KEVIN P. DUFFUS. The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate: Within Every Legend Lies a Grain of Truth. 4th ed. Raleigh, NC: Looking Glass Productions, 2014. Pp. ii, 255. $24.95. ISBN: 1888285540.
The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate is the third nonfiction book written by the North Carolinian local author, historian, independent researcher, and filmmaker Kevin P. Duffus. Originally published in the year 2008, the book went through two subsequent editions—in 2011 and 2013—before appearing in the current, expanded fourth edition last year. The work is an attempt to “divine the true story of Blackbeard,” aka Edward Thatch, the famous yet enigmatic pirate from the early eighteenth century, by going back “to the trodden ground of original sources” and attempting to peer beyond “the inscrutable shadow of Black Beard’s vast legend,” which has been aggressively cultivated by academics and non-academics alike since the figure’s death in late November, 1718.
While Last Days focuses primarily on the final five months of Blackbeard’s life, from mid-June to late November of 1718, the book’s central thesis questions his entire life story, including the place and date of his supposed birth, his inspiration to “go upon the account,” and more than a dozen other previously held beliefs. For this reason, Last Days is a truly iconoclastic and controversial work; its many revisions of the Blackbeard story are almost too numerous to count. While these revisions are each proven to a varying degree of satisfaction (and end up spanning the gamut from irrefutable to dubious), taken together they represent not only a sincere, logical, and surprisingly cohesive challenge to the hitherto canonical historiography of Blackbeard, but they amount to a bold and un-ignorable indictment of the prior historical process. Regardless of the validity of the book’s central thesis, Last Days has succeeded in exposing an entire cast of people—from amateur and professional historians, to newspapermen, tour guides, and illustrators—who, for whatever their reasons, have carried forth the momentum of previous claims without bothering to undertake an adequate historical investigation. Written for a popular readership, self-designed, and self-financed, Last Days is not only the best new narrative about the life of the pirate whom we call Blackbeard, but it is an educational case study of historical methodologies and an engaging work that can teach us scores about research.
About the Author:
Kevin Duffus refers to himself as “an investigative journalist of historical events.” In the year 2002, he founded the company Looking Glass Productions in order to more effectively pursue and market his various historical projects. Duffus uses his company as a platform to produce documentary films, publish books for popular and academic audiences, and participate in news stories and speaking engagements that are intended to spark the public’s interest in North Carolina history, particularly the history of the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Since 1997, Duffus has produced four award-winning documentaries and written four books on the history of coastal North Carolina. Prior to the publication of Last Days, Duffus was most known for solving the protracted mystery of a lost Fresnel lens, first displayed at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations at New York City’s Crystal Palace in 1853, and then installed a the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse the following year. This crown-glass lens is now on display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina. For more on Duffus’ biography, please read the “About” page on the website of Looking Glass Productions. For a video of Duffus discussing Last Days, please see the banner lecture that he gave at the Virginia Historical Society on March 19, 2015, entitled “What’s Wrong with Blackbeard.”
Format and Organization of the Book:
Last Days is a stylish, glossy hybrid between a coffee-table book and an academic monograph. The softcover version appears in the double-column format, with 255 8.5 by 10 inch pages and about 105 full color images, many of them taken by the author himself in various locales in eastern North Carolina. The layout of the book was designed entirely by Duffus. The pages are adorned with many elegant touches, such as calligraphic section dividers and gray, skull-and-crossbones watermarks. A one-page note from the author is followed by roughly 25 micro chapters (which include a prologue, an epilogue, and two post scripts) that range anywhere from 5 to 16 pages. The book ends with two appendices, a one-page select bibliography of secondary sources, an acknowledgements page, an index, and a page about the author.
Content, Concept, and Style of the Book:
The content of Last Days focuses not only on scrutinizing the primary sources related to Blackbeard’s last months, but in narrating the author’s personal journey to seek out these sources and question the veracity of the legends, secondary material, and archaeological conclusions. In this sense, Duffus employs the concept of “time [as] the herald of truth.” Time is invoked repeatedly through metaphor—at one instance it is a curtain that we must peer behind; in another instance, it is an eternal river that flows in our midst, carrying the secrets of the past. Unlike academic monographs, Duffus refrains from showing his theses in the opening chapters. Rather, his arguments unfold gradually, and it is only at the end of the book that the reader finally understands the full picture that Duffus has been painting. Throughout the book, Duffus encourages the reader’s investment through tantalizing phrases such as “we shall see later on” or “we may soon discover who Blackbeard really was.”
As a North Carolinian local, Duffus employs his intimate connection with Blackbeard’s former stomping grounds as an argument in and of itself. In fact, his book quite literally takes the reader on an adventure into the Blackbeard sources, into the author’s imagination, and into the author’s unique investigative process. For example, the narrative of Last Days is bookended by the author’s personal search for the gravesite of Blackbeard’s supposed sister, Susannah Beard Franck. In chapter three, Duffus takes his readers across the Atlantic Ocean to Bristol, England, where they meet the tour guide and impersonator Peter “Pete the Pirate” Martin. Many academically trained historians would have cut this personal exploit from the text, describing it as irrelevant and indulgent, but one gets the refreshing sense that, for Duffus, the journey is almost better than the end. Finally, as a note on style, Last Days is punctuated by short and novelistic sections that are set in black italicized typeface. These sections are hypothetical narrations that Duffus has invented to fill in historical gaps.
