Tuesday, October 20, 2015

North Carolina's Law Professor Robert E. Lee - the Blackbeard Buff!

Monarchy, favoritism, and corruption created Carolina. Nowhere is that fact more evident than in the literary work of the appropriately named Southern conservative and Wake Forest Law Professor, Robert E. Lee. Of course, Lee neither stated this directly in his history of Blackbeard, nor did he recognize the familiar anti-government theme of Golden Age pirates. In his Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times, published by a North Carolina publisher and directed at a North Carolina audience, Lee shows himself to be a true North Carolinian apologist. His book on Blackbeard, for the most part, exposes the aristocratic bias and reliance upon legend that has long perverted North Carolina's true history. As a law professor, a learned man, but untrained in the historical arts, Lee followed many past North Carolina "historians" in their ill-conceived attempts to perform history as an "expert" in the field. His book on Blackbeard in 1974 was one of the last such attempts before trained professional historians began to restore the state's history - never an easy task! Blackbeard, with little of historical content available in the past, was always plagued by legends repeated and enhanced by these "great man" untrained historians, often imbued with personal bias. His story is still mired in confusion contributed by past historians like Lee. A new treatment is sorely needed!Born in Kinston, North Carolina on October 9, 1906, Robert Earl Lee was the son of Mike Lee, a rural mail carrier and his wife, May. By 1928, Robert graduated Wake Forest College with an LL.B degree in law. The closest that he ever came to working with history in school was as a historian for his law class. He later took professional classes in law at Duke University. By 1940, he and his wife Louise Gattis Lee of Franklin, North Carolina (married in 1932) lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their son, Robert Jr. was born there in 1934. Robert, listed as a professor was then doing government work. Returning to Winston-Salem, he served as the dean of the law school for Wake Forest in the 1940s, and taught there for more than thirty years. His last two years of 1979-1980, he spent teaching at Campbell University. He retired and eventually died August 21, 1997 at Brookridge Retirement Community in Winston-Salem.[1]

Figure 1: Pictures of Dr. Robert Earl Lee (October 9, 1906-August 21, 1997), author of Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times. Left: graduation from Wake Forest Law School in 1928 and, Right: Memorial from the Campbell Lawyer, Summer 1997.  

In chapter seven of Lee’s book on Blackbeard, he aptly describes proprietary possession and the inherent corruption of private colonies; however, he assures his readers that America solved that British nonsense in the Revolution, as though booting out the king fixed the damage and corruption. In reality, it reinstituted the same level of inequality and aristocratic domination that had developed under private British owners. He asserts that America had fought against a board of gentlemen three thousand miles across the Atlantic, “who only looked upon the colonies as an enterprise for the betterment of their private fortunes,” and that their government was ultimately and solely responsible for piracy. Perhaps he was thinking of the Lords Proprietors, or North Carolina’s private owners, when he said that. The Board was actually concerned with ending the corruptive influences of privatization.

For Lee, Americans, and especially North Carolinians, were absolutely innocent in the development of piracy – England alone was the nemesis responsible for that derogatory reputation, as he saw it. This was certainly not true. England provided the initial drive towards piracy, but all Americans alike reveled in it, especially the West Indies, both Carolinas and their sister colony of the Bahamas. Americans refined piracy through the centuries, and made it work far better than the English had ever dreamed. By the eighteenth century, piracy in America had become rather unique and essential – and quite different from newer British Whig or progressive economic policies.

Lee misses the historical context of the times, almost 300 years removed from when he taught law at Wake Forest and Campbell University. He recognizes bias well enough to observe its effects in modern contracts, but does he understand bias when translated from the colonial period – in a backwater wilderness devoid of any sense of European civilization or law? Does he recognize the inequality of the colonial period that elevated the wealthy landed aristocracy and essentially excluded the majority of the population? Furthermore, does he understand the differences between European civilation and the wild and remote nascent civilization forming on the American frontier?

