“As to the Heinousness or Wickedness of the Offence, it needs no Aggravation, it being evident to the Reason of all Men. Therefore a Pirate is called Hostis Humani Generis, with whom neither Faith nor Oath is to be kept. And in our Law they are termed Brutes, and Beasts of Prey; and that it is lawful for any one that takes them, if they cannot with safety to themselves bring them under some Government to be tried, to put them to Death.Nicholas Trott, Judge of the Vice-Admiralty and Chief Justice of the Province of South Carolina, October 28, 17181
The Golden Age of Piracy, lasting from the mid seventeenth century to early eighteenth century, has been largely characterized by one man: Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. All aspects of Teach’s life as a pirate have been surrounded by lore and legend, from his birth to his death. There are many theories surrounding his identity before he turned to piracy, and a popular story about Teach’s battle against the Royal Navy includes him “inflicting massive casualties on the Royal Navy crews attacking him before succumbing to 5 pistol shots and 27 severe wounds from edged weapons, after which his headless corpse swam around his sloop several times before sinking into the depths.”2 Additionally, historian Paul Fontenoy found that in the modern day, “in North Carolina alone, there are more than 120 businesses using the names “Blackbeard” or “Queen Anne’s Revenge” registered with the state’s Department of Commerce,”3 including restaurants, sailing clubs, and hotels. Although North Carolina fosters a specific connection to Teach, being the place of his death and location of the shipwrecked Queen Anne’s Revenge, such ubiquity is a marker of Teach’s significant place in culture.
Pirates in Popular Culture
The search for Queen Anne’s Revenge is undeniably linked with the popular culture surrounding pirates. Lore and the public adoration for pirates, as seen through things like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and subsequent movie franchise are massively popular. As Walt Disney claims in a promotion for the ride, “You believe in pirates, of course.”4 Walt Disney is referring to a less-than-accurate history of pirates, one that follows a more clean and Disney-esque version of swashbuckling fighters that take what they want and that sing and dance all day. The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction helped to build the romanization of pirates in popular culture. This romanization helps explain how Queen Anne’s Revenge was initially discovered, but interestingly, the wreck and its excavation have had a massive impact on pop culture in turn. The artifacts from the wreck had a massive cultural impact on North Carolina and the ship itself has impacted popular culture. It has appeared as several different fictional ships within the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It even has a, now discontinued, Lego set based upon the franchise. The search for Queen Anne’s Revenge was influenced by the romanization of pirates, but it also has left an imprint on that romanization itself.
Further examples of this are seen in pieces of media which either feature Teach specifically or contain images of pirates derived from popular legends of Blackbeard. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, for instance, contained a character named Long John Silver who was an obvious reflection of the character of Blackbeard. Indeed, historian Baylus Brooks finds that “this bit of literary license created the typically understood legend of Blackbeard,”5 showing the partially circular nature of Teach’s representations in the arts. Published in 1882, Treasure Island is just one of many books, films, and television shows that depict Blackbeard. More modern examples include the books Blackbeard: Buccaneer (1922), Blackbeard’s Bride (1959), and Peter and the Starcatchers (2004), the films Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), and Pan (2015), and the television series Our Flag Means Death (2022). While these pieces of media are often not accurate depictions of Teach’s character and actions, they all serve to grow the myth surrounding him. This then increases support for businesses which rely on his name for popularity, in turn ensuring that the idea of Blackbeard remains in the popular consciousness.