Underlying Dichotomy Between Truth and Legend:
Early on, Duffus announces that one of his driving intentions is to “atone for the transgressions of Hollywood,” which have helped to distort and reinvent the history of Blackbeard. Throughout Last Days, Duffus reiterates his firm belief in a fundamental dichotomy between “legend” and “truth,” or between “the factual” and “the romanticized.” In this sense, Duffus believes that there is a set of hard truths about who pirates were as an historical group, that these truths can be uncovered from beneath clouds of blasphemous legends, and that many people intrinsically care more about who pirates really were than who we can make them in our stories.
In general, some readers may find it unfortunate that Duffus draws such a stark—sometimes condescending and sometimes humorous—distinction between fantasy and reality. Folklorists may find it regrettable Duffus is not more interested in addressing why people have consistently desired to romanticize Blackbeard, even in his own age. That being said, Duffus’ chapter on the many legends of Blackbeard—entitled “Treasure Islands, Skulduggery and Other Tall Tales”—is far and away one of the most fascinating contributions of Last Days. This chapter is a deviation from Duffus’ strict view of legend versus history. It provides a strong model for a dynamic narrative that interprets the storytellers of the Blackbeard legend as valid historical actors—people with unique fantasies that have, at the exact same time, everything and nothing to do with Blackbeard.
Notes and Sources:
For sources, Duffus relies upon a wide range of primary source material. He scrutinizes these materials thoroughly, and he is generally good about naming them in the sentences of his narrative. This is especially important since Last Days contains no footnotes or endnotes, and the one-page, select bibliography at the end of the book is composed of secondary sources. According to Duffus, the original, hardcover version of Last Days contained four pages of endnotes, but those pages were cut to make room for appendices and post-scripts in the later editions. Although Duffus self-publishes Last Days, his off-set press in Hong Kong only approves page additions in numbers of sixteen. Duffus felt that he could produce enough notes to fill an additional sixteen pages, but that it was not worth either the time or the expense. Also, since the book was written for consumption by a public audience, and the public rarely demands to read endnotes, Duffus felt that the extra cost and effort involved in printing additional pages was not worthwhile. Nonetheless, he has expressed a desire to publish an extensive set of notes related to his text on his website sometime in the future. In the meantime, those readers who demand to read notes can refer to the eBook editions available on ITunes and Amazon. According to Duffus, these versions have 59 notes which is, at the very least, a good place to start.
Whatever the reasons for eschewing notes, their absence in the hard copy text will likely hurt the credibility—and limit the potential—of Last Days in the eyes of academic historians, who often hold prejudices against works not cited to their industry’s standards. Academic historians tend to hold biases against unannotated works, even if they have absolutely no intention of checking the notes. In this context (and whether for better or worse), notes that are essentially meaningless, false, red herrings, or unrelated to the material they claim to cite are often preferred to the complete absence of notes. Of course, this has not always been the case, especially in the realm of pirate history.
As Duffus remarks, there are older works without notes, like Patrick Pringle’s 1953 Jolly Roger, that are popular and admired among academics. But times have changed since the 1950s. Criticizing a book for the fact that it does not contain notes, or that it was written by a “journalist” and not an historian (read: someone without an advanced degree in History), has become an easy way to dismiss a work that challenges previously held notions. Add to this the fact that Last Days is self-published and much of it takes place in first person reflection and imagined narration, and you have a recipe for poor reception in the academic community. In fact, Duffus breaks many conventions expected in academia. If his work is received poorly by University scholars, perhaps that reception will say more about whether Duffus has obeyed their rules, and less about the quality of his findings.
Duffus examines the letters of the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood; the correspondence and logbooks of the Royal Navy marines Ellis Brand, George Gordon, and lieutenant Robert Maynard; the articles of the Boston News-Letter and several unnamed London newspapers; a letter that the Secretary of the Colony of North Carolina, Tobias Knight, wrote to Blackbeard; the King’s warrant for the payment of rewards to the marines who captured and killed Blackbeard’s crew; the King’s two proclamations; letter-books, depositions, transcripts, and trial records in the Virginian, Great Britain, and North and South Carolinian colonial archives; and, most importantly, the compiled and numbered deed books of Beaufort County. In these books, Duffus examines many documents that recent yet non-local Blackbeard historians, from Angus Konstam to Dan Parry and Colin Woodard, have overlooked. These documents include North Carolina wills, probate records, estate inventories, transaction receipts, deeds of gift, and more. In some cases, most notably in a close reading of Brand’s and Gordon’s logbooks in the British National Archives, in Kew, Duffus out researches the British biographers of Blackbeard on their home court.
