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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Eureka! Blackbeard on HMS Windsor!

I have been waiting for pay records of HMS Windsor, the ship on which served Edward "Blackbeard" Thache. Finally, I received them and was rewarded yet again with the most delightful news! The record that originally told me of his service on Windsor was a deed of his father's inheritance to his step-mother Lucretia, dated December 10, 1706. His father was buried in Spanish Town, Jamaica on November 16, 1706. Fortunately, Windsor was back at Jamaica by then.

Edward Thache was listed in HMS Windsor’s pay book as joining that vessel April 12, 1706 on the southern coast of England near Spithead and Portsmouth. Windsor had crossed Spithead, a part of the Solent (body of water that separates Isle of Wight from the mainland ports of Portsmouth and Gosport) to Fort St. Helen’s on the east end of the the Isle of Wight. After some collaboration with my colleagues, it now appears that Thache had served on a vessel named Barbados Merchantman at the time of his enlistment. Quite possibly, Thache and others desired passage back to the West Indies and found that opportunity aboard HMS Windsor. Edward “Thatch,” Aaron Huggins, Samuel Gaine, Henry Nellson, and William Horn joined the crew April 12th as Windsor loaded food and water at St. Helen’s. James Mahum was listed as an “entry” on March 27th while the ship, according to the log, was at Spithead-Portsmouth and “appearing” aboard on April 13th at St. Helen's. Jonathan Osborne joined ten days earlier. These seven were paid as a group and may have previously served together. All of these "able seaman," except Thache, were discharged only months later – all in the West Indies - three at Jamaica. Thache, however, for whatever reason, stayed on until at least August 25, 1707, when he received “Prefermt.,” or “preferment” - aka promotion. It’s not indicated that he transferred to another ship, as that should have been indicated. It's possible that he remained aboard Windsor in his new position past June 30, 1708, the date the pay book ends.The lack of a pay record for this period, however, may yet indicate further service on another vessel.

Thache also seems to have been of greater status or wealth than others. He had a larger sea chest and payed more for stowing it. One consequence of new-found genealogical records on Edward Thache and his family is that he appears of a higher class than formerly believed or alluded to in the usual pirate histories. These pay records help to confirm this. 

Portion of Windsor's pay record showing a superscripted "n" probably indicating, according to common practice of the day, that the last letter of the vessel's name was "n" and the ship's name was most likely "Barbados Merchantman" rather than "Barbados Merchant," another common vessel name found in records - one of the same date was commanded by William Oliver, but he lost his vessel later in 1706 to a French privateer and could not be the Barbados Merchantman first commanded by Jonathan Deeble when Thache would have been aboard.

Thache joined Windsor of his own free will as a skilled merchant and was not pressed or forced to join as often happened with common sailors, many of whom never had experience at sea. This is not surprising since N.A.M. Rodgers inferred that the Royal Navy did not often engage in this practice until the second half of the 18th century. He was specially noted as “Barbad. Merch. (n),” indicating that he had served on this vessel, probably Barbados Merchantman. It's likely, as an "able seaman," that he was probably trained in mathematics; he could navigate. As I have been finding, most mariners of this period were skilled men; many had education. Indeed, almost 90% of 138 former crew of Bartholomew Roberts could sign their names, as indicated on a "Round Robbin" petition for pardon to the governor of Jamaica, not a common skill for most colonials.

Voyages database, a record of slave expeditions through the age of the middle passage, shows a Royal African Company-owned "Barbados Merchant," probably abbreviated from Treasure department records actually indicating "Barbados Merchantman," master John Russell, later leaving London - after a refit from 250 tons to 300 tons - for a Royal African Company slaving voyage to Africa 21 Nov 1706, soon after Thache and the others joined Windsor in April. They intended to pick up 500 slaves, but were eventually captured by the French. This capture occurred after Thache left, but he may have felt annoyed yet again (happened often to Thache) by the French in favor of his former captain and shipmates. 

This is the closest appearance of a Barbados Merchantman vessel to the time of Thache's enlistment, but is still only a possibility. Barbados Merchantman or its variant, Barbados Merchant, were not uncommon names for a ship. Still, I will keep looking for more evidence!

article updated 10/30/18

Hopefully, at the end of 2017, I will be finished with my newest book: Dictionary of Pyrate Biography, 1713-1720 which will attempt for the first time ever to re-discover pirate history without using A General History. I guarantee a lot of surprises!

Please keep up with updates on my website at

Meanwhile, visit my Amazon page for already published material, including Quest for Blackbeard! 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Best History Craves Original Documents!

Like any government today, copies are made and transmitted to each entity in the particular discussion involved. This might be an ambassador for nation A, writing letters to nation B. There would need to be a copy of that letter for the ambassador himself, one for nation B and one for the leaders of nation A. Computers make this easy... you simply "CC" someone in an email and transmit it to everyone on the email list. Before computers, we had xerographic copies and before that, there were mimeograph copies, both variations of modern copy technology. Before the 1950s, in the mid-nineteenth century, we had photography which could function as a copy machine, for a lack of any other form of cheaper technology. 

In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson worked with a Hawkins and Peale Polygraph, a mechanical version of a copy maker in which copies were made simultaneously with the original. This device was invented in Philadelphia by Isaac Hawkins and Charles Wilson Peale, who was also famous for his early American paintings. Jefferson lamented that he did not have the device during the Revolution.