Lee misunderstands the genesis of the records he researches. When Lee refers to the “people” of North Carolina being “mutinous,” he denotes the wealthy administrators who were arguably pirates themselves, not the people in the fields tending their hogs and trading their meager produce for necessaries in the local towns. The majority of the people are ignored by traditional documentary sources. He said that the “people” were “so used to disposing of their governors that they assumed they had the right to do so.”[2] Again, he only spoke of those few recorded in the records, an easy mistake to make, assuredly.

These were the men of whom Lee speaks glowingly in the following pages: Gov. Charles Eden and his council, Edward Moseley, Maurice Moore, the Ormonds who “played a prominent role in the history of Bath Town and Beaufort County,” Thomas Pollock, Tobias Knight, and many others.[3] Some of these men opposed Blackbeard.[4] Some, like the Ormonds, probably never even met the pirate. Still, all of them were ultimately concerned with their personal fortunes, regardless of from where it came. The unmentionables, like the greater number of commoners, today’s 99%, rejoiced in Blackbeard’s visits. Edward Moseley and Maurice Moore, specifically, founded the Lower Cape Fear settlement of Brunswick Town and stole as much as a hundred and fifty thousand acres belonging to the king while cutting others out of their monopoly. Their “Family” has been compared with a “syndicate,” much like the Gambino organized crime family or their perhaps less organized counterparts, or pirates. Again, “rovers of the sea” and “rovers of the land” differ in mode of travel only. The “people” of North Carolina are still subjects of these hierarchical forces of inequality that “belied the seeming equality of a poor state,” as historian Paul D. Escott infers.[5] The rest of America, it seems, contracted the same conservative illness.

And lastly, Robert E. Lee assumes Johnson-Mist to be an accurate source for the information that he obtained on Blackbeard, even touting the legends of his fourteen marriages and the prostitution of his wife, supported by no primary sources whatsoever. Then again, Lee believed like so many that he could trace his own ancestry back to the “notorious” pirate of legend. Why anyone would wish to be related to such a vile and wicked pirate as Johnson-Mist’s star antagonist is beyond comprehension!

Lee’s historical work has to be scrutinized carefully to avoid these amateurish mistakes. An expert in the law does not an expert in history make. He says that “because of its isolation and thinly scattered population, the troubles incident to colonial piracy were delayed in reaching North Carolina.”[6] For this, he thinks that the colony’s association with piracy came only when piracy was at its worst and, therefore, its reputation unduly suffered. Lee also says “caught in the undertow of piracy and undeterred by government, North Carolina’s colonists, in 1718, could hardly have been expected to resign a profitable connection with the pirates.’”[7] The piratical anti-government theme, like Charles Vane’s at Nassau, is palpable throughout Lee’s book, obviously influenced by the same conservative ideology that created the “Flying Gang” on the Bahama Islands.[8]

This is why professional training in the historical arts is essential. A professional historian spends his life studying the past, not just his short twilight years near retirement from his life-long expertise as a lawyer, journalist, or politician. North Carolinians’ and other Americans’ tendency toward treating history as a hobby handicaps its proper study and understanding. Historians train for years to think as their subjects do. For example, to understand the colonial era, you have to study intently that era and learn to think like a colonial, including the various classes of people from colonial culture. You have to study the needs and stamina of a cultural framework quite different from your own. Historians must be part sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists, as well as historians. No professional historian would dare practice law like Lee, perform surgeries like Dr. Hugh Williamson, or preach like Francis Lister Hawks. Still, it did not prevent them all from writing amateur history and claiming to be historians.

North Carolina’s association with pirates began when the charter had been issued to the Lords Proprietors in 1663. It probably began even before that date, although association with the wealthy, careless, and distant proprietors certainly enhanced its piratical reputation. South Carolina’s relationship certainly began in 1671 when West Indians came to establish a colony for producing food for their Caribbean island enterprises. No, Carolina was not an end unto itself when it began. It was merely an ancillary operation. The proprietors viewed it as such, which may have largely contributed to its neglect. Again, profit was their only real consideration, not its settlers. Lee’s “people,” the actors of whom he considers worthy of note, were the only voices that ever mattered to him or to the proprietors.