In Last Days, Duffus continues the previous work of three genealogists named Jane Bailey, Allen Norris, and John Oden. The research of these genealogists culminated in the publication of a 2002 article in the North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal called “Legends of Blackbeard and His Ties to Bath Town.” Duffus summarizes this research throughout his book. He is forthcoming about the fact that his central thesis originated with the work of these genealogists. In no way does he try and take credit for their work or obscure the line between his contributions and theirs.
Thesis of Last Days:
To summarize his central argument, Duffus posits that Blackbeard was actually Edward Beard, the formally educated and unnamed son of a Bath County mariner and landholder named James Beard; that Blackbeard was born in colonial America sometime around 1691 (perhaps on the island of Barbados) to a family of Scottish Presbyterians and/or Covenanters with strong Jacobite sympathies; that Blackbeard moved to North Carolina from Goose Creek, Charleston, with his father in 1705, at roughly the age of fourteen; that he was apprenticed as a mariner out of Philadelphia as a young adult, possibly to a resident of Delaware County named Richard Thatcher; that he adopted the pseudonym “Thatch,” perhaps from his master, in order to protect his family’s honor; and that he began his short two-year career of piracy in his mid-20s, like so many others from the Golden Age, on a 1716 mission to salvage sunken treasure from the 1715 Spanish plate fleet off the coast of eastern Florida; that this mission was planned in collusion with prominent and desperate authorities in the cash-starved North Carolinian government; and that the mission was accompanied by a core group of confirmed locals, including John Martin and William Howard, whom Duffus calls the “Bath County Pirates.”
Throughout Last Days, Duffus presents a bewildering number of auxiliary arguments. Each of these arguments serves to strengthen his primary claim—and the primary claim of Bailey, Norris, and Oden—regarding Blackbeard’s true identity as the forgotten son of the Bath-County landholder and mariner James Beard. Prominent among these arguments is the idea that Blackbeard had a nephew named Edward from a sister named Susannah Beard Franck, eventually confused in legend with “Susie White,” whom Duffus confirms is the actual granddaughter of Blackbeard’s cooper Edward Salter. This confirmation is made by way of a deed that Duffus found in the county record books.
Critique of Last Days:
Duffus brings an extraordinary sense of cohesion to his story of Blackbeard. Take for example his claim that Blackbeard had a sister who lived on the Neuse River in the Craven precinct of North Carolina. This argument explains the pirate’s whereabouts between November 1, when he stayed with his “real friend” and secretary of the colony, Tobias Knight, for the last time, and November 17, when he was reported by local sailors to have grounded on Brant Island Shoals. The theory of Blackbeard’s sister also explains why the pirate became stranded on a shoal that lies south of the trajectory between his known hideout at Ocracoke Island and the port town of Bath. Finally, this theory explains a cryptic reference in Knight’s correspondence to an “Indian Warr.” Duffus states that Blackbeard rushed to his sister’s residence to warn her about this potential conflict. In Last Days, Duffus succeeds remarkably in bringing this sort of cohesive vision, whether right or wrong, to all of his new theories regarding the life story of Blackbeard the pirate. Duffus seeks not only to explain one event, but to tie all purported events together in a logical and chronological web of understanding.
Sometimes Duffus goes too far in his eagerness to present a super cohesive Blackbeard story. His desire for every action in Blackbeard’s last days to have a cause that is both logical and knowable leads him to build many small claims upon weak evidence. For example, his claim that Edward Beard took the epithet of “Black,” as in “Black” Beard, to honor his friend and fellow pirate “Black” Sam Bellamy is based more upon Duffus’ dual assumptions that the sobriquet did not refer to his facial hair and that “Beard” was his last name than it is upon any direct evidence. It appears the only evidence to suggest this connection is the fact that Blackbeard and Bellamy were close and intimate associates. Similarly, Duffus argues that Blackbeard learned the tactic of blowing up his vessel to escape capture from the pirate Charles Vane, simply because Blackbeard and Vane both used this strategy and met together once in a banyan on Ocracoke island in October of 1718. As a third example, Duffus suggests that Charles Johnson’s 1724 claim that Blackbeard wore lit fuses beneath his hat in order to intimidate his victims was really about keeping away tropical insects with smoke. Also, he states that the naming of the sloop Adventure was an homage to Captain William Kidd, simply because Kidd sailed in a ship called the Adventure Galley. And the list goes on and on.
Most of these smaller claims that Duffus makes throughout Last Days are both harmless and believable. However, there is a crucial distinction between probability and likelihood; and, taken in abundance, all of these small claims reveal an underlying pressure the author feels to succeed totally, to explain everything about who Blackbeard was. As he states in his own words, Duffus tries to offer his “best explanation…in the absence of any controverting evidence.” But, as all scholars need to be reminded from time to time, the absence of controverting evidence does not necessarily equate to a confirmation of the proposed theory. Also, if there is one characteristic that alienates academics who are considering a new work, it is the language of certainty. Last Days may have been more palatable had it been written in a tone of greater humility and speculation.