One of Jefferson's polygraphs, "Hawkins & Peale Patent Polygraph No. 57"

An example of the portable letter copying machine developed in 1795 by James Watt, Jun., similar to the one given to William Godwin by Thomas Wedgwood in November of that year. (Photograph courtesy of Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management, and Museum Service.)
Still, there had been a type of copier even in the late eighteenth century. Believe it or not, Scottish engineer and instrument-maker James Watt Jr. developed a type of wet-transfer copy machine as early as 1779 in London. Pamela Clemit writes:
Watt’s invention is said to have been prompted by the boredom he experienced in making scribal copies of his business correspondence. In July 1779 he wrote to Joseph Black: “I have lately discovered a method of copying [writing] instantaneously, provided it has been written [the same day] or within 24 hours, I send you a specimen [and will] Impart the secret if it will be of any use to you. [It enables] me to copy all my business letters—”

Everybody Makes Mistakes!

Clerks or scribes in the early eighteenth century did not have it so easy... assuming that you could call using Watts' messy wet machine easy. There were no forms of copy machines or technology back then. There were no cameras either. Still, clerks and scribes made many a copy in the course of their career, but these copies all had to be made by hand. They sometimes wrote their initials at the close of the document, but not always. So, we don't often know who made the copy! 

Human error easily introduced itself while using these records. Still and although they were handwritten, the original or copy of the original had to be present, which meant you could check the original with the copy - side by side with the paper it was copied upon. Still, this did not prevent all errors in copying or errors of transcription - putting the handwriting in text format. Human beings make mistakes and historians should be particularly aware of this fact.

An example of early copies appear often in my research upon pirates. There's the letter of Richard Perry to his brother Micajah in London. The second page told of it being a copy. The
deposition of Andrew Turbett and Robert Gilmore appears to be original, but it was taken in Virginia originally and the only extant version is in the Admiralty records in London. This must also be a copy. In fact, most of these remaining primary sources will be copies from the original. The only one that may be original that I have transcribed might be the Henry Timberlake deposition regarding Edward Thache's first appearance - as a pirate - in documentation and originally discovered by Arne Bialuschewski in Jamaica. Many transcribed records are available on the Pirate Reference page of my website.

One case that I've recently received involved British copies of a series of letters written between the Duke of Portland, governor of Jamaica, Capt. Joseph Laws of HMS Mermaid, J. Geronimo Badillo, governor of Panama, and the pirates of Cassandra, an East India ship that had been taken near Madagascar at the island of Anjouan (Johanna) in 1720, while under Captain James McCraigh. 

The only documentary references to this ship's surrender in the West Indies known to exist are those found in CO 137/52 at the National Archives in London. They are clearly copies, not just because the handwriting is the same on all of the folios, regardless of named author, but because some state "Coppy" at the beginning (see below). These had been formed by a scribe who probably worked for the Admiralty at 22 Whitehall Street in London. It is also possible that a Jamaican scribe had created these folios, but they are not creased as might be expected of documents sent overseas, so they are probably copies of copies sent from Jamaica from the governor there. They were also written on cheap small-sized whitish-gray paper and not viewed as anything special.

Portion of 3rd folio from Cassandra documents in CO 137/52, National Archives (London)
The pirate captain of Cassandra had been called many names throughout the various depositions, newspaper articles, and official documents. The captain was always surnamed Taylor, but his given name has run the gamut from George, John, Richard, and William. Pirate writers have always had enough trouble with name changes, but this "William" version has been particularly troublesome, mostly due not to a copy error, but rather transcription.

For the last 81 years, the Calendar of State Papers in Volume 34 (1936) shows partial transcriptions of these records, taken as official copies of primary sources, that read:
74. ii. (a) Capt. Laws to Governor the Duke of Portland. Mermaid in the Grout, 24th April, 1723. Encloses following. Has sent his Lieutenant (his brother), to perswade William Taylor and the other pirates on board the Cassandra to surrender, but thinks they will not do so without force or promise of pardon. He cannot attack the pirates, but is waiting off the lagoon where they lie. The Governor of Panama and Porto Bello have sent a sloop with an offer of pardon to the pirates, if they will come in to their port. There is not one Spaniard amongst them.
(b) Petition of pirates on board the Cassandra to the Governor of Jamaica. Island of Pines, near Caledonia [Cuba?], April 10, 1723. Ask for a grant of pardon. They were forced and deluded by others from the Isle of Providence, but since they got clear of them, have committed no acts of piracy, for a year past. Signed, Wm. Taylor, Wm. Fox, Wm. Bates. 70 British subjects, 37 foreigners.
The sole purpose of this article is to illustrate the value of reading the actual records for yourself. A good historian tries to get as close as possible to the originals, which in this case were the copies made by the Admiralty, which I ordered from London. The Calendar is usually accurate, but if you can, go further! Since 1936, when the Calendar was created, this man's name shown especially in (b) above, has been determined to be William. After all, (b) was a document signed by Capt. Taylor himself - but it was a summary and transcription from the original - a potentially faulty human being looked at it and summarized it. I suspect he looked at the list of names in (b) and wrote them down as Taylor, Fox, and Bates, all with the given name William and he didn't remember that the first name was different. 

Many pirate enthusiasts have believed his name to be John, Richard, or William (mostly because of the mis-transcription). George was only mentioned once in a deposition - perhaps by a man with a faulty memory some years after the fact. 

The actual record shows his most likely real name twice - Richard. CO 137/52, folios 1 and 6 show: 

CO 137/52, 6th folio - "Richd:" and NOT "Wm:" as it was transcribed in Calendar
CO 137/52, first folio
Copy if you must, you professional historians, but double and triple check to be sure!Your career may suffer!


Exciting new detail, including information from French and English depositions, appears in a new book, Sailing East: West-Indian Pirates in Madagascar, now available! 

Please keep up with updates on my website at

Meanwhile, visit my Amazon page for already published material, including Quest for Blackbeard!