Piracy

"Captain Charles Johnson," from A General History of the Robberies and Murders Of the most notorious Pyrates (1724)

As Samuel Johnson's dictionary definitions make clear, in the eighteenth century the difference between a pirate and a privateer was as thin as the piece of paper bearing a royal letter of marque. Privateers were merchantmen licensed by the High Court of Admiralty's letter of marque to seize the cargo of enemy ships during wartime — a practice welcomed by poorly paid sailors who could bolster their thin wages with "prize money" gained from seizing enemy cargo. Even large, legitimate businesses such as the East India Company and the Hudson's Bay Company sailed ships under letters of marque (Starkey, 72). Privateering thus subsidized British trade and was a cheap addition to national defence, since ships sailing under a letter of marque were outfitted and maintained by private men, not the crown.

Pirates, on the other hand, were strictly in business for themselves. As such, pirates were paradoxically the ultimate expression of free enterprise, and the enemy of conventionally organized trade. In a nation that increasingly defined itself by its engagement in global commerce and its naval supremacy, pirates also represented a threat to national sovereignty, as the writer of A General History of the Robberies and Murders Of the most notorious Pyrates (1724) observes:

As the Pyrates in the West-Indies have been so formidable and numerous, that they have interrupted the Trade of Europe into those Parts; and our English Merchants, in particular, have suffered more by their Depredations, than by the united Force of France and Spain, in the late War: We do not doubt but the World will be curious to know the Original and Progress of these Desperadoes, who were the Terror of the trading Part of the World. (17)

Piracy, concludes this writer, "Captain Charles Johnson," is "the great Mischief and Danger which threatens Kingdoms and Commonwealths" (17), and pirates are "Enemies to Mankind" (92).

The writer of A General History of the Robberies and Murders Of the most notorious Pyrates speaks to the reader in the persona of "Captain Charles Johnson"; this writer's prose style and his concern to propose practical projects to serve Britain's national interest have led some scholars to suspect that the true author of A General History is Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), though this has never been proved conclusively. Best known today for his novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) — a novel which also investigates the intersections of trade, slavery, and piracy — Daniel Defoe earned the majority of his sparse, uncertain income as the writer of dozens of partisan political pamphlets. At one point in 1712, Defoe was writing polemic in support of both the Whigs and their political rivals, the Tories, at the same time! For obvious reasons, he often invented pseudonyms or remained anonymous. The identity of "Johnson" remains a mystery.

[Click on image to enlarge] In his preface to A General History, "Johnson" argues that the solution to piracy's interference with British commerce lies in an increased promotion of naval trades, such as fishery. He devotes the remainder of the book to individual portraits of "notorious Pyrates," from Ann Bonny, Mary Read, and Bartholomew Roberts to the most infamous and dreaded pirate of them all — Edward Thatch, or "Blackbeard."

[Click on image to enlarge] In "Johnson's" account, Blackbeard's own career slips easily from privateering to piracy: "E[d]ward Thatch, (commonly called Black-beard,) was born in Jamaica, and was from a Boy bred up to the Sea; in the late War he sail'd for the most Part in Privateers, yet, tho' he had often distinguished himself for his uncommon Boldness, and personal Courage, he was never raised to any Command" (86). A "couragious Brute, who might have pass'd in the World for a Heroe, had he been employ'd in a good Cause" (96), Blackbeard becomes a cautionary example of the necessity of providing employment, advancement, and living wages to British seamen.

Edward Thatch (now thought to have been born in Bristol sometime before 1690) began his piratical career with Captain Benjamin Hornigold, under whom he took command of a ship he renamed the Queen Anne's Revenge. He retained this ship when Hornigold retired. Blackbeard also sailed with Major Stede Bonnet, a wealthy gentleman of Barbados who fancied turning pirate, but who proved an incompetent leader. Bonnet's crew mutinied and elected Blackbeard captain. After a number of cruises, "Johnson" reports that Blackbeard turned himself in to the governor of North Carolina, Charles Eden, who had issued a proclamation against him. Blackbeard did not reform. Instead, he "cultivated a very good Understanding with the Governor" (87). "Johnson" goes so far as to claim that "the Governor and the Pyrates, shar'd the Plunder" (88) when pirate activities resumed.

Blackbeard next set up a toll near Ocracoke Inlet that preyed upon local shipping. Perceiving the futility of protesting to the governor of North Carolina, traders appealed for help to the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, who offered one hundred pounds for Blackbeard's death. Lieutenant Robert Maynard and two men-of-war sailed out to meet the pirate, whom they defeated in a battle so fierce that blood ran out of the scuppers >> note 1 in streams (96). According to "Johnson," Blackbeard received sixteen wounds, five from shot, before collapsing. Blackbeard's severed head was suspended from the bolt-sprit end, his surviving crew were hanged in Virginia, and the seamen who ended the pirates' careers split Spotswood's prize money and the cargo of the pirate sloop, just like privateers.

Selections from the Preface and Chapter 5, "Of Captain THATCH, alias Black beard," follow.