Unreliable Depictions of Pirates
However, just because the idea of piracy has long been popular in the minds of the public does not mean that it has been accurately depicted. In 1724, Captain Charles Johnson published the first edition of the book A General History of the Pyrates, which detailed the rise of some of piracy’s most prominent figures, including Teach. This book has been heavily relied on by scholars of this time, described by one, maritime historian Carl Swanson, as “the single most important primary source”6 in the study of piracy. Such reliance on a single text, though, is problematic in more ways than one. It is widely agreed, for example, that the book’s author wrote under a pseudonym; some scholars believe him to actually be Nathaniel Mist, a journalist, or Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.7 These identities influence the motivations for writing the book and thus its content and message. Historian Baylus Brooks, operating under the conclusion that Mist authored A General History, posited that the book was altered either to appease the British government, who wished piracy to be eradicated, or to promote further sales which would alleviate Mist’s financial troubles.8
Additionally, no matter who wrote the book, there were large inconsistencies between the first and second edition of A General History, neither of which were particularly accurate depictions of prominent pirates. Looking at Edward Teach specifically, Johnson’s writing presented him as a man overtaken by bloodlust, infamous for his propensity for evil. The historical record, however, produces a different image. There are few eyewitness accounts of Blackbeard in which his actions match the violence that Johnson proposed. In fact, journalist Colin Woodard found that “Blackbeard was remarkably judicious in his use of force,” adding that “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.”10 Such a conclusion is likely shocking given the heavy presence that Johnson’s book has had in both historical analysis and fictional media.
“Although hundreds of accounts have been written about the infamous pirate captain over the last three centuries, the activities of Blackbeard and his piratical brethren have been shrouded in legend and folklore for so long that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between myth and reality.”David D. Moore11
Johnson cannot be blamed in entirety for the myth surrounding Blackbeard, though. Such a widespread fascination with the man can also be attributed to the mystery of his life and death, in part aided by inaccurate accounts in news sources, as well as the understanding in entertainment that a ferocious pirate is a good selling point. The first two accounts of Teach’s death in British newspapers, for instance, were wildly inaccurate, misreporting the date, location, and manner of Teach’s death.12 There is little explanation for such a failure to communicate the reality of the situation except for the general unreliability of news traveling between the American colonies and Great Britain. The account was corrected two weeks after initially published,13 but this is not the only instance of pirate activities being depicted as something other than what they truly were.
The other main source of the myth of Blackbeard (and pirates as a whole) comes from their inclusion in fictional media. As early as 1719, books were written about the fictional exploits of famous pirates, Blackbeard prominent among them. As time went on, Blackbeard came to the forefront of such narratives, starring as the main antagonist in books such as those listed previously. In the 1950s, Hollywood “seriously succumbed to the Blackbeard legend,”14 beginning with the 1952 film Blackbeard the Pirate starring the popular British actor Robert Newton. In all of the films shown to the right, spanning from 1952 to 2015, Blackbeard is depicted in drastically different ways. In 1968’s Blackbeard’s Ghost he is a harmless, bumbling drunkard. In contrast, 2011’s On Stranger Tides depicts him as ‘the pirate that pirates fear,’ a much more menacing figure. The one consistency is that Blackbeard has become a character that audiences love, whether he is villainous or not and no matter the historical reality.
The Danger of Such Depictions
As entertaining as such representations of pirates, especially Blackbeard, may be, they are not accurate and have demonstrable consequences in the modern-day. As a result of the many fictional depictions of pirates in popular culture, the attitude regarding piracy has gradually shifted from the denouncement of criminality to support for a countercultural lifestyle. However, piracy was and is much more than rebellion against society. While Teach may not have been as violent as he was portrayed by historical sources, the fact remains that he spent several years using the ocean as a means to commit armed robbery. This is true of all other pirates as well, many of whom were much more prone to murder and other violent crimes than Teach was. As historians strive to display a full picture of the Golden Age of Piracy, it is vital to remember the reality of the period.
In addition to simply remaining accurate to the past, popular perceptions of piracy have a tangible impact on actions in the present. The majority of people view piracy as a thing of the past, something which only existed in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. The practice of piracy has continued to this day, however, and remains just as, if not more so, dangerous than before. Modern piracy includes hijacking cargo ships in order to steal the goods aboard and often results in hostage situations and/or deaths. Especially given the pervasiveness of automatic and military-grade weaponry, pirates are typically heavily armed and able to act as a serious threat against commercial and personal vessels. Additionally, because the world’s oceans are so difficult to legislate, let alone monitor, there are typically few consequences for modern pirates. Ian Urbina, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, founded The Ocean Outlaw Project in 2019 to investigate crimes committed at sea. He found that of the very few maritime crimes that are discovered, even fewer are prosecuted, due to the lack of international accountability and an international enforcement body.
