Who’s the Real Criminal: Blackbeard the Pirate or Governor Spotswood Who Hunted Him Down?
By Samuel Marquis
In Blackbeard: The Birth of America, Historical Fiction Author Samuel Marquis, the ninth great-grandson of Captain William Kidd, chronicles the legendary Edward Thache—former British Navy seaman and notorious privateer-turned-pirate, who lorded over the Atlantic seaboard and Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. A Robin-Hood-like American patriot and the most famous freebooter of all time, Blackbeard was illegally hunted down by Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood, the British Crown’s man in Williamsburg obsessed with his capture. This year marks the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death.
On February 14, 1719, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Spotswood wrote a letter to Lord Cartwright, a proprietor of North Carolina, in which he attempted to explain his justification for authorizing the invasion of his lordship’s colony and killing of Blackbeard the pirate and nine of his crew members at Ocracoke Island on November 22, 1718. The pirate, whose real name was Edward Thache of Spanish Town, Jamaica, and his men had recently been pardoned by Governor Eden of the colony, and Spotswood wanted to make sure that he was not accused of exceeding his authority and committing murder in North Carolina waters. His deliberately misleading letter was one of the British governor’s usual interminable fussy letters, and in it he falsely boasted to have rescued “the trade of North Carolina from the insults of pirates upon the earnest solicitations of the inhabitants there,” even though only one complaint involving a single minor incident had been filed. He further expressed his hope that his actions would “not be unacceptable to your lordships.” He admitted that he had not informed either the proprietors or Eden about his invasion plan, which was required by law, but chose not to mention that this was because he believed Eden to be conspiring with Blackbeard.
When Spotswood invaded the proprietary colony of North Carolina to the south, neither he nor the seventy Royal Navy officers and crew members he commanded to hunt down Blackbeard and his pirates had the authority to invade another colony. In the fall of 1718 at the time of the attack, Blackbeard was, legally speaking, a citizen who had broken no laws and was in good standing. He had been pardoned by Governor Eden for his previous piracies, had paid the appropriate fees to the governor and customs collector Tobias Knight in the form of casks of sugar, had applied for and received legal approval to salvage a French vessel captured near Bermuda from that same governor, and had yet to be indicted for any crime. Spotswood had, in effect, authorized the kidnapping or killing of the resident of another colony—depending on whether Blackbeard resisted or not.
But the governor was not bothered by the overt illegality of his scheme. He had already made up in his mind months earlier that he was going to go after Edward Thache without reservation, by taking action first and seeking approval from the British Board of Trade and lords proprietors later. He wanted the notorious Blackbeard—and Governor Eden and Tobias Knight too—so badly that he could taste it. He had long been intent on extending his control and influence over Virginia’s southern border, which he never considered to be far enough south, and he was intent on acquiring the fledgling proprietary colony and folding it into his own powerful royal colony of Virginia. By finding damning evidence that Eden and Blackbeard were in collusion and that Eden and Knight were receiving bribes for looking the other way, he hoped to make a Virginia takeover a reality.
The aggressive overreach of Spotswood begs the question: who is the criminal in this case, the lawfully pardoned and likely retired pirate or the colonial governor who knowingly broke the law to hunt him down, killed him and his crew, and then put the survivors on trial?
Between January 1716 and November 22, 1718, when he was killed at Ocracoke at the hands of Lieutenant Maynard and the Royal Navy, Edward Thache captured more than thirty merchant vessels along the Atlantic seaboard, Caribbean, and Spanish Main, and one 200-ton slaver, which he converted into his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. At the peak of his freebooting career in April 1718, he served as commodore of a 700-man, five-ship, 60-plus-gun pirate flotilla that rivaled the strength of any pirate fleet in history. According to one researcher, Blackbeard and the other pirates of his short-lived era had at their zenith “disrupted the trans-Atlantic commerce of three empires and even had the warships of the Royal Navy on the run.” And yet, during the course of his career, he never physically harmed anyone until the day he was battling for his life (he was reportedly shot five times and stabbed more than twenty times before he finally fell from being decapitated by a seaman’s cutlass). In fact, Thache typically showed his victims respect and let them down easily after taking their ships as prizes, giving them vessels in trade, food and provisions, and even receipts for merchandise.
