Blackbeard is Back with a History Lesson
This past July, I helped man the children’s activity tables at the VHS Family Open House. A nine-year-old boy drew this picture and gave it to me. I guess he didn’t want to color the supplied images of a cardinal, dogwood, and other things related to Virginia.
I was pleasantly surprised and asked him what was going on. He told me it was a pirate ship and that one of the pirates was bad, so the others took his bandanna and threw him overboard to meet his fate with a hammer head shark and a mechanical shark. What imagination!
I thought, “How am I going to relate this to Virginia’s history?” As regular crew for sailboat racing in Hampton, I knew a little about Blackbeard. I asked the boy if he knew of this famous pirate. He did, and we talked about how Blackbeard was a menace to shipping merchants along the mid-Atlantic colonies, was eventually killed off the coast of North Carolina, and that his head was cut off and suspended from a stick and brought up the Hampton River in Virginia as a warning to others who might be tempted by piracy.
Since then, I’ve done a little digging and found that this notorious English pirate’s name was Edward Thatch (Teach). He most likely was born in Bristol around 1680 and was killed during a fierce battle off Ocracoke Island on November 22, 1718. The governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, arranged—and personally financed—for a party of soldiers and sailors, led by Lt. Robert Maynard, to capture Blackbeard and his crew. Blackbeard’s head was indeed brought back to Virginia, and suspended from the bowsprit of Lieutenant Maynard’s sloop, to collect the bounty. Governor Spotswood had Blackbeard’s head hung from a pole at the mouth of the Hampton River, where it remained for many years. The site continues to be known as Blackbeard’s Point today.
The VHS has quite a few items relating to Blackbeard in its collection, including this mid 20th century photographic print of an earlier engraving.
Those of us in the field of public history, whether we teach, write, lecture, or even raise money, are challenged to make history relevant to the next generation.
A dramatic increase of recent pirate attacks off the east coast of Africa has made the news this year. As in Blackbeard’s time, these modern-day pirates pose threats not only to shipping industries but also to recreational sailors.
I hope that my nine-year-old friend, even through his somewhat gruesome artwork, was able to distinguish real versus fantasy, and connect, if only for a moment, today’s current events to the history we all share.
Catherine A. Boe is the Senior Gifts Officer at the Virginia Historical Society.