For his secondary arguments, Duffus presents evidence that Blackbeard was syphilitic, weak, and more of a pathetic and desperate alcoholic toward the end of his life than previously thought. He suggests the possibility that Blackbeard’s non-human treasure (read: jewels and gold) from his days of piracy was used to finance the mysterious and meteoric rise of his former crewmembers, particularly William Howard and Edward Salter. Although this observation is not new, Duffus reminds his readers that, with the exception of one planter’s son named William Bell whom Blackbeard encountered at Chester’s Landing on the night of September 14, there is absolutely no direct evidence of Blackbeard murdering, torturing, violating, abusing, or beating anyone during his two-year career as a pirate. He may have taken roughly 100 prizes on 4 separate cruises, but there is no primary source record of him brutalizing those that he captured or robbed.
The above statement is only one piece of evidence that Duffus employs to refute the popular characterization of Blackbeard as a wild-eyed, murderous, savage, evil, and sadistic rogue. In all likelihood, none of the contemporary images of Blackbeard were accurate portraitures. There is only one extant primary source that even mentions Blackbeard’s appearance, saying only that he was a “tall spare man with a very black beard which he wore very long.” And, for all the sensational talk of the bloody engagement that ended the pirate’s life in 1718, Duffus reminds his readers that the skirmish on deck lasted only about six minutes and that not a single Royal Navy marine was even killed in the melee. Ultimately, Duffus goes so far as to argue that Blackbeard and his crew “paper tigers” who never wanted to engage the Royal Navy. According to primary sources—information taken Captain Brand, Lieutenant Maynard, and the writers of the Boston News-Letter—they would have avoided the battle all together if there was another exit from the Pamlico Sound they could sail through.
In an outstanding postscript chapter that is certain to generate robust and contentious historical debate, entitled “Black Beard’s Black Pirates,” Duffus asserts that the real treasure from Blackbeard’s two-year career of piracy was 60 black slaves, who were gifted and sold to sponsors, used as payment for real-estate transactions, and surreptitiously smuggled onto the labor-starved plantations of the “Bath County pirates” and their relatives. While scholars and non-scholars alike have looked upon the over 2,000 material artifacts exhumed from the supposed wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, discovered at Beaufort Inlet in 1996, with a palpable sense of excitement, Duffus laments that “few experts have spent time considering the cargo of flesh and blood transported by the famous pirate ship.” Hopefully, the days of blindly oversimplifying the racial and class-based views of pirates during the Golden Age has come to an end, and scholars are ready to seriously evaluate Duffus’ claim that “the importation of African slaves is [both] the under-appreciated and forgotten legacy of the Great Age of Piracy, and…an important part of America’s heritage.”
Duffus knows more about the black pirates on board Blackbeard’s ship at the end of his life than any other historian today. He has traced the whereabouts of roughly one-third of the 60 black pirates who came into Bath Town port on the Adventure in the summer of 1718. Nonetheless, Duffus also allows himself to be swept up in the polarizing nature of the pirate-race debate. He states that “the answers are clear…the majority of the 60 blacks onboard were treated as slaves.” Pages later he states that “all of the black men were slaves,” even though we have absolutely no record of their treatment, and one-third does not constitute all or a majority. In his hypothetical narratives, Duffus has blacks on the ship acting as stewards and performing the most onerous labor, like operating the ship’s pumps, sweeps, and oars. Unfortunately, Duffus does not seem to present any direct evidence that these tasks were understood as ‘slave tasks’ or ‘tasks for black pirates’ by white men on Blackbeard’s crew. Of course, Duffus is not the only author who has brought his preconceptions to the conversation about black pirates. Almost every person who has written about this topic seems to think they know what it meant to be a ‘slave’ on a pirate ship or a ‘crewmember’ on a pirate ship.
Nonetheless, Duffus makes some astute observations here. One of these observations is the curious fact that all six of the black pirates on Blackbeard’s ship in November, 1718, did not join the white pirates in the Royal Navy boarding party. However, there are other moments (once again) where Duffus conflates logic with fact. He claims that four of the black pirates were Blackbeard’s personal slaves simply because they accompanied him on a midnight errand to Bath Town alone.
In his second post-script chapter, Duffus makes outstanding revelations concerning the history of the black pirate named Caesar. In sifting the local records of colonial North Carolina, Duffus discovered sources indicating that Caesar was living on the Bath County plantation of Colonel Robert Daniel when he bestowed the land to his common-law wife, Martha Wainwright, in 1709. Caesar was still on this plantation in 1719, when he was listed in the inventory of the new owner, Tobias Knight. These new records allow historians to pinpoint the exact age of Caesar, as well as his price on the slave market. These revelations are important because an immense legend has grown around Caesar. He is often described as “America’s only black pirate” or “America’s most notorious black pirate.” Before Last Days, many historians (myself included) assumed that Caesar was an African-born slave, possibly taken out of a slaver that Blackbeard plundered in his two-year career. Now it seems far more likely that Caesar was a local, Bath County slave-turned-pirate who accompanied the Blackbeard expedition from its very beginnings in 1716, possibly joining up in the form of an investment from his owner, Tobias Knight. Some scholars may contend there were two Caesars; but, as Duffus explains, such a contention would require a coincidence of miraculous proportions.