The actual people whom Lee completely ignores merely enjoyed better prices brought by pirates and their fences. They had to resort to illegal merchandise to make ends meet in an unequal world that never really belonged to them. The then-affordable sugar and cocoa landed on the docks for the landless to purchase and load their wagons and head home to their tenantcy to feed chickens and make their family cups of sweetened hot cocoa to ward off the winter chill. Moreover, they usually did not participate in elections because the franchise was tied directly to freeholds, or land ownership. The vote belonged only to the wealthy.

The North Carolinians that we can read about in vital records actually welcomed pirates in 1718, as much as it did when part of Henry Avery’s crew settled in the Albemarle. Indeed, Lt. Gov. Spotswood of Virginia, after successfully capturing Blackbeard’s crew and killing him, faced derision from his fellow Virginians. As will be shown, some North Carolina residents (those few that appeared in the usual records) were pirates or related to pirates themselves, like the Jamaican assemblymen who profited greatly from the practice. Again, these were not the poor and landless living in the documentary background.

South Carolina favored business with their pirate brothers before the extravagances of 1716-1717, but not so much since Stede Bonnet, Edward Thache, and Charles Vane blockaded their primary harbor, took their ships, held their substantial citizens (Lee’s version of “the people”) prisoner, and invaded their town. This personal affront served to temporarily quell their love and maintenance of piracy – it helped to end Blackbeard’s career. Furthermore, economics had a large part to play. Arne Bialuschewski approaches the best explanation for the two Carolinas and their disparate attitudes toward piracy:

The Carolinas provide a good example of colonial settlements where the attitude towards pirates underwent a complete change in the early eighteenth century. For years the inhabitants, far away from any sources of military support, lived in fear of attacks by Native Americans and the Spaniards. Furthermore, prior to the development of rice cultivation in South Carolina in the late seventeenth century, the colonies lacked a major export staple capable of bringing prosperity to the region. Under these circumstances pirates were welcomed by the inhabitants for both their military value and the trade they offered the sparsely populated Carolinas. As in other colonies, the main benefit of the pirate trade was that it allowed access to looted specie and merchandise at discount prices. In the early eighteenth century, however, South Carolina began to flourish in its own right, as rice exports brought wealth to the colony. When pirates appeared off Charles Town in 1718, the source of prosperity was endangered. Piracy not only threatened local shipping but also raised indirect costs such as insurance, commission fees, wages and interest rates at a time when the economy was recovering from a costly war against the Yemassee. North Carolina, by contrast, lacked a major staple and the economy remained depressed after the war, so its mercantile and political elite continued to deal with pirates.[9]
This is not to diminish the distinguished law career or the massive amount of research that Lee performed for his book on Blackbeard. He explored every available piece of primary evidence, even listed them in an appendix. Still, he was led astray by the plethora of legends associated with Blackbeard, as many of us have been and still are. He occasionally delved into and seriously explored the wild assumptions of “a cousin of my uncle on my mother’s side.” These sorts of fascinating bedtime stories rarely provide serious evidence. Sometimes, rarely, those fascinating tales are somewhat reminiscent of the truth, but should never be taken wholly at face value, especially when the desire is to somehow be connected to the infamous figure of a notorious pirate! One must, indeed, consider all forms of possible bias...


Update (11/29/2015): The journal copies are limited and running out, but NC Publications has re-released my article as a separate pamphlet titled Blackbeard Reconsidered: Mist's Piracy, Thache's Genealogy and it is available online as well as in various NC museums and historic sites. 

Read more about the family of Edward "Blackbeard" Thache and the world in which he lived in the book Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World, to be released around Christmas of 2015. 

Get the poster of Blackbeard's family history and other gift ideas at this address:


How did the QAR wreck at Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina? Many have claimed that Blackbeard wrecked his ship on purpose. This may not be true... you judge.



Warning!! This could change your most basic perceptions...

See how the Bahamas and its sister colony Carolina became pirate strongholds through neglect of its wealthy private owners years before Hornigold and Thache and their “Flying Gang” - how pirates came to the American South, killed 600,000 people to maintain their "peculiar" institution of slavery, and developed a unique conservative ideology that survives today.

