Black­beard the pi­rate went on ‘trial’ in an NC court­room

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY MARTHA QUILLIN mquillin@new­sob­server.com

A cast of po­lit­i­cal and le­gal ad­ver­saries met in a Beau­fort County court­room Fri­day to ar­gue the guilt or in­no­cence of the no­to­ri­ous pi­rate Black­beard, 300 years af­ter he was killed in a bat­tle in the wa­ters off North Carolina’s Ocra­coke Is­land.

It was a mock court, but the ev­i­dence pre­sented came straight from the his­tor­i­cal record, and the ques­tions were real.

Was Black­beard a stonecold crim­i­nal who trea­sonously slaugh­tered King Ge­orge I’s men aboard their ship that No­vem­ber day in 1718? Or was he the vic­tim of an un­law­ful am­bush fight­ing in self-de­fense against a crew of men he had no way of know­ing rep­re­sented the royal crown?

“We are specif­i­cally in­ter­ested in whether it was law­ful and proper for the colony of Vir­ginia to dis­patch armed forces into their neigh­bor­ing colony of North Carolina in or­der to cap­ture or kill sus­pected pi­rates op­er­at­ing out of the ports of Bath and Ocra­coke,” real-life Su­pe­rior Court Judge J. Carl­ton Cole told the court­room.

Over the course of the next two hours, nearly 100 ob­servers, in­clud­ing dozens of lo­cal school stu­dents and some county res­i­dents who may claim de­scen­dancy from some of Black­beard’s for­mer crewmem­bers, lis­tened as present-day Beau­fort County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Ed­wards faced off against busi­ness and pro­bate at­tor­ney J. Erik Groves ofWax­haw.

Ed­wards rep­re­sented a pow­der-wigged Vir­ginia Lt. Gov. Alexan­der Spotswood, por­trayed by Den­nis Loba of Vir­ginia. It was Spotswood who per­son­ally fi­nanced the hir­ing of a pair of pri­vate ves­sels and crew tomake a foray into the wa­ters off North Carolina to find and either kill or cap­ture Black­beard and his pi­rat­i­cal as­so­ci­ates.

Groves rep­re­sented Black­beard, por­trayed in vil­lain­ous splen­dor by Carl Can­non of Beau­fort.

Hav­ing been slain and be­headed dur­ing the skir­mish in 1718, Black­beard did not take the stand in his de­fense at Fri­day’s pro­ceed­ings.

LEG­END VS. TRUTH

The event was one of many in coastal N.C. com­mu­ni­ties this year that have com­mem­o­rated the 300th an­niver­sary of Black­beard’s demise, some more schol­arly than oth­ers. This one was or­ga­nized and scripted by N.C. his­to­rian, au­thor and film­maker Kevin Duf­fus, who has spent thou­sands of hours find­ing and study­ing pri­mary-source doc­u­ments to try and sort Black­bear­dian leg­end from truth.

As cos­tumed play­ers noted in “court” us­ing de­tails Duf­fus has gleaned from his years of re­search, Black­beard — whose non­pirate name likely was Ed­ward Thatch and who may have been born Ed­ward Beard in Beau­fort County — has been the sub­ject of much con­jec­ture and ex­ag­ger­a­tion, some of it his own.

Black­beard is said to have cul­ti­vated a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion dur­ing his two years as a pro­fes­sional pi­rate, but that may have been a way to pre­vent vi­o­lence rather than to pro­mote it. If other ship cap­tains be­lieved he might kill them, the the­ory goes, they might have been more likely to give up their cargo with­out a fight.

Through “tes­ti­mony” on Fri­day, Duf­fus showed that the lieu­tenant gover­nor of Vir­ginia might have used Black­beard’s no­to­ri­ety to jus­tify send­ing armed forces into North Carolina, when what he may re­ally have wanted was to em­bar­rass then-Gov. Charles Eden and pos­si­bly seize Black­beard’s ru­mored piles of trea­sure.

As Duf­fus as­serted Fri­day, the 1700s were dif­fi­cult eco­nomic times for colo­nial gov­ern­ments and their peo­ple, both of whom may have been will­ing to take what didn’t be­long to them in or­der to sur­vive.

Even Ge­orge I was will­ing to over­look a bit of plun­der­ing. He is­sued a par­don for pi­rates, which North Carolina ex­tended to Black­beard and his men though they did not tech­ni­cally qual­ify for it, hav­ing com­mit­ted ad­di­tional crimes af­ter the cut­off date it spec­i­fied. Ge­orge is­sued a sec­ond, more le­nient par­don that al­most cer­tainly would have ex­on­er­ated Black­beard and his men if they had lived to see it ar­rive by ship from Eng­land.

WHAT HAP­PENED ON THAT DAY IN 1718?

Role-play­ers at Fri­day’s hear­ing sug­gested Black­beard might have been get­ting out of the pi­rate busi­ness in 1718. He may have in­ten­tion­ally run his flag­ship, the Queen Anne’s Re­venge, aground near Beau­fort In­let off present- day At­lantic Beach, forc­ing the im­me­di­ate lay­off of most of his 300 men. He later trav­eled with a smaller group to Ocra­coke, and was there in No­vem­ber when Spotswood’s hired guns found him.

Ac­counts of the day re­port that when he saw the ships ap­proach him, Black­beard called to ask who they were and where they were from. The leader of the mis­sion, Lt. Robert May­nard, played Fri­day by John Col­lam­ore of Vir­ginia, told him they weren’t pi­rates, and that they were com­ing for him.

Spotswood had hired the men un­der the author­ity of a gen­eral procla­ma­tion by the king to go af­ter pi­rates, but he had no spe­cific charge from Ge­orge I to pur­sue Black­beard. Spotswood, not the Royal Navy, paid the men, whose per­sonal boats had no in­signia of the Royal Navy. At the time, the Royal Navy had no uni­forms, so the men wore cloth­ing of the day.

Spotswood in­di­cated the ship had a flag, likely the Union Jack, but the weath- er was so still that day that the ships to be pulled by row boats, so the flag likely was hang­ing limp.

Un­der the cir­cum­stances, Duf­fus pos­tu­lated, Black­beard prob­a­bly thought he was be­ing at­tacked by dis­grun­tled for­mer em­ploy­ees or South Carolini­ans look­ing for re­venge over his ear­lier block­ade of their Charles­ton port.

WHAT’S THE VER­DICT?

For his part, Spotswood ar­gued through his liv­ing his­tory ac­tor, he viewed it as his duty to go af­ter Black­beard be­cause Gov. Eden not only tol­er­ated the pi­rate, but was in ca­hoots with him.

The ex­er­cise had no ef­fect on Black­beard’s le­gal stand­ing. But in Duf­fus’ view, it wasn’t Black­beard who was on trial Fri­day, but pop­u­lar­ized his­tory, which some­times lacks con­text and of­ten over­looks facts.

“The ev­i­dence is over­whelm­ing,” Duf­fus said af­ter­ward, “that Black­beard wasn’t such a bad guy.”

MARTHA QUILLIN The News & Ob­server

Black­beard, played by Carl Can­non of Beau­fort, and his neme­sis, Lt. Robert May­nard, played by John Col­lam­ore of Vir­ginia.

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