Last Days is filled with small revisions to the Blackbeard story that only a North Carolinian local could write. As he discusses in Last Days, Duffus has an intimate and longstanding relationship with both the Blackbeard legends and the locations they are associated with. In his youth, he recalled searching for the gravesite of fabled “Sister Susie White” on the banks of the historic Tar River (in what he discovered several decades later was the family cemetery of the once pirate Edward Salter); he has sailed the distance of the Pamlico Sound from Bath to Ocracoke more times than he can count; he wrote a portion of Last Days on the property of Governor Eden’s former estate, where Blackbeard stored much of his contraband material; and, in the year 1985, he was even stuck on Brant Island Shoals, the spot where Blackbeard grounded on Monday, November 17, 1718. Once again, many academics will dismiss Duffus’ close association with coastal North Carolina as maudlin, distracting, and as evidence of an inherent bias. For me, this close association reveals Duffus’ deep investment in his project, his sincere personal interest, and his belief that the stakes could not be higher.
Academics might be inclined to see Duffus’ personal reflections as unscholarly and indulgent, but those reflections cannot be extracted from his cohesive understanding of the Blackbeard story. For example, it is because Duffus knows the waters, littorals, and outer banks of eastern North Carolina so well that he can re-interpret the logs of Royal Navy captains like Ellis Brand and George Gordon and make small yet significant revisions to the Blackbeard story that have never been made before. For the first time, readers learn that lieutenant Maynard’s expedition against Blackbeard approached Ocracoke island from the continental-side, not the ocean, after entering the sound at Roanoke Inlet. Readers also learn that Ellis Brand traveled overland on one of six roads, and was ferried across the Albemarle Sound with the help of a team of political adversaries to the North Carolina Governor, Charles Eden. Brand came by himself and one servant, not a columned army of roughly 200 men, as was previously claimed. These details may be small pieces of the puzzle, but together they create the most cohesive picture of Blackbeard’s last days that has ever been seen.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking claim Duffus has made concerning the history of Blackbeard is also the most irrefutable. This is the fact than many of Blackbeard’s captured crew members who were purported to have been hanged in Williamsburg on March 12, 1718, were actually pardoned or acquitted about six weeks before, in accordance with King George’s Second (and more lenient) Act of Grace, which arrived in the royal colony of Virginia in late December, 1718, just in time to save the condemned pirate William Howard. Professional and amateur historians alike have blindly accepted the claims by the mysterious and contemporary author “Captain Charles Johnson” that 13 pirates from Blackbeard’s crew were tried in mid-March and shortly thereafter hanged on the colonial gallows of Williamsburg at Capitol Landing Road. In Last Days, Duffus reveals that this is simply not true.
For nearly three centuries, writers have continued to accept Johnson’s version of the execution and trial without any supporting evidence (the records of the trial are no longer extant), despite the fact that Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates has been proven wrong on numerous other occasions. In Last Days, Duffus reveals that only six pirates, two of them white and five of them black, from Blackbeard’s ship were actually executed. Moreover, these pirates were not tried at the same time. The whites and one black, named Caesar, were tried and either hanged or pardoned before the end of January. The remaining five blacks were arraigned separately on March 11, after four of them supplied depositions for a case against Tobias Knight. Nor were any of these pirates actually hanged at Williamsburg. They were hanged at the mouth of the Hampton River, as George Gordon’s journal demonstrates. Moreover, the pirates were not hanged for piracy, which was forgiven under the unique terms of the second Act of Grace. Instead, they were hanged for the unpardonable offense of bearing arms against the King’s navy in the engagement at Ocracoke. For this reason, all of the pirate affiliates rounded up in Bath Town after the battle were pardoned, as were those men who remained below deck during the skirmish.
The central thesis of Last Days—that Blackbeard, a “Bristol man born,” was actually Edward Beard of Bath Town, North Carolina—may not withstand the test of time. There are already opposing arguments being put forth by Arne Bailuchewski and Baylus Brooks that Blackbeard hailed from St. Catherine’s Parish, Jamaica, and there are likely to be more theories in the future. Whatever the outcome here, it seems incontrovertible that Duffus’ new interpretation of the trial, execution, and pardoning of Blackbeard’s pirates is here to stay. Along with Duffus’ claim that Blackbeard traded in slaves to the desperate, cash-starved, and labor-deprived colony of North Carolina, this new interpretation of the hunt and subsequent trial of Blackbeard’s crew members may be his greatest contribution. When reading Last Days, it is crucial to remember that we need not accept arguments wholesale. Scholarship does not operate by the rules of a zero-sum game. Readers can accept the idea that Blackbeard had a strong and mysterious connection to North Carolina that predated his summer visit of June, 1718—a connection that has never been adequately appreciated until this moment—and can still exercise reservation that he was the unknown son of a planter on the north shore of the Pamlico River named James Beard.