See where America began – from New Providence and Charleston to the Lower Cape Fear - enmeshed in the violent wilderness “beyond the lines of amity” – competition and sport, stealing treasure and burning ships - with Caribbean Buccaneers and Pirates of the Golden Age!



Monday, October 19, 2015

The Golden Age of Piracy - the First American Revolution

Might this have been our flag if events had transpired differently?
As Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) ended with the Treaty of Utrecht, aristocratic ex-privateers and navy men with homes and families in America faced a changing economic and political world with a new politically-handicapped and distant foreign king. Depriving Spain of her gold and silver in the New World had long encouraged these privateers under Tory rule, with license to kill and steal, from Queen Elizabeth I to Mary Stuart. These former American piratical heroes to England in the West Indies “beyond the lines of amity,” cherished their excessive freedoms under the Stuart monarchs. A unique American culture had developed from the murder and piracy that England had encouraged in the West Indies. Over many decades, however, this rowdy American culture, largely erected from England’s corrupt past, differentiated from England’s culture. Modern Britain had changed – liberalized – while America had not. For Britain, a changing definition of wealth had eroded the concept of “zero-sum” economics, or fixed wealth in favor of production. Modernizing Whig rulers of a new progressive Britain and Board of Trade and Plantations disdained and tried to eradicate this more Tory or conservative ideology in America – an antiquated and abusive ideology that threatened their economic future.

In another part of the Atlantic community, of an entirely different social class from the aristocratic American privateers, were lowly and landless pirates and wreckers. Politics seldom affected these pirates, already with so little to lose. Differentiation occurred here as well, but for slightly different reasons. They evolved into the petty thieves and destitute proletarians of the Atlantic maritime community of whom historian Marcus Rediker studies. Emerging over the generations from corrupt private colonies like the Bahamas, Carolina, and Pennsylvania, neglect of the Lords Proprietors and other private owners created the pirates of legend. Britain had long held these mismanaged proprietary colonies in scorn as well, especially for their owners focusing on profit alone and ignoring the national cause in times of need, made wholly apparent by the recent war with Spain and France.

By the time of the Golden Age, corruption ruled in America, socially, financially, and politically. This developed in a strongly disparate fashion to liberalizing Britain, especially after the death of Queen Anne and her replacement with a foreign, German-born king who spoke no English. The period was almost ripe for revolt, or rebellion – much like the Jacobite rebellion all across the British Empire against the new king in 1715. Only the class difference between the aristocratic privateers and poor pirates kept them from joining together, uniting to effectively oppose a new radical Britain. Still, the differentiation of America and her mother England would not be complete until later in the eighteenth century. More time - more differentiation -
was needed

On July 30, 1715, however, the catastrophic wreck of Don Juan de Ubilla’s fleet of eleven Spanish treasure ships on the Florida coast signaled the end of the Spanish West Indies. This event spilled over 14,000,000 pesos worth in silver bullion alone, not to mention the gold, and began an early “gold rush” all across the Atlantic community. Greed overcame any straggling sense of nationalism. As Britain saw it, this event removed any further need for piracy and prematurely encouraged a near confederation of unlikely compatriots to rise up and oppose official British authority in the Atlantic to save their traditions. The rebellion known as the “Golden Age of Piracy” was hasty, unorganized and failed, but America would restart the effort in 1776 and eventually gain its independence.

