J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, March 25, 2014


In 2007, the British author Colin Woodard published The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man who Brought Them Down.

I therefore suspect that it was with mixed feelings that Woodard greeted the news in the very next year that researchers were uncovering important new sources on Caribbean piracy in the early 1700s. Trent University historian Arne Bialuschewski found several eyewitness reports from former captives in Jamaican archives. Mike Daniel of the Maritime Research Institute in Florida discovered an eyewitness report of how Blackbeard captured a French ship named the Rose Emelye in Nantes.

Now Woodard has drawn on those newly recognized documents and his own research to expand our knowledge of Blackbeard and his comrades in this article for Smithsonian magazine. He reports:
Blackbeard first appears in the historical record in early December 1716. . . . Of his life before then we still know very little. He went by Edward Thatch—not “Teach” as many historians have said, apparently repeating an error made by the Boston News-Letter [at that time the only newspaper in North America]. He may have been from the English port of Bristol (as the General History [of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates] says), where the name Thatch appears in early 18th-century census rolls. . . . The only eyewitness description—that of former captive Henry Bostock, originally preserved among the official papers of the British Leeward Islands colony—describes him as “a tall Spare Man with a very black beard which he wore very long.”

Despite his infamous reputation, Blackbeard was remarkably judicious in his use of force. In the dozens of eyewitness accounts of his victims, there is not a single instance in which he killed anyone prior to his final, fatal battle with the Royal Navy.
I haven’t read widely about pirates, so I learned a lot from Woodard’s article. For example, there was no documented “walking the plank” in that period of piracy. The earliest appearance of the practice or phrase was in the dying confession of George Geery, alias George Wood:
Such afterwards as shewed the least reluctance to their [i.e., the piratical mutineers’] wicked designs and cruel actions, or were any way suspected for a breach of faith with them, they either hung at the yard-arm, towed them along side, till quite dead, as a terrifying example to the rest, or obliged them to walk on a plank, extended from the ship’s side, over the Sea, into which they were turned, when at the extreme end.
Geery also claimed that he’d gotten the nickname “Justice” on that ship “from his abhorrence to the cruelties he saw exercised there by the pirating crew,” yet somehow he avoided these fates. Instead, he was executed on 22 Nov 1769 for robbing a ship off the English coast of “several hats.”


Colin Woodard said...

Thanks kindly for the attention. Do note that while my mother was born in the U.K. I'm a native of Maine. (I've been thrilled by the new findings, of course, some of which I made myself; Mike Daniel's finding was revealed as an exclusive in my Smithsonian article last month.)

I'm also the author of this book, which you posted about here in 2011: http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2011/12/visiting-american-nations.html

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the correction about your nationality. I recognized your name when I read the Smithsonian article, but it took me a few minutes before I connected it to the American nations book. These two studies are admirably varied in their approaches. Somehow I remembered you as British, but I can't say why.

The mixed feeling I posited for you above is one I've experienced some times: excitement about new evidence on a topic that still really interests me combined with a wish that it had come to light just before I finalized a project instead of just after. It's great that magazines and blogs provide avenues for further exploration.