Like much of Duffus’ work, his revision of the pirate trial unveils a prodigious blunder in the historiography of Blackbeard. Aficionadas of Blackbeard’s history will be left wondering, how have scholars missed the fact that many of Blackbeard’s crew were not actually killed in 1718, and that many of them, like John Martin, Edward Salter, Caesar, and others, continued to live out their lives in the deed books of eastern North Carolina? Unfortunately, the only logical answer is that no one—not even the North Carolinian scholar Robert. E. Lee—bothered to scrutinize the deeds of North Carolina. Instead, these writers felt confident that they could quote Charles Johnson without challenge. Duffus said that he does not consider Johnson’s A General History to be a primary source simply because the book is a contemporary work of the Golden Age of Piracy. Now, his work has added to the efforts of many previous scholars, gradually eroding the credibility of Johnson’s beloved book to the point that almost none of its content can be accepted without corroboration from other primary documents or from a heap of corresponding, circumstantial evidence.
Charles Johnson and all of the writers who have helped to carry forth his sensational legacy have “permanently woven so many fallacies” into Blackbeard’s story. In Last Days, Duffus focuses the lion’s share of his attention on four modern authors: Addison Whipple, Shirley Carter Hughson, Charles Harry Whedbee, and Howard Pyle. While Whedbee never attempted to pass his folklore off as fact and Duffus believes that Hughson did pretty good early work on Blackbeard, the works of Pyle and Whipple share a large part of the blame for encouraging the dominant Blackbeard fallacies.
As Duffus summarizes, there is no convincing evidence that Blackbeard was born in Bristol, had fourteen wives, allowed his crewmembers to rape one of his wives, buried treasure, battled a British warship, led a lavish life in Bath Town, or did a dozen other things he was claimed to have done. There is evidence, however, that he did own a “pocket book” and that he kept “grenadoes” on hand for combat. Also, there appear to be no Thatch’s in the census records of colonial America or Bristol (though Duffus neglects to speak about Jamaica), and Blackbeard is not even referenced in the historical record until a document referring to March of 1717—a letter to the Council of Trade and Plantations by one Captain Matthew Musson. This date is only 20 months before Blackbeard’s death at Ocracoke. Readers may find it strange to learn that Blackbeard’s known pirate career lasted less than two years. 
There are problems with Duffus’ imagined narration set in bold and italicized typeface. There are moments when paragraphs or statements feel like they should be italicized and they are not. For example, Duffus imagines a scene in which a French surgeon approaches Blackbeard to administer a cure for syphilis. This scene is made up, but Duffus does not set the paragraph in bold italics. In doing so, he creates the assumption that the event is documented and Blackbeard undoubtedly had syphilis. The theory that Blackbeard had syphilis is important for Duffus because it explains why Blackbeard blockaded the port of Charleston for a medicine chest, and it explains why he headed to Philadelphia thereafter, ostensibly to call upon a doctor. There are other moments when the imagined narration encourages a reliance on cheap stereotypes, such as the idea that an anonymous women “swooned” when news arrived at Bath Town of Blackbeard’s death. Finally, there are times when the reader cannot tell if Duffus is basing a narrative point on documented evidence. He claims that Blackbeard and his crew were preparing to seek a privateering commission in St. Thomas when they were caught at Ocracoke, and that Blackbeard never intended to take his last prize near Bermuda, though there is some confusion as to whether any direct evidence supports these claims.
There is no escaping the fact that Duffus’ primary thesis would be drastically enhanced if there was at least one primary source identifying Blackbeard as “Edward Beard” or “Mr. Beard,” instead of “Edward Teach” or “Edward Thatch.” While Duffus presents an extraordinary amount of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Blackbeard could be Edward ‘Black’ Beard, he has no real evidence for why “Thatch” or “Teach” is the only name with which Blackbeard is actually referred to in all of the primary source materials. One is inclined to think, if so many people knew Blackbeard’s true identity as the son of the late Bath County resident and mariner James Beard (including such political adversaries of the pirate’s known associates like Edward Moseley), then it seems highly unlikely that no one ever reported upon that fact in writing, or that no records exist, especially when so many newspapers were circulating with the story of Blackbeard’s death.
Of course, there are strong counter arguments to the above reservation. One is that none of the other confirmed Bath County pirates and residents—even Edward Salter, whose life after piracy is well documented—are described as pirates in the surviving historical record. Second, it makes sense that Governor Eden and Tobias Knight destroyed any and all papers attesting to their association with the pirate, and that (as we know) the Virginia trial records were lost in fire. Overall, so little of these people’s lives, Blackbeard included, were put into writing that it does not stretch the imagination to believe that Blackbeard was from North Carolina even though no extant documentation exists. As of now, perhaps the closest thing that Duffus has to a smoking gun is the written statement of Eden’s legal counsel, longtime North Carolina resident, and former Acting Governor of the province, Thomas Pollock, who stated the captured pirates were “inhabitants of North Carolina.”
