Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Was Blackbeard the Pirate from Jamaica?

Was Blackbeard from Jamaica?

Well... before Disney's movie Blackbeard the Pirate in 1952, that was the general consensus... that he was born on Jamaica, lived there, or at least worked out of Jamaica as a mariner. Nathaniel Mist - you know him better as "Charles Johnson" - wrote in his first edition of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates that Blackbeard was born in Jamaica. He changed this slightly in his second edition: that he was born in Bristol, but worked out of Jamaica. So, for well over two centuries, we believed that Edward Thache at least lived his adult life on the Caribbean Isle.

Since then, however, a huge media campaign was launched that gave him a new home in North Carolina. Yes, he died there. We know that. We even have a date: November 22, 1718. We know this with much greater assurance than his birth... still presumed to be in Bristol, which has been questioned recently as well. 

Why all the confusion with Jamaica?

I blame Patrick Pringle. Not that Pringle didn't do a good job in trying to investigate the question of whether or not Blackbeard came from Jamaica. Before the publication of his book Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy in 1953, Pringle wrote to the new and first government archivist on Jamaica, Clinton Vane de Brosse Black, to find evidence of Edward Thache's existence on the island. Black wrote back to him that there was no evidence that he could find. 

We have to understand, however, the context in which Black answered Pringle's question. Black had just started as archivist in 1950. Pringle's letter had to arrive before 1953... say between 1950-1952. Again, Black had JUST started his job! He himself told of the condition of government records when he began at the government offices in Spanish Town. He said the archives were a shambles. Records were scattered everywhere, misplaced, and never in any type of order. Employees at the government complex had been known to use the deeds, wills, and other important historical documents as placemats for their lunch... even used to wrap their food to keep it fresh!

Black also did not have computers to help him search for any references to any specific person, place, or record. He had to hand search the millions of scattered records for the name "Edward Teach" or any phonetic variation. Black faced an impossible task before the decades it would require for him to put this mass of records into any semblance of order with a finding aid. 

In essence, Black could never have given a definitive answer to Pringle's question. I don't particularly care for A General History as an actual source of history, but I do think he was right about Bristol and Jamaica.

Still, pirate enthusiasts wanted more... and Disney brought Blackbeard back into the excited eyes of American pirate fans and their kids... who wanted an American hero or anti-hero, as it were.

Throughout the early 20th century, North Carolina had actively sought to build a pro-Blackbeard outlook... for financial reasons, of course. Prior to this date, the southern state was intimately aware of their descent from the West Indies and the pirates associated with early America. Nathaniel Mist even called America the "Commonwealth of Pyrates."

In the late 1920s, the town of Wilmington held "Feast of Pirates" festival, the first national pirate celebration that attracted as many as 40,000 visitors from around the nation. Louis Toomer Moore photographed the events of 1927-1929. There was obviously more than a passing interest in America's former heroes. The festivals are discussed at this link.  

Bath Town had long been the focus of the pirate's attention, but it was a rather small hamlet on the Pamlico River in an out-of-the-way section of coastal North Carolina. There was no commercial base there... like in Wilmington. Still, it was also the state's oldest incorporated town from 1705. A great deal of the state's earliest maritime history was focused there - one of the first ports in a geographically-handicapped state. This topped maritime interest in Queen Anne's Town, or Edenton, as well... the focus of Port Roanoke. 

The interest in pirates quickly waned after this brief southern blip on the radar in the early 20th century. The Great Depression may have made some contribution to the nation's loss of focus on entertainment - corporate pirates then took the wind from our sails!

Durham Morning Herald, 12 Oct 1947

Occurrences of "Blackbeard" in articles appearing in American newspapers from colonial times to the present. The most obvious increase in public interest in pirates began not only after the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island in 1883, but it jumped to more than four times after Disney's Blackbeard the Pirate feature film in 1952. Furthermore, the interest sustained itself for nearly four decades, with increased southern newspaper occurrences!

As can be clearly seen, interest in pirates remained down, with a definite surge in the 1930s, again probably reduced by World War II. Still, the interest lulled throughout the 40s, with North Carolina struggling to make Bath Town historically popular. Disney's movie, Blackbeard the Pirate, however, appeared in 1952 and the newspapers literally exploded! What's more, the interest sustained itself through the next four decades, giving Bath Town its opportunity to break into the competition.

Adding to the state's excitement, Prof. Herbert Paschal wrote A History of Colonial Bath, published by Edwards & Broughton Co. in 1955. Unfortunately, Paschal made a transcription error on an Ormond family will which made it appear that this Ormond died in the colony 50 years earlier than 1773! This initiated speculation that the pirate Edward Thache married this man's daughter "Mary Ormond" as his fourteenth wife, showing devotion to the fantasies of Nathaniel Mist or "Charles Johnson" in A General History! This error made him intimately - if erroneously - acquainted with North Carolina. Ironically, this error made Blackbeard a virtual "son" of the state! Other North-Carolina-centered "theories" evolved that would make Blackbeard more intimately associated with the state - one actually made him a North Carolinian!

The sudden surge of interest in North Carolina and the lack of a definitive connection to Jamaica by 1953, easily handed Blackbeard the Pirate into North Carolina's financially-downtrodden family! William Byrd's "Lubberland" became the pirate king's personal domain! 

Thus, Edward Thache, the conservative war veteran and gentleman resident of Spanish Town, Jamaica became a victim of the media and a forced offspring of the state of North Carolina. Yeah, he was a pirate, but early America loved such conservative Jacobite defenders of their liberty! He was only married once that I know of and he even had a daughter - Elizabeth, named for Thache's mother and who married a prominent and wealthy doctor and multiple plantation owner of Spanish Town. The genealogical exploration has been quite definitive! 

Posters available in various sizes at Zazzle


Read about the final end of Edward Thache:

Murder at Ocracoke! Power and Profit in the Killing of Edward "Blackbeard" Thache

In commemoration of "Blackbeard 300 Tri-Centennial":

As always, drop by and check out the primary source transcriptions available there!

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