35 men." This almost is the same description as Thache and company. The French vessels mentioned captured by Thache or "Nicholas" were "namely the ship St. Jacques de Bordeaux, Captain Bergeron, a ship of [La] Rochelle called Caille, captain Haudeberd, Gracieuse de Nantes, Captain Francois Barbier."

Two conclusions stand out from studying these documents. The first is that Benjamin Hornigold was definitely not with Edward Thache after mid-October 1717 and not present for the capture of La Concorde, or the QAR. My research has shown that he was working alone, except for Stede Bonnet riding along "studying books in his cabin" for most of the summer after mid-July when they cruised to New England. Bonnet had ill-advisedly attacked a Spanish Man-of-War near South Carolina in August and was recovering from injuries sustained that day, which gave Thache the opportunity to use his bigger and newer Barbadian-built ship. Thache apparently was happy to have the bigger ship and didn't care what Bonnet did in the meantime. Thache briefly met with Hornigold just off the Virginia Capes in early October 1717, right before Thache began his run against the French in the Caribbean. 

Comparison Chart showing the incidence of partnership between Edward Thache and both Benjamin Hornigold and Stede Bonnet in the first two editions of A General History, by Capt. Charles Johnson. These are then compared to other primary records. It appears that Johnson/Mist may have suppressed certain newspaper reports to accommodate the information found in his second, generally most accepted edition. Johnson/Mist intentionally altered his use of primary sources for the December 1724 edition as opposed to the May 1724 one. Chart created by Baylus C. Brooks.
The second point is that the French documents reveal a number of French vessels of which most American pirate scholars have not previously been aware. The general belief by most American scholars (and by Johnson/Mist as well) might be that he preyed almost exclusively upon English ships, for those were the incidents most reported by the Boston News-Letter and recorded in English Admiralty documents.  Thache, however, may have preyed more upon his former enemies in Queen Anne's War: the French and Spanish. Media bias kept Englishmen and, thus, Americans, from knowing full well the total of ships that these pirates may have captured. Thache may have exemplified Hornigold's sentiments that the pirate "Flying Gang" at the Bahamas only took foreign ships unless otherwise threatened. Thache certainly preyed on quite a few English ships, but there were many French ships listed here and we still most likely have not heard about all the Spanish and Dutch ships that were taken. How many more nations other than English? That's the question.

This ideology/method would easily reflect my recent discovery of Thache as an old Royal Navy man, not likely to become a pirate easily. As a possible privateer from Jamaica with a "legal" commission from its governor, he merely fished castaway Spanish silver and gold on the coast of Florida after the hurricane of July 30, 1715. The arrest of Gov. Hamilton may have disrupted his income sufficiently to begin the pirate trade and reside with others at New Providence.

La Concorde was a massive fifth-rate ship carrying as many as forty guns. Few of these vessels existed in American waters at that time. The ex-Royal Navy man Thache became a serious threat when he captured that French slaver. It was famously wrecked in June 1718 in Beaufort Inlet and has been giving up its secrets for more than fifteen years now to the QAR conservation lab at East Carolina University. Artifacts are on display at Beaufort Maritime Museum in Beaufort, North Carolina

Edward Thache's eventual demise at Ocracoke Inlet in North Carolina may have been politically-motivated. A Royal Navy pirate may have been quite rare and more than a little embarrassing. Furthermore, he operated in American waters where the residents generally liked their pirates. Only politically changing Whiggish (liberalizing) Britain did not. The Board of Trade sought to eradicate piracy in the Americas. It could not have been an easy task. They had to politically battle pirates of the "Golden Age" and, thus, it's "Pirate King" Blackbeard to rid him from the British Empire's seas... in other words, keep him out of their pockets!

Thanks to A General History, most think of Golden Age pirates as "thieves" or "murderous rogues," without money or political power. Do we think this way because of later 18th-century politics? Apparently, they were not all like this. Golden Age pirates may have been the first American revolutionaries and Blackbeard the first Gen. George Washington! Their "revolution," however, failed. America finally gained its independence a half century later...

I've been told that the only difference between a "revolution" and a "rebellion" is who wins. Obviously, Britain won this first round and they reserved the right to control its history. They may also have erased any trace that we could find of Thache's service aboard the HMS Windsor during Queen Anne's War, circa 1706. Still, it would be nearly impossible to catch them all, especially on Thache's home island of Jamaica! Wouldn't it be cool to think that they tried?


The July 2015 issue of North Carolina Historical Review has featured an article by Baylus C. Brooks titled "“Born in Jamaica, of Very Creditable Parents” or “A Bristol Man Born”? Excavating the Real Edward Thache, “Blackbeard the Pirate”"

This publication will feature a genealogical chart of the Thache family, from Gloucestershire to Jamaica. Finally, after almost 300 years of misinterpretation, this genealogy is the documented and definitive family history of "Blackbeard the Pirate." This heavily researched and verified chart has been enhanced and reproduced in multiple poster sizes available on

Genealogical Chart of Edward Thache, aka "Blackbeard the Pirate" - Copyright 2015 Baylus C. Brooks

Keep a weather eye out for the booklet below which explains the sources of these genealogical relationships. Also sight your spyglass on the book below that which expands upon this genealogy into his family and friends. It also explains the implications for this knowledge in relation to Blackbeard's birth, life, and death. Edward Thache and his world can finally be accurately realized!

Blackbeard Reconsidered: Mist's Piracy, Thache's Genealogy:

Today's popular image of the pirate Blackbeard as a bloodthirsty criminal, "a Devil incarnate," has its origins in Nathaniel Mist's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). Mist's narrative only accounts for the last two years of Blackbeard's life, yet subsequent historians and scholars accepted and promoted this colorful but unsubstantiated image for three centuries. In Blackbeard Reconsidered, historian Baylus Brooks examines the myth of Blackbeard in the light of official government records in Jamaica and Church of England records. This new evidence allows Brooks to present the immediate lineage of Edward Thache, a respected resident of Spanish Town, Jamaica, and to place the gentleman's actions within an accurate historical context that successfully challenges the violent image of Blackbeard.

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