Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - NonfictionBlackbeard Captain Kidd
In the foreword, Cabell states this book differs from others because it’s really about two men – Blackbeard and Alexander Spotswood – rather than just a biography of the notorious pirate. He also expresses that a key reason for writing this history is to separate the myths from reality. The two principal questions he and his fellow authors seek to resolve by the end of Blackbeard are:
Was Blackbeard really as bad as his reputation claims or was he really one of the best PR men the world has ever seen? Was Spotswood a tyrant or a man acutely aware of the fragility of prosperity and what was necessary to ensure the state of Virginia continued to enjoy growth and prosperity? (x)
The authors also ask questions to challenge what readers and other authors believe. For example, what if Blackbeard chose not to take the King’s pardon in New Providence because he knew Governor Rogers and didn’t want anyone to know his true identity? At the same time, the authors demonstrate how Johnson embellished historical facts to make his story of Blackbeard more appealing. One instance of this involves the pirate’s physical description. Captain Henry Bostock, one of Blackbeard’s victims, said he was “[a] tall spare man with a black beard which he wore very long.” (12) Johnson expanded this to:
This beard was black which he suffered to grow of an extravagant length: as to breadth it came up to his eyes. He was accustomed to twist it with ribbons, in small tails, after the manner of our ramilies wigs, and turn them about his ears. In time of action, he wore a sling over his shoulders with three brace of pistols hanging in holsters like bandoliers, and stuck lighted matches under his hat, which, appearing on each side of his face his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightening. (12)
Rather than opening with either the early years of Blackbeard’s life or his demise, the authors examine the main source historians use when writing about this pirate – Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. They follow this with brief summaries of the principal players in Blackbeard’s story. Aside from the pirate himself and Virginia’s lieutenant-governor, these people include Lieutenant Robert Maynard, Governor Eden and Secretary of the Colony Tobias Knight of North Carolina, Benjamin Hornigold, Captain Woodes Rogers, and Captain Johnson. Chapter four looks at Blackbeard’s contemporaries and the period of history in which he lived, but the inclusion of Dick Turpin (a legendary highwayman) seems a bit of a stretch. Stede Bonnet and Charles Vane, who are introduced in subsequent chapters, are more relevant contemporaries who actually crossed paths with Blackbeard.
Chapter two clearly shows the dilemma historians face when researching Blackbeard’s life, from when and where he was born to what his real name was. Throughout the book, when assumptions must be made for the story to progress, the authors spell out what those suppositions are and then show what led them to these conclusions. The authors also provide one of the clearest hypotheses I’ve encountered as to why Blackbeard rechristened La Concorde to Queen Anne’s Revenge. In addition, they include interesting information often omitted from other volumes on this pirate. For example, Robert Johnson, who was the governor of South Carolina at the time when Blackbeard blockaded Charles Town, was one of the first to refer to Edward Teach as “Blackbeard”.
At the end of the narrative, the authors provide a list of resources to consult for those who wish to learn more. The appendices include the entirety of Governor Spotswood’s letter to the Council of Trade and Plantations in support of his actions; Governor Johnson’s plea for naval frigates to protect South Carolina and his account of William Rhett’s capture of Stede Bonnet; and two letters from individuals about Blackbeard’s blockade of Charles Town. The final appendix is a timeline of events concerning Spotswood. Chapter notes and an index conclude the book.
If there is any weakness to this book, it is the frequent repetition of some information, but the positives far outweigh this minor infraction. Blackbeard is a blunt and graphic recounting of one episode in pirate history, and provides new insight into that history rather than relying on the legends that have arisen from it. To answer, or at least attempt to answer, the questions in the introduction, the authors provide compelling evidence to support or contradict what historians believe; then they challenge readers to make up their own minds based on the evidence and suppositions put forth. This insightful, compelling, and thought-provoking volume on history’s most notorious pirate is a worthy addition to any collection on Blackbeard.
Review Copyrighted ©2013 Cindy Vallar
Captain Kidd: The Hunt for the Truth
By Craig Cabell, Graham A. Thomas, and Allan Richards
Pen & Sword Maritime, 2010, ISBN 9781844159611, £19.99
Through thirteen chapters and six appendices, the authors attempt to separate myth from reality to uncover the truth about William Kidd – who started out a pirate hunter, but ended up executed for piracy. The authors’ goal is not to tell the reader which he was, but rather to present all the facts to allow the reader to make up his or her own mind. The story unfolds at the beginning, recapping what little is known about Kidd prior to his appearance in the Caribbean in 1689.
The book includes a map of Kidd’s voyages that depict his outward journey and his return, as well as the failed interception by the Royal Navy. There are several pages of black-and-white pictures, although the inclusion of two photographs of modern crafts is a questionable choice. There’s a list of books for further reading, chapter notes, and an index.
One point the authors stress in the preface is that “there is no single person who is able to confirm Kidd’s account from beginning to end.” This statement (as well as other points) makes it difficult to know whether the truths put forth are actually that, for there remains no irrefutable evidence one way or the way to answer the question beyond a shadow of doubt. The introduction contains one misstatement:
The first person to brand Kidd as a pirate was Captain Charles Johnson who wrote a biography of Kidd in his book, A General History Of The Most Notorious Pirates, which was first published in 1724.
In actuality the English East India Company, as well as the Admiralty Courts that tried him, branded Kidd as such long before Johnson’s book was published.
The authors’ unbiased account incorporates primary documents and secondary resources. The overwhelming question of why remains elusive. Why did a respected, wealthy family man leave his loved ones and become entangled in the adventure that eventually cost him his life? Possibilities are presented, but as with the primary focus of the book – was he or wasn’t he a pirate – no definitive answer is available.
For me, the more interesting portion of the book is the “Annexes” (appendices): Crew members who served with Kidd, Legend, Timeline of Kidd’s maritime career, Articles of agreement, Letters concerning Kidd, Pirates and privateers: Kidd compared.
Captain Kidd is logically presented and easy to follow. Readers will find the narrative interesting, and the authors point out some of the problems with recent and not-so-recent published books. If you are in need of a good, straight-forward account of Kidd’s life, career, and demise, Captain Kidd is a worthwhile resource to consult. Those looking to find some new enlightenment on the subject may have to look elsewhere.
Review Copyrighted ©2010 Cindy Vallar
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