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Israel Hands
By Cindy Vallar

BlackbeardAmong the many men who sailed with Blackbeard was a man named Israel Hands. Depending on the source consulted, he was Edward Teach’s first mate, sailing master, or boatswain. Whichever he was, he was a man Teach trusted, and he would be privy to his captain’s plans to wreck the Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) in June 1718.

In March of that year, the pirates captured an eighty-ton sloop off Turneffe Island (Belize). The Adventure’s master was David Herriot, who hauled logwood to markets where the highly prized commodity was sold to make a brilliant red dye. Captain Herriot and his crew became Blackbeard’s “guests” aboard the QAR, while Israel took command of the Adventure, which carried eight guns. He sailed in consort with his former captain, and was among the fleet of five ships that weighed anchor around 6 April.

Following the May blockade of Charles Town, South Carolina, Blackbeard decided to downsize. He had too many men under his command, which meant too many to share the plunder. So he “accidentally” drove the QAR onto a shoal in Beaufort Inlet. To keep up this pretense, he requested assistance from Hands and the Adventure, but the sloop also ran aground. The wrecked vessels couldn’t be disgorged from the shoal and the repairs were too extensive to easily fix, so Teach, Israel, and the other “trusted” pirates abandoned the QAR and Adventure. They boarded the remaining vessels in the fleet, Stede Bonnet’s Revenge and two other captured boats. Blackbeard suggested that Bonnet and a handful of pirates request pardons from North Carolina’s governor, Charles Eden. During their absence, Teach, Hands, and “forty white men and sixty Negroes” absconded with one of the two other vessels, which was laden with about £2,500, while the remaining two hundred plus pirates were left behind to fend for themselves.

Israel, Teach, and his trusted cadre also sought pardons from Governor Eden. They “retired” in North Carolina. One of Blackbeard’s favored spots there was Ocracoke Island, and in the fall of 1718, Charles Vane, Robert Deal, John “Calico Jack” Rackham, and many other pirates visited Blackbeard. For one month the pirates partied, including Israel. Although Vane tried to enlist Teach’s help in a raid, Blackbeard refused. Soon after, Vane and the others sailed away.

Pirate party
The pirates party

Eventually, Blackbeard went back on the account. But not Israel. A short time before this occurred, he, Teach, and two others gathered in Blackbeard’s cabin for a drink. As Captain Johnson told the tale:
Black-beard, without any Provocation, privately draws out a small Pair of Pistols, and cocks them under the Table, which being perceived by the Man, he withdrew and went upon Deck, leaving Hands, the Pilots, and the Captain together. When the Pistols were ready, he blew out the Candle, and crossing his Hands, discharged them at his Company; Hands, the Master was shot thro’ the Knee, and lam’d for Life; the other Pistol did no Execution. – Being asked the meaning of this, he only answered, by damning them, that if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was. (Defoe, 82)
Some historians have proffered that this was Blackbeard’s way of teaching his men a lesson: If I will do this to a man I trust, I won’t hesitate to do this or worse to you. Kevin Duffus, however, believes otherwise. “The only logical reason why Black Beard would have shot Israel Hands in the knee is because his sailing master must have been attempting to subvert his captain’s authority.” (Duffus, 140) Why? When he wrecked the Adventure per Teach’s orders, Israel ceased to be captain of his own ship and had to heed another man’s commands.

Alexander Spotswood by Charles BridgeIn either case, Israel was not at Ocracoke Inlet when Lieutenant Robert Maynard and his men attacked and the infamous pirate captain was slain on 22 November 1718. Instead, Israel was in Bath, North Carolina, recuperating from his wound, which permanently disabled him; he did not escape the roundup of pirates in town that occurred soon after. Following his capture, he and fifteen others were taken to Williamsburg, Virginia to stand trial.

