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A Blackbeard mystery solved

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On a recent return visit to the British National Archives, I located documents that solve one of the most nagging mysteries of Blackbeard's career.

At the height of his piracy career, Blackbeard vanished for several months,  leaving historians to speculate as to where he was and what he was doing. He disapeared from the historical record at a particularly intriguing moment: immediately after learning that King George was offering a pardon to any pirate who surrendered. Scholars have wondered if he was laying low in Spanish waters, hiding out from the British authorities who had been pursuing him across the Caribbean (described in detail in my book, The Republic of Pirates.) But a series of letters and legal depositions sent to Royal Navy headquarters in London indicate that during the winter of 1717-1718, Blackbeard was cruising the coasts of Mexico and Central America -- and he definately wasn't "hiding out."

In fact Blackbeard -- whose real name was Edward Thatch or Teach -- spent this “missing winter” threatening shipping coming to and from the Mexican port of Vera Cruz and the Bay of Honduras before cleaning and repairing his vessel on the island of Roatan, just off modern Honduras.

Mariners who were captured by the pirate reported to authorities that he sought to engage and overwhelm HMS Diamond and HMS Adventure, two Royal Navy frigates assigned to protect British vessels trading on the Spanish Main.

The captives’ accounts, which were taken down by the Diamond’s commander, Thomas Jacob, lend credence to a London newspaper account that Blackbeard’s flotilla sought to capture the Royal Prince, a merchant vessel of unusual symbolic importance to British authorities. Blackbeard and his perhaps-unwilling consort Stede Bonnet had lost been seen in late December 1717, sailing westwards from Puerto Rico to Hispaniola after engaging in a reign of terror in the Windward, Leeward, and Virgin Islands. He resurfaced in late March 1718 at Turneffe Island, off modern Belize, a gap of three months.

The new documents indicate that he proceeded to the Gulf of Mexico or the Yucatan Passage, where he hoped to surprise and capture the South Seas Company flagship, Royal Prince, and her escort, HMS Diamond, which the documents show were in the Mexican port of Vera Cruz on a high-profile trading mission from October to February. The Royal Prince was what we would now call a "terrorist target of symolic importance." She was the first ship to trade in the Spanish Americas under the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht and, at her launch, King George and his court were feted on board. Her mission was considered so critical to royal prestige that the Diamond had been ordered to convoy her all the way from Madera. Blackbeard never came across the ship, probably because he gave up prematurely. The documents place him on Roatan -- in Honduras' Bay Islands -- in early February 1718. There he captured several English merchant vessels and cleaned and refitted his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge

“They often threatened to take his majesty’s ship the Diamond, as they heard she was weakly manned,” former captive Martin Preston declared. Blackbeard’s intelligence was excellent: Captain Jacobs’ letters indicate his crew had been critically weakened by tropical diseases on their trip from Jamaica to Vera Cruz.  Another captive, William Wade, reported that they boasted they would overwhelm another vessel, the 36-gun HMS Adventure, the largest British warship in the Caribbean at the time.

Wade also reported that 70 of Blackbeard’s 250 crewmen were of African descent, further evidence that blacks aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge were fellow pirates, not pirate cargo. (The role of Africans and African-Americans in pirate crews is also explored in detail in Republic of Pirates.)

Blackbeard never encountered either Royal Navy frigate. In fact, the next time he would encounter naval personnel up close was in November 1718, at his final battle off the north shore of Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

-- Colin Woodard

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