Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - NonfictionBlackbeard Reconsidered Quest for Blackbeard
One of the most influential books on pirates of the Golden Age is Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). Historians often refer to it; it has inspired well-known novelists; and its author’s identity has been debated for centuries. Not bad for a book that has been in print for nearly 300 years. But how reliable is it as a primary source? The author did embellish some elements about the pirates, but other details can be substantiated as fact. What Brooks examines in this forty-three-page book is the accuracy of the portrayal of Edward Thache, more commonly known as Blackbeard.
Brooks agrees with historian Arne Bialuschewski’s assessment that Johnson’s true identity belongs to Nathaniel Mist. This printer/publisher vilified Blackbeard, even though historical documents provide evidence that other pirates, such as Ned Low, were far more brutal. In fact, victims’ eyewitness testimony never once gives evidence that Thache slew anyone before he faced Lt. Robert Maynard in November 1718. In examining Mist’s account of Blackbeard, Brooks states that Mist chose to ignore primary sources in crafting his depiction of Thache’s life as a pirate – not once, but differently for each edition of the book.
The author also scrutinizes the historiography of Blackbeard and early eighteenth-century piracy, showing how Mist’s portrayal impacted later studies of this pirate. These publications include Hugh F. Rankin’s The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina (1960); Harold T. Wilkins’s “On the Treasure Trail of the Wicked Old Pirates” (American Weekly, 11 February1940); Marcus Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2007); Robert E. Lee’s Blackbeard: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times (1974); Patrick Pringle’s Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (1953); Angus Konstam’s Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate (2006); and Kevin Duffus’ The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate (2008).
One of Brooks’ assertions is that these histories have further muddied the water about Blackbeard. This pirate’s surname also complicates the issue. Is it Teach, Thatch, Thache, Drummond, or Beard? And what of his life before he became a pirate? According to Brooks, historians tend to rely on primary source material without always searching genealogical sources. Since Blackbeard is believed to come from Bristol, some have checked British records there without turning up any evidence to support this claim. But what if Thache came from nearby Gloucester, or even Jamaica? Brooks discusses genealogical records in both places to locate several Thaches, including the family of Edward Thache, which the author then shares with readers.
Originally published as an article in The North Carolina Historical Review, this book includes footnotes, illustrations, and an index that clearly demonstrate the depth of Brooks’ research. He makes a compelling and persuasive argument about Johnson’s real identity, the reasons for vilifying Blackbeard, and whether the Thaches of Jamaica might be related to the pirate Edward Thache. This book serves to whet the reader’s appetite for his in-depth study, Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World, which is slated for publication in 2016.
Review Copyrighted ©2016 Cindy Vallar
Quest for Blackbeard: The True Story of Edward Thache and His World
By Baylus C. Brooks
Lulu, 2016, ISBN 978-1-365-32821-3, paperback $39.00
ISBN 978-1-365-25885-5, hardback $59.96
Who was Blackbeard? The answer to this is far from simple, because many legends surround this elusive person. In Quest for Blackbeard, Brooks sifts through genealogical and historical records to provide a fact-based response to this question. His use of these primary documents, some of which haven’t been seen before, allow him to distill facts from fiction. He does refer to secondary sources, but only to highlight how these narratives diverge from or defend his findings.
Since 1724 and written six years after Blackbeard’s death, a main source on pirates, including Blackbeard, has been Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates ever. Its author was a contemporary, familiar with the political and social constraints of the early eighteenth century. His true identity remains unknown, although Daniel Defoe and Nathaniel Mist are two candidates for this person. Brooks sides with historian Arne Bialuschewski, who makes a good case for the latter being Johnson, and this becomes evident as readers delve into the pages of Quest for Blackbeard. Over time, however, historians have come to recognize that Johnson blurred true history with fiction, so A General History is more semi-biographical in nature. This is why Brooks seeks information from more reliable resources to uncover the truth about Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard the pirate.
