The Firsts of Blackbeard: Exploring Edward Thatch’s Early Days as a Pirate

A potential depiction of Edward Thatch, otherwise known as Blackbeard, in his earliest pirate days. (Portrayed by the late Joseph Ruggiero (1984-2010), with beard photoshopped black. Picture taken by David Fictum.)

Preface: A special Thank You goes to The Blackbeard Society for its generous financial support of the research I engaged in for this article.  The Blackbeard Society is a new organization that strives to support of research, writing, and events created to enhance knowledge and appreciation of the notorious pirate’s history.  More special Thanks goes to Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates ( link here), and Jim Lawlor, author of The Harbour Island Story ( link here), for their help during the research stage of this article.  Some of their references led me to more obscure information about Thatch’s, Bonnet’s, Hornigold’s, and Napping’s careers.  A further special thank you Bethany Easton of London who visited the National Archives at Kew and photographed some of the documents I needed for this study.

Of all the pirates who sailed during the past millennium, Blackbeard’s history possesses more legends, myths, and unverified information than any other pirate. If half of the tales about his treasure proved true, his plunder’s value would rival those taken by pirates in the Red Sea in the 1690s and 1720s.[1]  Unfortunately, for treasure hunters, the historical record does not produce the same rich details featured in these many legends.  After the defeat of Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Thatch, the navy did not find dozens of chests full of valuable coins like a creative writers might imagine.  Instead, the navy men found barrels sugar, cocoa, cotton, and several slaves.  When sold in Virginia, the perishable commodities sold for £2247.19.4 in Virginia currency.[2]  Some might propose that the navy and other people in the area missed or neglected to report Thatch’s other treasures.  But, such ideas can only be conjecture since there is no evidence that Blackbeard collected an enormous fortune.  The historical record often refuses to yield many of the claims made of Thatch’s story made by enthusiasts, writers, and even some historians.

This difficulty of matching period evidence to these perceived narratives plagues Blackbeard’s early days as well as his later ones.  In 2013, William Cronan in his presidential address to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association stated, “We [historians] are not allowed to argue or narrate beyond the limits of our evidence.”  In the realm of Blackbeard’s history, publications from enthusiasts and historians alike stray far beyond what period documents say on a regular basis.  Discussing the errors of every historian who published an account of Thatch’s career could fill its own book, but accomplish little towards bringing people closer to understanding what the historical record presents of Thatch’s history.  The few known documents about Blackbeard’s early career lack information on many issues, including a definitive date for when Thatch became pirate, when he became the captain of his own crew, and what voyages he engaged in before his raid off the Virginia and Delaware Capes in the latter half of 1717.  With period sources yielding few facts about this pirate, asking several questions of the historical record offers a means of understanding Thatch’s early days less hindered by centuries of old narratives and legend.

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“The Strongest Man Carries the Day,” Life in New Providence, 1716-1717

Excerpt from image of Capt. George Lowther and his Company at Port Mayo in the Gulf of Matique, 1734, showing pirates in a makeshift tent.

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By 1716, New Providence stood as a stronghold for pirates.  Since past Bahamian residents and governments allowed pirates to enter and use their harbor for generations, this news surprised few among people familiar with New World maritime activity.  John Graves, a former customs collector in Nassau, published a prediction in 1707 that the Bahamas would become a, “Shelter for Pyrates, if left without good Government and some Strength.”  He further predicted, “that one small Pyrat with Fifty Men that are acquainted with the Inhabitants (which too many of them are) shall and will Ruin that Place, and be assisted by the loose Inhabitants; who hitherto have never been Prosecuted to effect, for Aiding, Abetting, and Assisting the said Villains with Provision.”1  Six years later, Grave’s predictions came true.

In the past decade, a premium channel television program, a billion-dollar video game franchise, and popular press publications all helped revive public awareness and interest in the Bahamas and its pirate past.  These shows, games, and books are consistent in the manner they present the history of New Providence.  In telling the stories of the pirates, the narratives usually centered on captains, their crews, and the British officials that confronted them.  The recent portrayals of Nassau tend to follow what Hollywood and artistic mediums has done for generations.  The romanticized image of the typical pirate base set at a remote Caribbean settlement features a group of wooden post-and-beam frame buildings, built near an elegant beach, and populated with pirates gallivanting with attractive women day and night.  This common media depiction, while appealing to general audiences, is two-dimensional.  This weak caricature does not delve deep into understanding what New Providence was like in 1716-1717, when Nassau’s pirate population was at its peak. Continue reading