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. 

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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!

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