Now Israel opted to watch out for himself and testified against his former mates. Although convicted of piracy, he was pardoned “just as he was about to be executed.” (Defoe, 82) Captain Johnson claimed the reprieve was on account of the extension of the King’s Pardon. (The act for which Israel was tried occurred while he was laid up in Bath and, therefore, could not be guilty of the crime.) More likely, his reprieve came about because he testified for the Crown against the other pirates and Tobias Knight, a provincial secretary and one of the North Carolinian officials whom Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood (right) believed was corrupt. According to the minutes of the North Carolina Governor’s Council for 27 May 1719:
Hesikia Hands[,] master of Capt Thaches Sloop Adventure[,] seems to sweare possitively in his Depossition that the sd [said] Thache went from Ocacoch Inlet at his returne into this Country from his last voyage with a present to the sd Tobias Knights house [,] when by the same deposition [Hands] acknowledgth that to be out of the reach of his knoledge[,] he being all the time at the sd Inlet which lyes at above thirty leagues distance from [Knight’s] house and further the [said] Tobias Knight doth pray your Honours to observe that the aforsd Hesikias Hands was  . . . for some time before the giving of the [said] Evidence kept in prison under the Terrors of Death a most severe prosecution . . . . (Minutes, 345)
The supposed gifts – cocoa, loaf sugar, and sweetmeats – were from two French ships Teach had pirated near Bermuda after he took the pardon. When he returned from his visit to Knight, he brought with him an assortment of other items, which he claimed to have purchased. In reality, he had seized them from a boat belonging to William Bell.

Did Israel Hands turn King’s witness because Teach had shot him? Did he carry a grudge for having lost his position as captain because of the grounding of Adventure? The historical record is silent on both of these questions. Historians can hypothesize that either or both were valid reasons as to why he testified against the others, but there is no definitive proof. Israel never explained why he did so.

What became of him following his release after four months in prison? We don’t know, for when he left, he walked out of the historical record. The only hint of what might have happened to him came from Captain Johnson, who wrote that Israel “was alive some Time ago in London, begging his Bread.” (Defoe, 84) It may even be possible he was one of the pirates Johnson spoke to prior to writing his piratical history.

Peter Martin, also known as “Pirate Pete” and a guide of pirate walks in Bristol, England, tells his audiences that prior to his death, Teach asked Israel to take plundered diamonds back to his mother in Bristol. Israel never delivered the package because local merchants seized the diamonds. “And that was the start of a famous bank in England, now the National West Bank, and the diamonds were the collateral that started it.” (Duffus, 37) Truth or legend? We don’t know, but it’s not as improbable as you might think. Although the majority of plunder taken from buccaneer surgeon Lionel Wafer in 1690 was returned to him, authorities retained £300 to help to fund William and Mary College.

For additional information on Israel Hands, I recommend the following:
Armstrong, Wayne P. “Logwood and Brazilwood: Two Trees that Spawned 2 Nations,” Wayne’s World (Spring 1992).  [accessed http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ecoph4.htm on 12/24/2014]

Butler, Lindley S. Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast. University of North Carolina, 2000.

Cabell, Craig, Graham A. Thomas, and Allan Richards. The Hunt for Blackbeard: The World’s Most Notorious Pirate. Pen & Sword, 2012.

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1990.
Duffus, Kevin. The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate. Looking Glass Productions, 2008.

Gosse, Philip. The Pirates’ Who’s Who. Rio Grande Press, 1924.

Hughson, Shirley Carter. Blackbeard & the Carolina Pirates. Port Hampton Press, 2000.

Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard’s Last Fight: Pirate Hunting in North Carolina 1718. Osprey, 2013.
Konstam, Angus. Piracy: The Complete History. Osprey, 2008.

Lee, Robert E. Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times. John F. Blair, 2002.

Marx, Jenifer G. “The Golden Age of Piracy” in Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea. Turner Publishing, 1996.

Minutes of the North Carolina Governor’s Council, including a deposition, a remonstrance, and correspondence concerning Tobias Knight’s business with Edward Teach North Carolina. Council May 27, 1719 Volume 02, Pages 341-349” at Documenting the American South. [accessed http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/document/csr02-0181 on 7 December 2014]

Rogoziński, Jan. Pirates! Facts on File, 1995.

Snow, Edward Rowe. Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast. Commonwealth Editions, 2004.

Travers, Tim. Pirates: A History. The History Press, 2009.

Woodard, Colin. Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Harcourt, 2007.

Zepke, Terrance. Pirates of the Carolinas. Pineapple Press, 2000.

© 2014 Cindy Vallar
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