This pattern has been difficult to recognize from an American perspective. Recent historians, however, are breaking new ground to reverse this bias. Why have so few historically explored Jamaica for evidence of the origins of privateers who later turned pirate in the Golden Age? Part of this historical prejudice is cultural bias, a lack of focus on the Caribbean. Perhaps because of embarrassment over the slave trade and the brutal practices of its merchants, the West Indies has been generally overlooked as an influence upon American history. Recent historians have attempted to explore records from Jamaica, often with surprising results. Arne Bialuschewki discovered the deposition of Henry Timberlake, master of the Lamb, showing that Benjamin Hornigold and Edward Thache worked as equals while pirating provisions from the Boston Mariner. This occurred in the fall of 1716 and was earlier than the previously believed earliest record of Edward Thache, the report of Matthew Musson to the Board of Trade in July 1717. Bialuschewski had traveled to Kingston’s National Library of Jamaica to finally explore the Council Minutes from the period of the Golden Age. The author (Baylus C. Brooks) has also explored Anglican Church records of Jamaica and the wills and deeds of the Thache family of Spanish Town. These records showed that Edward Thache Jr., the man who later became Blackbeard the Pirate, was an aristocrat and had once served in the Royal Navy on the HMS Windsor. Other pirates, Thomas Barrow of Jamaica, Henry Jennings of Bermuda and Jamaica, and Leigh Ashworth and his brother Jasper of Jamaica were equally aristocratic, with plantations, slaves, and great wealth and position. They easily compared with John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other founding fathers of the coming United States of America. Moreover, many well-born Jamaicans, like Jasper Ashworth, Lewis Galdy, and especially
Daniel Axtell of Port Royal, an in-law of Edward Thache owned privateer vessels and facilitated piracy by fencing stolen goods. Again, this was normal for their day in faraway America.[i]

The bias that has resisted historical inquiry is the assumption that all pirates, ideologically linked solely with the Bahamas, were the dregs and scum of humanity – that they had no families and pirated with nothing to lose. This Bahamian-focus bias inhibited exploration of the aristocratic backgrounds of these early Golden Age privateers from Jamaica and elsewhere. North Carolina historian Hugh Rankin also described the occasional pirate beginning as a “privateer,” or a “legal pirate.” As he said, privateers were once necessary when “nations could not afford to maintain regular navies.”[ii] While true, he still derisively grouped these ex-privateers in his general category of “dregs” and “scum” pirates. Surprisingly, Marcus Rediker reasons likewise, despite progressive arguments that he makes in Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Most authors through time, like North Carolina’s Robert E. Lee in Blackbeard: A Reappraisal of his Life and Times and British historian Patrick Pringle in Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy made the same assumption. Through entire narratives, these authors regarded low-bred pirates and wealthy privateers as much the same type of criminal, without regard for their individual backgrounds. For instance, about Edward Thache, the North Carolina historian Hugh Rankin harshly asserts “this piece of trash, however, could not be considered a credit to any community.” Rankin’s impressions were perhaps colored by popular works authored by many just as thrilled by Capt. Charles Johnson’s flamboyant histories of 1724.

Capt. Charles Johnson, now known to have been the Jacobite polemicist and London journalist Nathaniel Mist, author of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, however, cannot be wholly blamed for this diminution of privateers. Noted historian and pirate scholar Marcus Rediker imagined the Golden Age of Piracy, or the period roughly between 1715 and 1726, “a gleaming object of desire, the precious metal that promised to reverse the fortunes of those who lived bitter and impoverished lives.”[iv] Rediker assumed that ex-privateers like Edward Thache of Jamaica and already destitute pirates like those of the early “Flying Gang” from the Bahamas were poor and needing money. The need, he believed, drove them to fish wrecks and pirate merchant vessels. They had lost significant income, to be sure, but privateers once held great pride and privilege as heroes to the empire and their families - they were not poor and destitute. Greed, not need, influenced these men to undertake piracy. This caused them to lose focus on the increasingly common goal of independence.

As Rediker also inferred, something of pirates' days survived. They “captured forever the good ship Popular Imagination” and have infected generations of tantalized fans, hungry for rowdy tales of the Golden Age.[v] Johnson-Mist’s book and its resulting popularity with all writers, both amateurs and scholars, has dominated the field over the actual truth. Consequently, the scholarship of Golden Age piracy has taken on a life of its own and a single popular book still sits at the helm of that good ship. A General History continues to be regarded as the quintessential source for pirates of the Golden Age. One pirate scholar asserts that Johnson’s book “is the single most important primary source” for the study of piracy.[vi] Another calls it “the prime source” for pirate’s lives and only questions its authorship.[vii] Some pirate scholars in fact proclaim its high level of reliability, although some regard it with more caution, asserting that its accuracy has been “overemphasized.”[viii] Certainly, popular pirate authors relied upon its shockingly morbid details, especially in regard to Edward Low’s brutality. Johnson-Mist made Edward Thache or “Blackbeard” the most “notorious” pirate of them all.[ix]

