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Blackbeard: Myth vs Reality

Recently, a former colleague sent me an interesting 2018 article about Blackbeard by David D Moore called ‘Captain Edward Thatch: A Brief Analysis of the Primary Source Documents concerning the Notorious Blackbeard’.


Unpacking myth from reality is one of my favourite things to do when it comes to pirates, so I thought I’d share the article’s findings with you.

What is a primary source?


A ‘primary source’ means ‘documents written at the time’ usually by eye-witnesses to events. So a diary, newspaper article, or letter would be a primary source. A book or journal article about the person or incident is a secondary source.


When it comes to Blackbeard, Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates book is often considered a primary source of information on him. In fact, it is a secondary source because it was first published in 1724, six years after Blackbeard’s death.


Johnson's different editions


Not only was there multiple editions of the book and the information on Blackbeard changed significantly between them. I can not stress this point enough!


For the few scholars lucky enough to read the first edition – which is very rare and not at all widely available - the information on him within it is generally considered to be more accurate than the far more ubiquitous second edition.


What was Blackbeard’s real name?

Well, it definitely wasn’t ‘Blackbeard’. But was it Edward Thatch or Edward Teach? Most authors of secondary sources today use Edward Teach. However, the vast majority of primary sources about Blackbeard spelt his name ‘Thatch’ or some phonetic version like ‘Thatche’, ‘Thach’ or ‘Thache’.


The ‘Teach’ version came from Johnson’s General History but interestingly, he used ‘Thatch’ throughout his first edition. However, by the second edition (the one widely available today) Blackbeard became ‘Teach’.


Then a prominent history of Jamaica written in 1740 by Charles Leslie also referred to him as ‘Teach’. From there, the ‘Teach’ version moved into history.


However, the evidence from his time shows his name was most likely Edward Thatch.


Jamaica, c.1800s

Where was Blackbeard from?


According to Johnson’s General History of Pyrates, Blackbeard is generally accepted to be from Bristol, England. However, there is some evidence to suggest that he could have been from London, Jamaica or even Philadelphia.


In the first edition Johnson states Edward Thatch was born in Jamaica, and ‘was from a Boy, bred up to the Sea’. But in the second edition, Johnson states Blackbeard ‘was a Bristol man born, but had sailed some time out of Jamaica in privateers in the late French war’.


Charles Leslie believed Blackbeard was born in Jamaica, ‘of very creditable parents; his mother is alive in Spanish Town to this day, and his brother is at present Captain of the Train of Artillery.’


Since nobody referenced anything back in those days, where Leslie or Johnson got their information from is anyone’s guess. It could’ve been newspaper articles or personal knowledge of the family, we just don’t know.


To throw another spanner in the origin story a 1718 Boston Newsletter account of Blackbeard’s exploits described him as ‘formerly Sail’d Mate out of Philadelphia’. Nobody knows where this claim came from either.


More recently, genealogical records show there was a ‘Thache’ family present in both Bristol AND Jamaica. If this is Blackbeard’s family (and that’s still a big IF) it indicates that perhaps BOTH editions of Johnson’s history are correct: he was born in Bristol; but grew up in Jamaica.


Was Blackbeard a privateer before he turned to piracy?


Johnson’s General History reported Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch served as a privateer out of Jamaica during Queen Anne’s War (1702-13). The ‘privateer turned pirate’ trope is a very common one, especially for pirates active in the Caribbean at this time.


Yet reviews of the Jamaica Council records from the period reveal there were plenty of privateers operating out of Jamaica at the time but none carried the name ‘Edward Thatch’ or its variants.


However, a 1706 death certificate for an Edward Thache of Spanish Town, Jamaica showed he left his very modest estate to his son, Edward Thache junior. Junior then deeded his ‘estate’ to a stepmother, Lucretia Thache. Within this deed was the phrase ‘Edwd Thache on Board her Majesties Shipp Windsor...’