In an age when violence was commonplace, he did no more harm to captured ship captains than to detain them for a brief period of time. As pirate historian Arne Bialuschewski states: “I haven’t seen one single piece of evidence that Blackbeard ever used violence against anyone.” Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates, echoes this sentiment: “Blackbeard was remarkably judicious in his use of force. In the dozens of eyewitness accounts of his victims, there is not a single instance in which he killed anyone prior to his final, fatal battle with the Royal Navy. “
The son of a wealthy plantation-owner from Jamaica and a former Royal Navy officer and privateer on behalf of the British Crown, by 1716 Thache became a no-holds-barred outlaw taking the vessels of all nations. But he and his men did not view themselves as outlaws, but rather as Robin-Hood-like figures and American patriots fighting against British domination and the Atlantic mercantile system that favored the 1% of their day. And that was how the American people largely viewed them, too. While the upper-middle-class Jamaican was portrayed as a “barbarous” monster by the pro-British newspapers, merchant elite, and Alexander Spotswood, he was known as a Robin-Hood-like folk hero defying the British Crown among his fellow American colonists. The image of Blackbeard as a cruel and ruthless villain imbued with almost supernatural powers was largely created by propagandist newspaper accounts of the era (particularly the pro-British Boston News-Letter) and Captain Charles Johnson’s (Nathanial Mist’s) A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, first published in 1724 six years after Blackbeard’s death. As Bialuschewski states about the latter: “This book has been plundered by generations of historians, despite the fact that it is riddled with errors, exaggerations, and misunderstandings.” More than any published work, Captain Johnson’s propogandist tome created the notorious but unrealistic Blackbeard image that we know today and celebrate in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and TV shows like Black Sails and Crossbones.
And what about Spotswood? While Blackbeard was playing out the role of Robin Hood of the high seas, the governor of Virginia was getting rich and fat at the colonists’ expense and showing open contempt for the colony’s lower house of elected representatives and the colonial democratic process. The governor’s many critics claimed he employed heavy-handed tactics to control tobacco exports through his Tobacco Inspection Act, rewarded his loyal friends with patronage positions, and acquired large tracts of valuable land through shady practices. With his Indian Trade Act, he granted the Virginia Indian Company that he created a twenty-year monopoly over American Indian trade, and charged the company with maintaining Fort Christanna, a settlement in the southern tidewater region for smaller Indian tribes. Establishing the company was Spotswood’s attempt to circumvent political opposition by shifting the financial burden of defense against Indians from the colonial government to private enterprise, but in doing so, he angered those who had invested in private trade. All in all, his policies were unpopular with Virginia tobacco planters, landholders, and commoners alike since all sought to maintain their independence from the British Crown. By 1722, he was toppled from government due to “an accumulation of grievances” from Virginia’s House of Burgesses and his own Governor’s Council, but by then Spotswood had made so much money from questionable land deals that his governorship had become immaterial. He would remain the wealthiest man in Virginia until his death in 1740.
One of his more disgraceful actions was to deny payment of the promised reward money to Lieutenant Maynard and the other Royal Navy seamen who had battled Thache at Ocracoke until four years after the battle—even though Spotswood had, by binding decree, promised prompt payment upon the capture of the pirate and his crew. After four years of delay, many of those who had fought valiantly and spilled blood upon the decks of the two naval sloops had died or retired from the service, and so never received a penny.
For Spotswood, the judgement of history has been severe, particularly when it comes to Blackbeard. He knowingly launched an illegal expedition in violation of the King’s and governor of North Carolina’s pardons to destroy the freebooter (who was likely retired from piracy) and his crew, all in an effort to gather evidence to be used to undermine Eden and his second-in-command and thereby further his own career and financial gain. In the eyes of history, it is Spotswood who is far more criminal, immoral, and unethical than Blackbeard, Eden, or Knight. Not only did he knowingly and illicitly violate the sovereignty of a neighboring colony, he conspired with and was closely associated with the ethically suspect Edward Moseley, Colonel Maurice Moore, and Captain Vail. In December 1718, the Moseley gang broke into the house of North Carolina Secretary John Lovick in an attempt to examine Council records for incriminating evidence against Eden and Knight. When Spotswood’s North Carolina conspirators Moseley and Moore were tried the following year, the event was a sensation and Moseley was fined and barred from public office for three years. Spotswood did his best to distance himself from Moseley and Moore, but his critics knew better.
In the end, he is remembered as a slave-owning British elitist, stodgy bureaucrat, hypocrite, and profiteer who used the governor’s office to lord over “the people” in the name of the Crown, promote his own self-interests at the public expense, and destroy his political enemies or those, like Blackbeard, that he disapproved of.
He will always be Inspector Javert to Blackbeard’s Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of historical pirate fiction, a World War Two Series, and the Nick Lassiter-Skyler International Espionage Series. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest Best Book, USA Best Book, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis’s WWII thrillers Bodyguard of Deception and Altar of Resistance to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, and Alan Furst. Mr. Marquis’s newest historical fiction novel, Blackbeard: The Birth of America, commemorates the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death. His website is www.samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact JKS Communications at firstname.lastname@example.org.