In The Smuggler’s Gambit, one of the characters is revealed to have a past connection to one of the most famous pirates who ever lived, Blackbeard. Growing up in eastern North Carolina, I heard all kinds of Blackbeard stories growing up. He had a close connection to the families in our coastal region, so it seemed only natural that I’d incorporate some of the lesser-known history about him into my novel.
Most of what is known about Blackbeard today goes back to a single source — A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym), more popularly known as A General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724 and often attributed to Robinson Crusoe author, Daniel Defoe. (Historians now believe the book was probably authored by Nathaniel Mist.
This is unfortunate, because A General History is rife with errors and misinformation. Furthermore, recent scholarship has uncovered that the true author was almost certainly Nathaniel Mist. [See this comment by author Kevin Duffus below for the full story on that.]
Thanks to diligent research, we can now dispel many of the myths that have been built up around the most famous Pirate of all time, known by the dread moniker of Blackbeard.
- Blackbeard was not born in 1680. Although books have been written that frequently rehash information that was originally published in “Capt. Johnson’s” General History, there is no solid evidence that Blackbeard was as old as 38 when he was killed. He was more likely in his late twenties or early 30s and had been pirating for only about one or two years when his career was ended by Lt. Robert Maynard at Ocracoke Inlet. Oddly, most images depict Blackbeard as closer to 40 or 50, rather than as the young man he more than likely was.
- Blackbeard never killed anyone. — At least no records exist claiming that he did. In spite of his reputation as the scourge of the seas, there is actually very little documented about him in official records anywhere. And no records exist accusing him of murder — ever. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped some historians and archaeologists from propagating the theory that he was a blood-thirsty killer. I guess it fits better with Hollywood’s ideas about pirates, not to mention it makes those Golden Age swashbucklers seem far more interesting when they are attributed with all varieties of heartless misdeeds.
- Blackbeard was not a particularly brutal or skilled fighter. — It appears our favorite pirate relied on a carefully-cultivated reputation to cause adversaries to shake in their boots. It may come as a shock, but it’s true. In fact, other than A General History, which we now know is not entirely reliable as a historical reference book, the actual government records from the Golden Age of Piracy — both of the American colonies, as well as in England — point to only one incident during which Blackbeard actually got into a physical altercation with someone, a man named William Bell. And it was in the middle of the night on the Pamlico River. And he ended up having to call over men from his own periauger to assist him in his struggle with the man. And somehow, Blackbeard broke his sword while beating the man with it. (What was he doing? Slapping him?) Hmm… So as not to completely demolish Blackbeard’s reputation as a pirate, we do need to acknowledge that he ended up stealing a few items from the man before leaving Bell and his two passengers stranded in the middle of the river without oars or sail (which Blackbeard allegedly threw into the water). The items he took included:
- Pistols (he took them from the man’s locked chest, although it’s unclear if he made off with them, as they aren’t specifically named in the list of stolen items)
- £66 10s in cash;
- A piece of crepe fabric containing 58 yards;
- Half a barrel of brandy;
- Some unspecified items.
- Blackbeard did not have lit fuses sticking out of his beard. — This silly myth surely tantalized 18th century readers who had never actually been at sea, but anyone who lives in a coastal region (like I do) knows that the winds on the water make it nearly impossible to light a match, much less keep lit fuses safely away from that bushy, flammable beard that Blackbeard was reputed to sport. Does it really make sense that a man would essentially light his face on fire, whilst walking around in the wind on board a rocking vessel? Is it likely that such a man would be able to focus much on swashbuckling maneuvers? Of course not. He’d be working too hard to constantly reposition himself so that those lit fuses didn’t set his whiskers ablaze.
- Blackbeard’s most valuable treasure was not gold or jewels. — As has been discovered and documented by historian and author Kevin Duffus, the most valuable ‘loot’ ever taken by Blackbeard was the human cargo of a French slave ship called La Concorde, which he promptly renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The pirate kept 60 of the slaves on board and left the rest of the 400-man company marooned with their French captain. Here is a summary according to Duffus:
Depositions filed in Charleston, S.C., later that year by former members of Blackbeard’s crew – the ones he left behind at Beaufort Inlet – are well-preserved and very detailed. When Blackbeard and his inner circle of associates sailed to Bath, they had with them 60 African men. Yet, six months later, when Blackbeard was killed at Ocracoke, he had aboard his sloop only six Africans. What happened to the 54 other African men?
“I believe they were the pirates’ secret treasure, a labor force delivered to the impoverished plantation society of the Pamlico region, which was desperately short on manpower and far from the slave markets at Williamsburg, Va., and Charleston.
“The colony of North Carolina had been wracked by years of political strife, punitive trade restrictions, drought, sickness and war with Indians. As her wealthier neighbors, Virginia and South Carolina, began to grow due to navigable, deepwater ports, the northern colony of Carolina was severely constrained by the vagaries of shoaling inlets, shallow sounds and great distances between her plantations and the traveled byways of the sea.
“Compared with South Carolina and Virginia, North Carolina had few slaves. “For the want of suitable ports negro slaves were not imported directly into North Carolina, and the planters there were forced to buy from Virginia and South Carolina. And in this very important particular North Carolina was at great disadvantage,” wrote Colonial Records editor William Saunders.”
Finally, while this isn’t specifically about Blackbeard, I’ll call this myth-buster a bonus. Many of Blackbeard’s men were said to have been hanged at Williamsburg after their captain was beheaded by Virginia’s Lt. Maynard. Of the men who were hanged, it was most probably at Hampton rather than Williamsburg. Furthermore, it turns out that the rest of his men (those who didn’t bear arms against the King’s colors) received a pardon and many went on to live out their days in and around Bath—but that part didn’t make it into history books.
If you’re interested in learning more about the real Blackbeard, then I highly recommend you obtain a copy of Kevin Duffus’s book, The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate – Within Every Legend Lies a Grain of Truth. Now in its fourth edition, the beautiful reference turns most of what you’ve heard about this famous pirate on its head, and in my opinion, the truth is far more interesting than the fiction.
(Note: This article originally appeared on my author site, SaraWhitford.com.)