If “Thatch” or “Teach” was not the pirate’s name given at birth, then where did this name come from? When uncertainty surrounding this name is combined with the fact that “Edward” is postulated as the name of James Beard’s unknown son based simply upon the fact that James Beard had a daughter who named her child Edward, then the main thesis of Last Days remains quite tenuous. Indeed, if sailing men named Edward Thatch (or some derivation thereof) have been found on the known pirate haven of Jamaica, then the argument will appear even less tenable. In other words, Last Days has not sufficiently ruled out the possibility that “Thatch” was an original name and not a sobriquet.
Duffus excels in his analysis of the social, political, and economic context of North Carolina in the year’s leading up to Blackbeard’s activities. He explains that North Carolina was reeling from the Tuscarora Indian War, Carey’s Rebellion, and other bouts of religious and political factionalism. The London proprietors of the colony were no longer accepting the payments in colonial currency for quitrents and landholders were under extreme pressure to pay in either pounds sterling, though the colony was very poor, or with cash crops, though the colony had no good slave port, no fair access to slaves, and very few slaves when compared to its neighbors of Virginia and South Carolina. Duffus employs his characteristic and penetrating common sense when he states that it is extremely naïve for historians to contend that Blackbeard passed up the opportunity to accept the royal pardon from no less than three colonial governors, and then stumbled into North Carolina in the summer of 1718 to accept an illegal pardon with the only asset (slaves) the colony needed more than currency. Whether informed by his Bath County brethren or by his own upbringing in the colony, Last Days makes a strong case for the fact that Blackbeard knew exactly what he was doing when he sailed to Bath.
Duffus also makes good contributions to the study of the Knight-Blackbeard-Eden opposition, which included the Royalist lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, the political rivals of North Carolina, Edward Moseley and Maurice Moore, and the begrudged planter’s son, William Bell. Many historians have claimed that Spotswood was telling the truth when he wrote that his mission to seize Blackbeard was in response to the complaints of planters whom Blackbeard had continued to abuse. In Last Days, Duffus makes the case that the only planters who actually complained about Blackbeard’s activities were the abused William Bell and the political rival Edward Moseley and his associates. These complaints provided the excuse, rather than the reason, for Spotswood to extend the politics of Royalism to the proprietary colony of North Carolina. For Moseley, the illicit relationship between Blackbeard and the North Carolina authorities provided the excuse for him to depose Eden. Writers who favor the sensational legends of Blackbeard have long wanted to believe, as Spotswood claimed, that he was the terror of the Outer Banks. In reality, there is very little evidence to support this claim.
Duffus added a good deal of material about the search for, and the re-internment of, Edward Salter in the fourth edition of his book. In fact, the material about the legacy of Edward Salter and his descendants at the end of Last Days, and in the second appendix, threatens to overshadow the main story about Blackbeard himself. Edward Salter was Blackbeard’s former cooper, and he continued to live after the pirate trial in Williamsburg, despite what Johnson claimed in 1724. Duffus explores how Salter’s family became involved in the revolutionary politics of North Carolina, and how Duffus was instrumental in helping to get Salter’s remains reinterred in the graveyard of a church that Salter had helped finance in the 1730s, perhaps with pirated funds.
The material on Edward Salter comes as a distraction from Blackbeard’s story, and may have served better as a stand-along article. Nonetheless, Duffus makes an outstanding point about the lost and unexplored fates of pirates who are absorbed back into society after they leave the profession. For too long, historians have looked upon pirates as a stagnant and independent group. We have forgotten that pirates were many different things—artisans, politicians, landowners, fathers, and sons. In the case of Salter, pirating was only a small part of his life. It was something that he did for a short time, while he was young and while it was convenient. Pirate scholars love to imagine men like Blackbeard, who died in combat at sea, but they are often reluctant to imagine the hundreds of other pirates who willingly surrendered to pardons and slipped back into society. And now, what about the many black immigrants, who were first brought to colonial ports on a pirate ship?
In Last Days, Kevin Duffus closely examines the primary sources related to Blackbeard’s last five months in light of a thesis that was first proposed by the genealogists Jane Bailey, Allen Norris, and John Oden. He objective is to uncover “the real man behind the [iconic] legend,” whom he believes is most likely the unnamed son of the Bath County planter and mariner James Beard. Throughout the course of the book, Duffus unveils a staggering number of secondary and tertiary claims, which run the gamut from irrefutable to dubious. Each chapter refutes half-a-dozen previously held beliefs, many of which have not been discussed in this review. Overall, Last Days is a triumph of personal ambition. The book was self-financed, self-designed, and self-published for a public audience. It is a sincere joy to read, with an engaging narrative and an inspirational collection of photos.