This kind of popular attention should, however, reveal to the historian a problematic and politically rhetorical source. Arguably, Johnson sought profits from this book and altered the true facts of A General History to achieve greater effect, thereby producing more sales with their accompanying lies. Like other privateers-turned-pirates, Edward Thache, the man also known as “Blackbeard the Pirate,” has been unduly vilified by Johnson’s narrative. The lack of a known past allowed Johnson to mold his iconic, almost demonic character to propel books from the store’s shelves. Edward Thache faded into the background, especially with the good ship “Popular Imagination” captained by the “notorious villain” Blackbeard. In-depth Jamaican inquiries reveal other pirates equally misinterpreted. 

A genealogical study provides much more detail than previously available to historians and exposes these privateers as real human beings, with families, and wealth. Although they committed acts of piracy, their actions may have been expected by their families and contemporary business associates. Thache’s family, for example, related to doctors, assemblymen, and others of good standing. In these sources, he does not appear as a “notorious” man. Historians of the past have not used all of the available sources and relied upon the questionable Charles Johnson too heavily, allowing an age old bias to dominate the truth.

[i] Arne Bialuschewski, “Blackbeard: The Creation of a Legend,” Washington and Jefferson College Review 58 (2010): 42-43; Deposition of Henry Timberlake, master of the Lamb, 17 December 1716, 1B/5/3/8, 212–3 [426-7] and the deposition of Allen Bernard, Quarter-master of Bersheba, 10 August 1716, Jamaican Council Minutes, ff.63-68, Jamaican Archives, Kingston, Jamaica; Baylus C. Brooks, “‘Born in Jamaica of Very Creditable Parents’ or ‘A Bristol Man Born’? Excavating the Real Edward Thache, ‘Blackbeard the Pirate,’“ North CarolinaHistorical Review 92: 3 (July 2015), 235-277.
[ii] Hugh F. Rankin, The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina (Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1960), p. 3
[iii] Ibid.; Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011); Patrick Pringle, Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1953); Robert E. Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of his Life and Times (1974), 6th printing (Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1990).
[iv] Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 37, 175.
[v] Ibid.; Angus Konstam, Pirates: The Complete History from 1300 BC to the Present Day (Guilford: Globe Pequot Press, 2008), 150; Carl E. Swanson, “’The Unspeakable Calamity this poor Province Suffers from Pirates’: South Carolina and the Golden Age of Piracy,” The Northern Mariner, XXII No. 2, (April 2011), 127.
[vi] Carl E. Swanson, “’The Unspeakable Calamity this poor Province Suffers from Pirates’: South Carolina and the Golden Age of Piracy,” The Northern Mariner, XXII No. 2, (April 2011), 120n7.
[vii] David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag (New York: Random House, 2006), xix-xx.
[viii] Ibid.,126; Patrick Pringle, Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1953), 12.
[ix] Elizabeth Alford Pollock, Popular Culture, Piracy, and Outlaw Pedagogy: A Critique of the Miseducation of Davy Jones (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014), 10.


Read more about the family of Edward "Blackbeard" Thache and the world in which he lived in the book Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World, to be released around Christmas of 2015. 

Get the poster of Blackbeard's family history and other gift ideas at this address:

Blackbeard Reconsidered:


Warning!! This could change your most basic perceptions...

See how the Bahamas and its sister colony Carolina became pirate strongholds through neglect of its wealthy private owners years before Hornigold and Thache and their “Flying Gang” - how pirates came to the American South, killed 600,000 people to maintain their "peculiar" institution of slavery, and developed a unique conservative ideology that survives today.

See where America began – from New Providence and Charleston to the Lower Cape Fear - enmeshed in the violent wilderness “beyond the lines of amity” – competition and sport, stealing treasure and burning ships - with Caribbean Buccaneers and Pirates of the Golden Age!