Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - NonfictionBlackbeard Reconsidered Quest for Blackbeard Sailing East Dictionary of Pyrate Biography
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 This printer/publisher vilified Blackbeard, even though historical documents provide evidence that other pirates, such as Ned Low, were far more brutal.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.
Review Copyrighted ©2017 Cindy Vallar
Sailing East: West Indian Pirates in Madagascar
By Baylus C. Brooks
Poseidon Historical Publications, 2018, ISBN 978-0359047925, $29.95
Also available in hard cover and e-book formats
One of the most quoted resources on pirate history is a book published in 1724, written by an unknown author who called himself Captain Charles Johnson. The problem with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates is that it is actually a blend of fact and fiction. Brooks makes it a point “to forget this flagrantly fickle source and focus entirely on only primary documents.” (Acknowledgements) This time around, he turns his attention to Western pirates who ventured into the Indian Ocean to plunder the riches of Mughal India and become a thorn in the English East India Company’s side.
When Henry Every captures the Gang-i-Sawai in 1695, he demonstrates to his fellow pirates just how rich the takings are in Eastern waters. Economically, India is the most important country in the world. And the Mughal emperor uses his clout to demand recompense for Every’s attack. Since Every has returned to the Caribbean, that’s where he is sought and, slowly, England and her colonies attempt to make the West Indies an undesirable hunting ground for pirates, especially after Woodes Rogers arrives in the Bahamas to bring an end to the pirate republic at New Providence.
So the pirates turn their attention to the East. This is where Brooks begins “the tale of the last West Indian pirates who, cornered by social progress, drawn by legend, and such gilded fantasies of the last generation of buccaneers, sailed east for Madagascar.” (23) This examination of these pirates begins and ends with Olivier LeVasseur, better known as la Buse or the Buzzard. The intervening chapters discuss the capture of the British East India Company’s Cassandra, captained by James Macrae; plundering the Indian ports of Bombay, Goa, and Cochin; Edward Congdon; the capture of the Nossa Senhora do Cabo and her passenger, the Viceroy of Goa; an anti-piracy squadron; and Richard Taylor, a pirate who eventually seeks a pardon and employment from the Spanish.
The hallmark of Brooks’ investigations is that he relies only on primary documents to tell the pirates’ stories, and he vets these sources to determine their reliability, a process he shares as the tales unfold. Readers meet many pirates – including Thomas Cocklyn, Howell Davis, Jasper Seager, and Edward England – but this is far more than just a pirate history. Interwoven throughout the narrative are discussions on connected topics, such as captives Captain William Snelgrave and Richard Lasinby, Jacobitism and Stuart Anti-government Conservatism, Johnson’s Edward England versus the real Edward England, and Edward Congdon versus Christopher Condent. Interspersed throughout the book are maps, illustrations from documents, and pictures. Footnotes are included instead of endnotes, as are a spreadsheet showing the ships seized by LeVasseur, Cocklyn, and Davis while Snelgrave was a prisoner, and See references identifying where topics are covered in greater detail. Aside from a twenty-two-page index, there are also seven appendices. These are: A list of ships allegedly taken by pirates on the African Coast in spring-summer 1719; The London Journal, 17 February 1722; Snelgrave Letter – 30 April 1719; Snelgrave Letter – 1 August 1719; Snelgrave Deposition – 20 January 1721; Three Lasinby Narratives – March 1722; and Detail of HMS Phoenix Log Entries 22 February – 24 April 1718.
Sailing East is an invaluable and illuminating tool for people seeking primary documentation on pirate history. Its focus on western pirates in the waters around Africa and the Indian Ocean is a refreshing departure from the normal fare of Caribbean piracy.