There are a number of records on the activities of the English warship Windsor, including a sailor called Edward Thatch who served for around 18 months onboard as an able seaman. If this was the man who became Blackbeard, it indicated he was associated with the Royal Navy, not privateers.


The discharge record shows the reason as ‘preferment’. This is a Royal Navy term for promotion but there is no other information on where Thatch went.


He then disappears from the historical record for the next nine years. If he was privateering then, no record of it has to this day been discovered.


When he next re-emerges, he is most definitely a pirate.


Blackbeard's first appearance in the records as a pirate

Imagined image of Blackbeard by unknown artist

The earliest primary source on Blackbeard as a pirate is a deposition dated 17 December 1716 from Henry Timberlake, captain of the 40-ton brigantine Lamb. Timberlake described how several days earlier, he had been taken by pirates on a ship called Delight and led by Benjamin Hornigold. About an hour after Hornigold boarded his ship, ‘Edward Thach Comander of another Sloop mounted with eight guns and manned about 90 men’ also boarded and plundered his ship.


The next documented sighting of Blackbeard came from a privateer captain called Mathew Musson in March 1717. He had been shipwrecked on Cat Island in the Bahamas about 125 miles southeast of Nassau, New Providence Island. Musson reported on 5 July 1717 that he was informed by several local inhabitants that Five Pirates made the harbour of Providence their place of Rendevous, including ‘Commanders’ Hornigold, Jennings, Burgiss, White and ‘Thatch [with] a Sloop Six Gunns about Seventy men.


What was Blackbeard's relationship with Benjamin Hornigold?


Several reputable sources state that Edward Thatch and Benjamin Hornigold sailed in consort.


However, no-one knows when their relationship began, how long it lasted or how close it was. Ironically, one of the reasons for this is that Benjamin Hornigold made only a cameo in Johnson's General History of the Pyrates, he never had an entry of his own.


Hornigold’s piracy dates to February 1714 and Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates reported his relationship with Blackbeard began in the latter end of the year 1716. The scant records available seem to align on this point.


What about Stede Bonnet?

Sketch of Stede Bonnet (contemporary)

Stede Bonnet first emerged in the records as a pirate in April 1717 in a report from Capt Bartholomew Candler, commander of the British warship Winchelsea.


Interestingly, it appears Bonnet’s ship Revenge already carried this name when he bought it, rather than being christened it when he became a pirate.


Johnson’s first edition of General History of Pyrates reported Blackbeard’s association with Stede Bonnet commenced around August 1717. In it Blackbeard is merely a member of the crew who is promoted to Commander after Bonnet’s authority was ‘found too weak’ to bring the crew to order. By the second edition, their association is more egalitarian, with both captains and crews meeting and joining forces (as portrayed in the TV series Our Flag Means Death).


Captain Ellis Brand, in a letter to the Admiralty several months later, endorsed the first edition’s version of events: that Blackbeard had ascended to the Captaincy of Revenge with Bonnet still onboard. Bonnet himself reported that he had joined Blackbeard’s forces in July 1717 but he claims he was a ‘prisoner on board Captain Edward Thatch’s ship’ who had confined me for eleven months’.


Another correspondent noted how onboard Revenge Bonnet ‘has no Command’ and ‘walks about in his morning gown and then to his books, of which he has a good library on board’. (As also portrayed in Our Flag Means Death)


Summary


So, to sum up some quick, accurate facts on Blackbeard:


  • Blackbeard's real name was Edward Thatch not Teach

  • He was mostly likely born in Bristol and raised in Jamaica

  • He was probably associated with the Royal Navy more than he was a privateer.

  • He first appeared in the records as a pirate on 17 December 1716

  • He did sail with Benjamin Hornigold but there is no evidence of when their relationship began, how long it lasted or how close it was

  • He also sailed on Stede Bonnet's ship Revenge but evidence suggests Blackbeard was in command of the ship rather than an equal partner with Bonnet.

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