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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 Employees at the government complex had been known to use the deeds, wills, and other important historical documents as placemats for their lunch...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!

Friday, April 06, 2018

Time and Tide Make Us Mercenaries All!

As pirate victims go, they are generally concerned with reporting their losses and hurt feelings to the Admiralty. Their depositions are usually filled with details of how pirates rifled their goods, threatened and sometimes tortured them to learn the whereabouts of any gold, silver, rum, or other valuables they had on board. What they generally don't report are the illegal goods that they often willingly accept from the pirates... goods that they later try to sell for profit at their next ports of call. 

There are no heroes in pirate stories!

36-year old Capt. Thomas Creed (d. 1721) of Coward was captured 17 June 1719 by Edward England. He testified that another victim, like himself, had joined with England's crew and had directed a small pirate sloop, Buck, to take his vessel in only "two fathoms of water." He argued that if Capt. Henry Hunt of Sarah galley had not piloted this pirate, his vessel would not have been taken, his goods stolen, and his ship burnt! Furthermore, he charged Hunt with sailing away 5th July after helping pirates to rifle his sloop and that of Capt. Thomas Lynch's Carteret, stealing "several brass Panns & bottles" from him and an unknown quantity from Lynch. 

Creed may have been the only honest one in the bunch, but it didn't pay!

Weekly Packet of 24 October 1719 provided a long list of vessels said to have been taken by pirate Edward England in his ship 30-gun, 160-man Royal James, also said to have been former Capt. Edward Tyzard or Tyzach's Pearl of Bristol. The pink Eagle was probably captured by Howell Davis, on the Gambia River in March, but not during the period May-July when the rest of these ships were taken. The rest, however, probably were the prizes of Edward England.

Newspapers often misquote or get some facts wrong, but are usually fairly reliable. Certain details of this article, however, had been skewed. Charlotte listed in the article was actually commanded by Capt. Branson Oulson, not Oldson, but this was a minor mistake, especially at a time when spelling was phonetic and not yet standardized. Another simple misspelling appears with Sarah, Capt. "Stunt." His name was actually Capt. Henry Hunt, a defendant in this criminal case at the Old Bailey. Another huge error, though, was Carteret, Capt. Snow. While Carteret was a snow-rigged vessel, the captain's name was actually Thomas Lynch. 

The error-filled article above did actually get the date of Capt. Thomas Creed's Coward correct as 17th of June 1719. This assumes that Thomas Creed's deposition of 27 September 1720 gave the correct date. Presumably, Weekly Packet obtained this news from the deposition. It's actually common practice even today for journalists to obtain their information from police reports and depositions.

As Creed stated in his deposition,  he was captured by pirates in "Buck Sloop," probably the vessel shown as "Bank" in the Weekly Packet, a vessel of Capt. Sylvester originally used as a packet boat in the Gambia River. This should not be confused with Buck sloop on which Howell Davis mutinied on his way to the Cape Verde Islands from New Providence earlier. Davis was hundreds of miles too far south at Principe Island in King James at this time, most likely accompanied by his old Buck sloop.  

Trade winds ran north to south down the African Coast and northward travel was more difficult. That's why ships usually entered at the Cape Verde Islands in the northern latitudes adjacent Gambia River before sailing south to Sierra Leone, Whydah, Old Calabar, and Cape Lopez, off Angola. 

The pirates aboard Buck included, as Creed observed, 25-year-old Henry Hunt, "then on board the sd pirate Vessel & piloted her at the time." Creed believed that "if the sd Henry Hunt had not piloted the sd Sloop and directed her Company... she would have escaped." 

There is logical merit to his argument. River topography is such that dangerous shoals develop in rather shallow waters, drastically varying the depth of the water where only a few feet could mean you run aground. Without a pilot familiar with those particular waters, a vessel, even a sloop. might easily founder near two fathoms of water, or only twelve feet - possibly shifting quickly to only a few feet. The younger Hunt must have been in Gambia River before. perhaps with his brother Thomas in Saint Quintine the year before. This is why pirate Capt. Edward England would have desired him to pilot one of his vessels - in this case, Buck. It might easily appear to Creed, arriving later, that Hunt had indeed, joined the pirates!

An unmarried Henry Hunt (d.1739), later of Poplar, but then also of the parish of Stepney, Middlesex where mariner Thomas Creed lived with his wife Sarah and their son, Thomas, testified as well on the same day. He stated that he had been captured on 27 May 1719 by Edward England in Royal James already accompanied by two former prizes, Charlotte or Charlot, Capt. Branson Oulson, and probably the snow Carteret, Capt. Thomas Lynch.  

According to Hunt,  the pirates "forced [him] into their Service" on the pirate sloop when Coward was taken. He said that he knew nothing about any stolen goods or the burning of Creed's vessel. 

The Political State of Great Britain, a monthly news digest, for October 1720 shows that Capt. Hunt and Oldson (or Oulson) were tried and acquitted for piracy. 

As Creed said that he saw, the stolen goods were placed on Sarah, Hunt's vessel before it was released (Delight was Creed's most recent command). Hunt visited the Admiralty Office in late summer of 1720 to obtain a Mediterranean pass and was arrested for piracy. He was then incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison, awaiting trial, the results of which you can read in the Political State of Great Britain. The owners of Sarah and Charlotte appeared for them, vouched for their conduct, demeaned Creed's accusations, and obtained an acquittal. Still, Hunt probably did take advantage of the pirates' generosity. It appears that Oulson did also.

Capt. Branson Oulson, a mariner of Swedish descent, was also brought up on charges of piracy with Hunt, apparently also because of Thomas Creed's testimony. It should be noted that the wording of his deposition, however, did not accuse Oulson. He may have indicated to the Admiralty earlier that Branson was also involved. Any deposition that he gave against Oulson no longer survives. 
Primary sources of genealogical content make exploring these early mariner's lives quite possible now. Unlike the singly-married Creed and the bachelor Hunt, Branson Oulson had been married three times: to Mary Cable in 1710 while living in Woolwich, Kent; after Mary's death, to Elizabeth Woodard in London in 1716; and upon her death to Dorcus Berry in the same place on 9 February 1721, just after settlement of this court issue. He and Dorcus had two daughters, Rebecca and Margaret. Dorcus also died in 1727, followed closely by her husband, Capt. Branson Oulson in 1731. 

 Branson Oulson had also been released by the pirates, but with some "added extras" for his cargo. He proceeded to Barbados after his release and attempted to sell his "piraiticall slaves" merchandise there in September 1719. Henry Lascelles, who famously arranged for the disposal of French pirate Olivier LeVasseur de la Buse's vessel Blanco in 1717, denied that he knew anything of this illegal cargo of Charlotte: "I never understood that they belonged to any particular person," as he described to a very interested Board of Trade and Plantations. 

Another interesting detail is that Thomas Creed, Henry Hunt, and Branson Oulson were all residents of Stepney Parish, Middlesex County in 1720. Creed, the accuser, at age 37, died in April 1721, just a few months after this trial of Hunt and Oulson at the Old Bailey. 

The cynic in me wonders... lol. 

“Looters become looted while time and tide make us mercenaries all.”
~ Patrick Rothfuss in The Wise Man’s Fear


Look for the new booklet for the Blackbeard 300 Tri-Centennial festivities, Murder at Ocracoke: Power and Profit in the Killing of Edward "Blackbeard" Thache, available now at Lulu Publishing!