Dictionary of Pyrate Biography 1713-1720
By Baylus C. Brooks
Poseidon, 2020, ISBN 978-1-67818-234-2, US $49.95
Over the years, a number of biographical dictionaries have been published that focus on pirates, or pirates and subjects of peripheral interest. The primary time period of these books focuses on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This volume further narrows this span to the most prolific period of pirate history, known as the golden age of piracy. What sets Dictionary of Pyrate Biography apart from all other similar volumes is its content, making it both unique and vital to anyone seeking quality information on these sea marauders.
Perhaps, Brooks says it best: “This book is an attempt to retell the stories of each pirate, but only from the actual primary source records available.” (2) As he explains, one of the go-to resources that researchers often consult and quote is the 1724 edition of Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Relying on this book isn’t the best documentary evidence because the true identity of the author is unknown; the chapters are a blend of fact and fiction; and it’s a secondary resource that fails to identify where the author secured his information. To provide historians, researchers, and pirate aficionados with a resource that is more accurate and provides citations for the quoted documents, Brooks compiled this collection. He began with the list of 209 pirates who took advantage of the King’s pardon in 1718 and surrendered to Captain Vincent Pearse. From there, he expanded the contents through his own research and with the help of other experts.
A number of entries consist only of the fact that they gave themselves up to Pearse. Many entries provide additional details about individual pirates. What these are not are cohesive, seamlessly interwoven narratives of each pirate. Instead, they begin with a brief paragraph that includes known biographical details – such as birthplace and date, piratical career, and, if captured, what became of the person – after which are quotations from contemporary documents pertaining to the individual. Where feasible, these are quoted in full. It is up to the reader to sift through and decipher the provided information, and then do further research to fill in the gaps. The length of each entry depends on the person and what is known about him or her. It can be as short as a single sentence or extend from a few paragraphs to several pages.
While the majority of individuals in this dictionary, which is arranged alphabetically by last name, are pirates, readers will also find entries on pirate hunters, naval personnel, victims, merchants, captives, and governors. Most are men, but there are a few women. The inclusion of a handful of personages is unclear, since their connections to pirates are murky at best. (Examples of these are Colonel Daniel Axtell, who is connected with regicide, and Dr. William Axtell, who petitioned to rebuild Port Royal after it was destroyed twice.) Many names will be unfamiliar to readers, but others are quite well-known: Stede Bonnet, Anne Bonny, Colonel William Rhett, Governor Alexander Spotswood, Captain William Snelgrave, and Edward Thache to name a few. (One name that is absent is Governor Woodes Rogers, but Brooks assures me that this oversight will be corrected in the second edition.)
There are a few drawbacks to accessing the valuable information contained in this book. Variant spellings are only listed with the main entry for the pirate. For example, the user has to know that documentation for Blackbeard will only be found under Edward Thache. There are no see references to this entry if you look under Blackbeard, Theach, Teach, or Thatch. Although the appendix contains a list of those pirates who surrendered to Captain Pearse, there is no master index or table of contents and no list of pirates who served under specific captains. For example, if you’re looking for all the pirates connected to Stede Bonnet, you need to know their names ahead of time or page through the entire book in hopes of finding them.
Testimonies are included with some entries. These are invaluable, but they aren’t easy to read because of the ink color chosen to differentiate between Query and Response. The questions are in black, but the answers are in light gray, which is difficult to see, let alone read.
On the other hand, there are advantages to this book beyond the primary documents. Brooks includes maps, photographs of actual sources, pictures, and family trees throughout the book. Among these are examples of Round Robins, a way of signing a paper without any one name being higher than another. Everything is footnoted on each page, so readers readily know where the material comes from. Another notable feature is the inclusion of a few “unknown pirate” entries; their deeds are known, but their names have been lost to history.
“Treasure” is a word intricately associated with piracy, and this volume is indeed a treasure as invaluable as any the sea marauders acquired during the golden age. It provides at one’s fingertips a wealth of knowledge that will save countless precious hours of research, which may, in turn, unearth even more material that will be included in future editions of this work. The Dictionary of Pyrate Biography belongs in every collection where the truth about pirates and their deeds is highly sought and prized.
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