While Blackbeard’s piratical career is known, his origins are mired in mystery. Brooks, with assistance from other researchers and genealogists, has uncovered documentary evidence in Jamaica that sheds light on this quandary. Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Thache, although through the years it has been spelled Teach, Thatch, Theach, and Tach – a byproduct of an era when spelling wasn’t uniform. He was probably born in the environs of Bristol, England, and immigrated to Jamaica as a young lad with his parents and sister. His family had wealth and social standing in the island’s capital of Spanish Town (St. Jago de la Vega). During Queen Anne’s War (known as the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe), he served aboard HMS Windsor. While no ship’s logs or muster books support this – and Brooks provides good reasons why this might be – a Jamaican deed provides this information.
History has often been taught in a vacuum, so our understanding of events doesn’t always include the whole picture. In order to truly understand Thache, it’s important to view him from the perspective of the world in which he lived and through the eyes of those who either knew him or were impacted by him. Brooks ably provides this historical context, sometimes diverting from the straight and narrow, but he always brings the focus back to Thache. For this reason, readers simply seeking a book just about Blackbeard won’t find it within these pages. Instead, we are treated to a treasure trove of information that gives a better understanding of Thache’s world, piracy in general, and how politics, the media, and changing attitudes influence how he was and is viewed.
Brooks touches on a wide variety of interconnected topics that may have influenced Blackbeard in varying degrees. These include Jacobites, class, and religion, as well as locations such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Carolinas. Among the many pirates discussed are Elizabethan Sea Dogs, Benjamin Hornigold, Henry Avery, Robert Searle, Charles Vane, Henry Jennings, Samuel Bellamy, and Stede Bonnet. Brooks also spotlights men who either supported or worked against pirates, such as Sir Thomas Modyford, Nicholas Trott, Charles Eden, Tobias Knight, William Rhett, and Alexander Spotswood. By examining all these people within the proper historical context, Brooks suggests we need to revisit and revise our “general modern view of dirty, poor, and destitute pirates, at least their leaders.” (9)
Throughout the 651 pages of this book Brooks shares what other historians and authors have written about Blackbeard. Among these are Peter Earle, Colin Woodard, Marcus Rediker, Mark Hanna, Robert E. Lee, and David Cordingly – names many readers familiar with pirate histories readily recognize. While Brooks agrees with some, he disagrees with others. Authors’ personal biases and agendas influence their writing, and readers should understand these while reading non-fiction. Brooks certainly recognizes this and, for the most part, his presentation is equally weighted; however, his discussions on armchair historians (those with no formal training in historical research) and those who “adopted” Thache as a North Carolinian demonstrate his own biases because the arguments come across more as rants than impartial evaluations.
While revising our understanding of pirates is one of Brooks’ goals in writing Quest for Blackbeard, he states two others. One pertains to corrupt private colonies and the need for “central government control for any progress to commence once . . . Britain dominated in America.” (9) The second pinpoints an epicenter for the dawning of the Golden Age of Piracy: the July 1715 hurricane that resulted in the catastrophic wreck of eleven of Spain’s treasure ships. The information he puts forth in this narrative masterfully supports these goals.
Each of the fifteen chapters begins with a quotation and has numerous subheadings. Footnotes are provided on pages where the source is referred to, but there is no bibliography. This requires readers, who are interested in locating the resource, to find its original footnote for the full citation. Figures (illustrations, maps, family trees, timelines, and charts) are renumbered with each chapter and no master list with page numbers is provided for easy reference. Nor are they always referred to within the narrative. There are three appendices, although the references to them within the narrative aren’t uniformly indicated. (The print in Appendix C is small and may require a magnifying glass to read.) The extensive index, however, mitigates these oversights to some degree.
Quest for Blackbeard is an absorbing account of Brooks’ quest to learn the history behind the legend. He admits that genealogy involves assumptions and identifies where he speculates on some aspects of Thache’s life and his contemporaries. This is why readers will encounter words such as likely, probably, and possibly throughout their reading. But these suppositions don’t detract from the importance of his research. The book is an invaluable addition to any pirate collection, and the “new” historical evidence and thought-provoking conclusions provide stimulating areas for future research and conversation.
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