From the Preface to A General History of the Robberies and Murders Of the most notorious Pyrates

* * *

I cannot but take Notice in this Place, that during this long Peace, I have not so much as heard of aDutch Pyrate: It is not that I take them to be honester than their Neighbours; but when we account for it, it will, perhaps, be a Reproach to our selves for our want of Industry: The Reason I take to be, that after a War, when the Dutch Ships are laid up, they have a Fishery, where their Seamen find immediate Business, and as comfortable Bread as they had before. Had ours the same Recourse in their Necessities, I am certain we should find the same Effect from it; for a Fishery is a Trade that cannot be overstock'd; the Sea is wide enough for us all, we need not quarrel for Elbow-room: Its Stores are infinite, and will ever Reward the Labourer. Besides, our own Coast, for the most Part, supply the Dutch, who employ several hundred Sail constantly in the Trade, and so sell to us our own Fish. I call it our own, for the Sovereignty of the British Seas, are to this Day acknowledged us by the Dutch, and all the neighbouring Nations; wherefore, if there was a publick Spirit amongst us, it would be well worth our while to establish a National Fishery, which would be the best Means in the World to prevent Pyracy, employ a Number of the Poor, and ease the Nation of a great Burthen, by lowering the Price of Provision in general, as well as of several other Commodities.

I need not bring any Proofs of what I advance, viz. that there are Multitudes of Seamen at this Day unemploy'd; it is but too evident by their straggling, and begging all over the Kingdom. Nor is it so much their Inclination to Idleness, as their own hard Fate, in being cast off after their Work is done, to starve or steal. I have not known a Man of War commission'd for several Years past, but three times her Compliment of Men have offer'd themselves in twenty four Hours; the Merchants take their Advantage of this, lessen their Wages, and those few who are in Business are poorly paid, and but poorly fed; such Usage breeds Discontents amongst them, and makes them eager for any Change.

From Chapter V, "Of Captain THATCH, alias Black beard."

* * *

[Click on image to enlarge] Now that we have given some Account of Thatch's Life and Actions, it will not be amiss, that we speak of his Beard, since it did not a little contribute towards making his Name so terrible in those Parts.

Plutarch, and other grave Historians, have taken Notice, that several great Men amongst the Romans, took their Sir-Names from certain odd Marks in their Countenances; as Cicero, from a Mark or Vetch on his Nose; so our Heroe, Captain Thatch, assumed the Cognomen >> note 2 of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightn'd America, more than any Comet that has appear'd there a long Time.

This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramellies Wigs, >> note 3 and turn them about his Ears: In Time of Action, he wore a Sling over his Shoulders, with three brace of Pistols, hanging in Holsters like Bandaliers; he wore a Fur-Cap, and stuck a lighted Match >> note 4 on each Side, under it, which appearing on each side his Face, his Eyes naturally looking Fierce and Wild, made him altogether such a Figure, that Imagination cannot form an Idea of a Fury, from Hell, to look more frightful.

If he had the look of a Fury, his Humours and Passions, were suitable to it; we shall relate two or three more of his Extravagancies, which we omitted in the Body of his History, by which it will appear, to what a pitch of Wickedness, human Nature may arrive, if it's Passions are not check'd.

In the Commonwealth of Pyrates, he who goes the greatest length of Wickedness, is looked upon with a kind of Envy amongst them, as a Person of a more extraordinary Gallantry, and is thereby entitled to be distinguished by some Post, and if such a one has but Courage, he must certainly be a great Man. The Hero of whom we are writing was thoroughly accomplished this Way, and some of his Frolicks of Wickedness, were so extravagant, as if he aim'd at making his Men believe he was a Devil incarnate; for being one Day at Sea, and a little flushed with drink: — Come, says he, let us make a Hell of our own, and try how long we can bear it; accordingly he, with two or three others, went down into the Hold, and closing up all the Hatches, fill'd several Pots full of Brimstone, >> note 5 and other combustible Matter, and set it on Fire, and so continued till they were almost suffocated, when some of the Men cried out for Air; at length he open'd the Hatches, not a little pleased that he held out the longest.

The Night before he was kill'd, he set up and drank the whole Night, with some of his own Men, and the Master of a Merchant-Man, and having had Intelligence of the two Sloops coming to attack him, as has been before observed; one of his Men ask'd him, in Case any thing should happen to him in the Engagement, with the Sloops, whether his Wife knew where he had buried his Money? He answered, That no Body but himself, and the Devil, knew where it was, and the longest Liver should take all.

Those of his Crew who were taken alive, told a Story which may appear a little incredible; however, we think it will not be fair to omit it, since we had it from their own Mouths. That once upon a Cruise, they found out, that they had a Man on Board more than their Crew; such a one was seen several Days amongst them, sometimes below, and sometimes upon Deck, yet no Man in the Ship could give an Account who he was, or from whence he came; but that he disappeared a little before they were cast away in their great Ship, as has been related in the History of Bonnet; but, it seems, they all verily believed it was the Devil.

One would think, these Things should induce them to reform their Lives, but so many Reprobates together, encouraged and spirited one another up in their Wickedness, to which a continual Course of drinking did not a little contribute; for in Black-beard's Journal, which was taken, there were several Memorandums of the following Nature, found writ with his own Hand. — Such a Day, Rum all out: — Our Company somewhat sober: — A Damn'd Confusion amongst us! — Rogues a plotting; — great Talk of Separation. — So I look'd sharp for a Prize; — such a Day, took one, with a great deal of Liquor on Board, so kept the Company hot, damn'd hot, then all Things went well again.

Thus it was these Wretches pass'd their Lives, with very little Pleasure or Satisfaction, in the Possession of what they violently take away from others, and sure to pay for it at last, by an ignominious Death.


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