The two lives of Edward Thache
RESEARCHERS STILL TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE MYTHIC FIGURE BLACKBEARD
Late in 1706, in the Jamaican village of Port Royal, a British navy seaman whose ship was moored in the harbour received word that his father had died elsewhere on the island.
Edward Thache was the 20-something son of a moneyed Englishman who had sailed his family to the Caribbean two decades earlier to farm sugar and own land and slaves. Now Thache was presented with a fateful choice. He could abandon his budding naval career to manage his father’s estate in Spanish Town, a major colonial settlement — or forsake that inheritance and keep serving the Crown.
On board HMS Windsor, Thache signed the land over to his stepmother, Lucretia, writing that he hoped she could take care of his beloved siblings. With a few pen strokes, Thache made clear his burning desire to remain on the ship.
“I think he fell in love with the sea,” said Baylus Brooks, an American maritime historian.
Three hundred years after his death in battle on Nov. 22, 1718, researchers are still trying to understand the life story of Edward Thache, the family man and mariner behind the mythic figure of Blackbeard — the pirate, thanks to Hollywood, remembered today as the marauder who roved the Atlantic.
Little was known about Blackbeard’s upbringing or his path into piracy until a few years ago, when Brooks, combing online ancestral records to investigate the pirate’s lineage, suggested that the Thache who renounced his namesake father’s property went on to become, a decade later, the unshaven, red-coated menace referenced in films and TV series.
Brooks’ research indicates that the Thache family set out for Jamaica from the English city of Bristol in the mid-1680s, meaning Thache was raised there from the age of four or five.
He believes Thache was working as a mariner in Kingston or Port Royal by 1699, when, burial documents show, his mother Elizabeth passed away. Around that time Thache had a daughter he named Elizabeth, whom he soon sent to live with his father Edward and new stepmother on the estate.
Thache joined the British navy in April 1706. Seduced by the sea, he relinquished control of the estate to stay with the navy and was subsequently embroiled in Queen Anne’s War, where Britain fought France for North American territories. When Britain won the war in 1713, the nobleman from old wealth began to shape-shift into Blackbeard.
Brooks believes Thache likely left the navy after the war and sought work as a mariner on a slave ship.
Within a few years, he realized another calling would be far more lucrative.
In 1715, 11 Spanish ships carrying untold quantities of silver capsized in a hurricane, scattering the treasure on the coast of Florida.
English seamen and privateers — many of whom, like Thache, had lost their chief aim in life when the war ended — quickly converged on the wreckage for “a oncein-a-lifetime opportunity to strike it rich,” as Trent University history professor Arne Bialuschewski described the raid in an email. We don’t know what impelled Thache to turn criminal in the years following the war.
Angus Konstam, a pirate expert from Scotland, said Thache’s literacy and ability to navigate a ship would have proved essential in the transition: “These are skills that mean you need to be quite an experienced mariner.”
Konstam said the first evidence tying Thache to piracy dates to late 1716, when a ship commander reported Thache had stopped him from crossing through a passage north of Jamaica. In 1717, a captain who found himself in a similar shakedown introduced to the historical record a new nickname for his accoster: Blackbeard.
In an era where most pirates were clean-shaven, Blackbeard grew his facial hair unusually long to intimidate his marks.
It was a perilous time for anyone to sail the Atlantic: storms, diseases and pirates were in danger of dying at the hand of an armed merchant ship. Remarkably, Blackbeard never killed anyone during his looting days, so easily convinced were the vessels he targeted to surrender before things got violent.
“If you wanted to mug somebody on the streets of New York, it’s much better if they give up their wallet and their phone without a fight,” Konstam said. Blackbeard, he said, was a “bit of a pussycat — but he looks scary.”
If two life-altering decisions did in fact set Thache on course to becoming Blackbeard, he never survived to confirm this.
Three hundred years ago Thursday, Blackbeard was killed and beheaded during a skirmish with sailors from Virginia. The governor of the colony, Alexander Spotswood, was displeased the pirate and his men had been spotted in nearby waters.
The sailors, led by British navy lieutenant Robert Maynard, ambushed Blackbeard at Ocracoke Island off North Carolina. His piracy career had lasted all of two years.
Several men on either side died, but Maynard sailed away unscathed with Blackbeard’s head on the bowsprit of his ship, unaware of the surprising legacy his slain foe would develop.
“He’s the face of piracy,” Konstam said. “Anyone who imagines a pirate, they close their eyes and picture Blackbeard.”
Edward Thache — “the face of piracy,” according to expert Agnus Konstam — faces a career-ending ambush, as illustrated in this 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris: Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard 1718.