If Last Days has any significant failings, it is that Duffus has not set up his argument up for a good reception by academics, who are likely to either ignore his work or criticize its format and conventions. Those who have written books about Blackbeard before are especially likely to attack Last Days, or else get caught relinquishing confidence in their own theses. Second is the fact that Duffus, in his eagerness to create the most comprehensive book about Blackbeard, has presented claims as facts regardless of whether they are extremely believable or just slightly more than speculation. For its successes, Last Days may not have proven that Blackbeard was Edward Beard; but it has proven that Blackbeard and his crew had a connection with the colony of North Carolina that has never been given its proper due. More importantly, Duffus has attacked legend. He has proven that “Blackbeard was never the man [that] he was pretended to be,” and he has asked us to think about what our legends are serving to cover up. For example, how have stories of Blackbeard origins in England covered up Bristol’s relationship with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and how has the search for Blackbeard’s buried treasure obscured his role, and the role of his crew members, as possible slave dealers?
Patrick Pringle, Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1953).
Angus Konstam, Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate (Hoboken, HJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2006); Dan Parry, Blackbeard: The Real Pirate of the Caribbean (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006); Colin Woodard, The Republic of Pirates (New York: Harcourt Inc., 2007).
Jane S. Bailey, Allen H. Norris, and John H. Oden III, “Legends of Black Beard and His Ties to Bath Town: A Study of Historical Events Using Genealogical Methodology,” North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal 28 (2002): 273–85.
For more on the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck, see various works by the diver Mike Daniel and the archaeologist David D. Moore, for example, “A General History of Blackbeard the Pirate, the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the Adventure,” in Tributaries, vol. VII, 1997 (North Carolina Maritime History Council), 31-35; David D. Moore and Mike Daniel, “Blackbeard’s Capture of the Nantaise Slave Ship La Concorde: A Brief Analysis of the Documentary Evidence.” Tributaries, Vol. 11 (October): 27. Also see chapters on the QAR by Christopher E. Hamilton and Mark U. Wilde-Ramsing is in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, ed. by Russell Showronek and Charles Ewen (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006). There is also a good amount of source material referenced on the references of the Queen Anne’s Revenge Wikipedia Page.
For an example of my previous arguments regarding the Afro-American pirate Caesar, please see Devin Leigh, “Ghost of the Gallows: The Historical Record of Black Caesar,” Creating Knowledge: The LAS Student Research Journal of DePaul University, vol. 5 (Spring, 2012): 28-38.
Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2010), 52.
See Arne Bialuschewski, “Blackbeard: the Creation of a Legend,” The Washington and Jefferson College Review, vol. 58 (2012): 39. I am not sure if this is the source where Bialuschewski suggests that Blackbeard had origins in Jamaica. I have not been able to find this source. The work of Baylus Brooks that will make this argument has not yet been published, but it looks like it is to be called Quest for Blackbeard: A True Story of Edward Thache and his World, and it can be viewed on Brook’s blog, entitled B.C. Brooks: A Writer’s Hiding Place. Brooks has also posted a genealogical chart he made on this blog explaining why he believes that Blackbeard is from Jamaica. If this genealogy should prove correct, then Blackbeard may have been a former privateer from Jamaica—with family connections to Bristol and Gloucester, England—who sailed the HMS Windsor in Queen Anne’s War, perhaps in the company of the soon-to-be pirate Benjamin Hornigold. Brooks also discusses the source cited by Bialuschewski, a deposition given by a Jamaican man named Henry Timberlake. However, after acquiring and reading the Timberlake deposition, Duffus asserts that “there is absolutely no statement or other suggestion within the deposition that Thatch ever set foot on the island of Jamaica.” Readers should, if at all possible, consult this deposition (as well as all other relevant material) for themselves before taking sides in this debate.
Robert E. Lee, Blackbeard the Pirates: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1974).
Addison B.C. Whipple, Pirate Rascals of the Spanish Main (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1957); Shirley Carter Hughson, The Carolina Pirates and Colonial Commerce, 1670-1719 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1897); Charles Harry Whedbee, Legends of the Outer Banks (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1966), and Blackbeard’s Cup and Stories of the Outer Banks (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1989). Howard Pyle, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1921). If the wreck of Beaufort Inlet proves to the QAR, then there is archaeological evidence that Blackbeard used grenades, as a grenade was found amid the wreckage.
Several scholars who have staked at least part of their reputations on Blackbeard have already attacked Duffus and Last Days. David D. Moore reviewed the book negatively and in a condescending tone in 2008 on the website Piracy.com. See the following link for that review. I have been provided a much longer and itemized copy of Moore’s review of Last Days in an email from Kevin P. Duffus. Please consult the author if you would like to see this review. Although this review was written in response to the book’s first edition, and many of its critiques have since been addressed in subsequent editions of Last Days. Angus Konstam, another Blackbeard author, also posted a negative review of Last Days on Piracy.com on May 20, 2009. See that review here. In my opinion, none of these reviews adequately evaluated the contributions of Last Days.