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War Makes Thieves, Peace Hangs Them
In an era that condoned smuggling and lawbreaking the transition from privateer to pirate was easy
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
” ‘Tis almost incredible,” he wrote, “what a vast quantity of East India goods would have been brought into this port, had there not been a change in government. Two men in this town had for their share twelve thousand pounds each, which were brought from Madagascar and got there with the barter with pirates. …”
We must allow for a certain excess of zeal in the Earl’s reports. Anything approaching a total suppression of the piratical trade was beyond the powers of any one man. An illustration of the complexity of the situation is the fact that Bellomont had himself been one of the backers of Captain Kidd. The news that Kidd, in 1698, had turned pirate must have suggested the possibility of arousing distrust of the Governor at home. In New York Bellomont had become universally unpopular; the rich merchants had brought vilifying accusations against him and these had been conveyed to powerful connections in the English aristocracy. It was natural, therefore, for him to exaggerate his effectiveness in his letters home. Actually, documents in the city archives show that New York was still haunted by pirates as late as the summer of 1717.
The thirty-year piratical era came to an end in 1718, not in New York but in Virginia. There, that rare creature, an honest royal governor, had turned up in Alexander Spotswood. Meanwhile, a change in colonial fortunes had made piracy unpopular.
Queen Anne’s War had ended in 1713. It was folowed by circumstances very different from those consequent upon King William’s War. The Peace of Utrecht was the opposite of that of Ryswick. It put an end to French commercial competition. As a result, prosperity instead of depression came to the American colonies. Legitimate trade became more profitable and far less risky than the shadowy negotiations with Madagascar.
At the same time, Queen Anne’s War had produced a new breed of privateer-pirates. They were bold and savage men, drunk with the fortunes they had reaped and, for the most part, utterly ruthless. Also, even before the war was over, they had begun to prey, not only on enemy or neutral vessels, but on colonial shipping as well. When peace came and the newly prosperous American sea traders were carrying their legitimate rich cargoes, these new pirates became an intolerable scourge. Also, they made raids on the seaports, terrorizing the inhabitants, burning, pillaging, and making prisoners of those who resisted. Horrible stories drifted back of prisoners stripped, lashed to a mast, and whipped to death; of others marooned on desert islands to starve.
The most formidable of these postwar pirates was a man whose name was variously reported as Thatch, Thack, and Teach, but who was commonly known as Blackbeard because of his abundant, fancily braided coal-black whiskers. Teach had started life as a crewman on an English privateer in the war. Deserting, he had fallen in with a veteran pirate named Hornigold at New Providence in the Bahamas. Hornigold was exceptional in having a conscience and refusing to capture British ships; wherefore Blackbeard left him and carried on operations on his own at Charleston and along the southern coast, hiding, between exploits, in one of the many coves of North Carolina. There he was protected by one Tobias Knight, secretary of the colony, whom he rewarded abundantly as, in fact, he seems to have done the governor, Charles Eden, as well. Wrote Henry Brooke in his Book of Pirates (1841):
“As governors are but men, and not unfrequently by no means possessed of the most virtuous principles, the gold of Black Beard rendered him comely in the governor’s eyes, and by his influence, he obtained a legal right to the great ship called ‘The Queen Anne’s Revenge.’ ”
Brooke adds that the Governor liked Blackbeard enough to attend his wedding when he took as his fourteenth wife a sixteen-year-old girl of Bath, North Carolina.
The Governor of the neighboring province of Virginia, however, was otherwise inclined. Teach had made devastating raids on Virginia shipping. Governor Spotswood was not subject to pirate bribery and Teach kept out of his way, usually escaping to a North Carolina shelter after his attacks. Presumably, a Virginia governor would never trespass upon another province to pursue him. But Blackbeard did not know his hotheaded adversary.