While understanding piracy as more than a fictional, historical concept will not automatically solve this issue of criminality and lack of consequences, it is a start. The more people understand that the ocean remains a largely lawless zone, the more awareness can be spread about the people who routinely face danger while traversing it.
Popular Culture and Queen Anne’s Revenge
The staying power of Blackbeard has also had a strong impact on historical and archaeological research, both specific to him and in general for piracy. According to historian Paul Fontenoy, “local lore, archival research, and the lure of the history of piracy sustained the search for the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge … The essential widespread and continued public support for the project that facilitated access to funding was underpinned by popular culture and local lore that embraced Blackbeard, Queen Anne’s Revenge, and the Golden Age of Piracy.”15 This is apparent first in the fact that it was a commercial expedition that found the shipwreck that is believed to be Queen Anne’s Revenge.16 Because finding and excavating shipwrecks are so expensive, there had to be a high level of support and funding for the project. As Fontenoy notes, public interest in piracy and Blackbeard aided Intersal in acquiring enough funding to support the project. It is also highly unlikely that a commerical for-profit organization would invest such a high level of resources into a project that was not desired and supported by a large amount of people; the constant inclusion of piracy in popular culture has certainly influenced this support. The current view of pirates such as Blackbeard focuses more on the comedic and adventurous elements of their lives, rather than the violence and lawlessness which characterized them in earlier centuries. Additionally, in the years after the shipwreck was discovered and excavation was begun, the number of businesses in North Carolina making reference to Blackbeard and/or Queen Anne’s Revenge increased dramatically, adding further incentive to continue research and recovery efforts regarding the shipwreck.
Julian is a first year student from Bellingham, Washington at Carleton College. They hope to major in chemistry and for this project primarily researched the artifacts that have been discovered at the Queen Anne’s Revenge, as well as some archeological methods and approaches used during excavation.
Alex is a first year student from Chaska, Minnesota at Carleton College. He hopes to major in Mathematics and/or statistics, and for this project primarily researched the discovery of the Queen Anne’s Revenge in the modern day, as well as the debate surrounding its identification.
Joella is a first year student from Columbus, Ohio at Carleton College. She hopes to double major in History and Cinema and Media Studies, and for this project primarily researched the history of Edward Teach and Queen Anne’s Revenge, as well as studying the influence of popular culture on perceptions of Teach and the shipwreck.
- Moore, “Captain Edward Thatch,” 147.
- Fontenoy, “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” 310.
- Fontenoy, “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” 314.
- Anne Petersen, “‘You Believe in Pirates, Of Course…’: Disney’s Commodification and ‘Closure’ vs. Johnny Depp’s Aesthetic Piracy of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’” Studies in Popular Culture 29, no. 2, (April 2007): 64.
- Brooks, “Born in Jamaica,” 240.
- Brooks, “Born in Jamaica,” 235.
- Brooks, “Born in Jamaica,” 236.
- Brooks, “Born in Jamaica,” 240.
- Johnson, “A General History,” 1.
- Brooks, “Born in Jamaica,” 245.
- Moore, “Captain Edward Thatch,” 148.
- Cooke, “British Newspaper Accounts,” 304-5.
- Cooke, “British Newspaper Accounts,” 308.
- Fontenoy, “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” 312.
- Fontenoy, “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” 309.
- Fontenoy, “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” 308.
References for the Timeline:
- Wilde-Ramsing, “Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize,” 4-5.
- Patel, “Blackbeard Surfaces,” 23.
- Wilde-Ramsing, “Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize,” 5.
- Morris III, “The Site History of 31CR314,” 221.
- Morris III, “The Site History of 31CR314,” 221.
- Morris III, “The Site History of 31CR314,” 221-2.
- Wilde-Ramsing, “Beyond Reasonable Doubt,” 110.
- Morris III, “The Site History of 31CR314,” 226.
- Price, “More Than Meets the Eye,” 167.
- Morris III, “The Site History of 31CR314,” 226.
- Patel, “Blackbeard Surfaces,” 24.