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July 06, 2007

What's in a [pirate's] name? Teach, Thatch, Blackbeard.


Recently, a reader wrote taking me to task for rendering Blackbeard's name as Edward Thatch instead of Edward Teach. "I was angry that a book about pirates would get the name of such a figure wrong," she said. "This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was to me! How do I know that other historical facts are not wrong?"

Fact is, either spelling is acceptable, but if one has to pick, Thatch is a better choice.

In the early 1700s, spelling had yet to be standardized -- the first reasonably comprehensive English dictionary wasn't published until 1755 -- and people tended to spell things as they heard them. A given scribe often spelled a person's name differently from one document to the next, and sometimes within the same document. Even a famous, well-known, and literate man like the Governor of Virginia would have his name spelled in a variety of ways: Spottswood, Spotswood, Spotswoode, and Spottiswoode. Given the variety of dialects at the time, it's no surprise that Blackbeard's name was spelled in a variety of ways as well, including Teach, Teache, Titche, Teatch, Tack, Tatch, Theach, Thach, Thache, and Thatch.

Today, most sources refer to the pirate as Teach, following the lead of A General History of the Pyrates, an account published in London a few years after his death. However, over 90 percent of the primary documents of the time disagree, having spelled his name Thatch, or some derivative thereof, as revealed by David Moore, the historian at the Queen Anne's Revenge Project in Beaufort, North Carolina.

Indeed, I found that Thatch (or its close homonyms) were invariably preferred by people who had actually known and interacted with the arch-pirate, including Tobias Knight (the North Carolina Collector of Customs who was apparently helping fence Blackbeard's loot), the official scribe to North Carolina Governor Charles Eden, who pardoned Blackbeard and entertained him at his home, and merchant captain David Herriot, who spent two months as a captive aboard Blackbeard's ship. "Thach" was the spelling used in the official reports of Ellis Brand, the Royal Navy officer who lead the force sent into North Carolina to capture Blackbeard. Brand's colleague, George Gordon, was captain of the HMS Pearl and the immediate superior of Lt. Robert Maynard, the man who actually found and killed Blackbeard, and described him as "Thatch, alias Blackbeard." To top it off, in the first edition of A General History (1724), the author also used Thatch.

So how did Teach come to be the preferred form? Turns out the media is to blame. The Boston News-Letter, the only newspaper published in the Americas at the time, consistently spelled his name "Teach," an error copied by the London newspapers. Confronted with this, the author of A General History apparently decided to "correct" the spelling before the printing of the second edition. It's just one of many inaccuracies passed down to us by the book, but one of the least consequential.

I tell people to use whichever they like, but don't criticize The Republic of Pirates for using the more correct version.

-- Colin Woodard

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