Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: "Life, Atrocities And Bloody Death"

Everyone is at least vaguely familiar with the storied life of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach. He's a legendary pirate that, as I understand it, is set to figure prominently in not one but two Hollywood movies next year. They don't put you in movies if you're not a household name. Not anymore, anyway. Frankly I'd prefer to see a remake of The Buccaneer rather than Blackbeard the evil sorcerer but that's just the way I swing.

Despite Blackbeard's familiarity, it does not surprise me at all to find that our old friend Charles Ellms has given us the most lurid side of the story possible. Ah, Mr. Ellms, you never cease to amaze me. So here is a brief overview of The Pirates' Own Book's life of Blackbeard (or Black Beard as Ellms would have it). Since you know the general story, I'll just hit the high points. If you want to digest this or any other chapter of Ellms' Victorian classic, it's free on the web right here.

"Edward Teach was a native of Bristol," Ellms says, and he made his way to Jamaica in his youth where he joined a privateer during "the French war." Teach served under Benjamin Hornigold until 1717, when the Captain gives the soon-to-be Blackbeard a sloop of his own.

The narrative gets a little confusing at this point. Ellms has Teach taking the king's pardon in one paragraph and then off a-pirating aboard Queen Anne's Revenge in the next. What follows is basically a list of prizes, which are indeed impressive, until Teach meets Stede Bonnet:

...and these two men co-operated for some time; but Teach finding him unacquainted with naval affairs, gave the command of Bonnet's ship to Richards, one of his own crew, and entertained Bonnet on board his own vessel.

The use of the word "entertained" is particularly amusing given that Bonnet was basically Teach's prisoner until such time as Teach got all the use he could out of Bonnet's ship.

Having parted company with the perpetually pathetic Bonnet, Teach turns to terrorizing Charleston. He takes prisoners, burns ships within sight of the town and essentially blockades the port:

Meanwhile, there were eight sail in the harbor, none of which durst set to sea for fear of falling into the hands of Teach.

Teach's recently taken prisoners begin to fall ill aboard his ship and he sends two of his men along with a healthy prisoner, Mr. Marks, to negotiate for medications. The deal is done and once the sailors return Teach pillages the ships in the harbor, sets his prisoner's free and heads out to sea.

At this point Ellms has Teach treacherously running Queen Anne's Revenge aground in order to avoid having to share out his prizes with his entire crew. He strands some of his men on a "sandy island" to die of thirst and starvation and takes the rest to North Carolina where he surrenders to the Governor. He manages to keep his prize goods and he and his men are set to live by land in style. It is also worth noting that Ellms tells us it is Stede Bonnet who comes to the rescue of the seventeen unfortunates stranded by Blackbeard.

Ellms now details the sordid deal between the Governor of North Carolina and Teach whereby the pirate will raid foreign shipping, claim the ships were unmanned when he came upon them, have them libelled by the Governor and then share the spoils evenly with him. It does appear that something like this scheme went on in fact, but most probably not to the incredible extant that Ellms would have us believe. At this point, Ellms is painting Teach and the Governor with the same brush.

Of course, as always with Charles, the blue paint comes out too:

Before he entered upon his new adventures, [Teach] married a young woman of about sixteen years old... It was reported that this was only his fourteenth wife... and though this woman was young and amiable, he behaved towards her in a manner so brutal that it was shocking to all decency and propriety...

Well of course he did. By now, though, the "limits of human insolence and depravity" are catching up with our anti-hero. The people of North Carolina appeal to the Governor of Virginia for help and he enlists the assistance of the noble Lieutenant Maynard, "an experienced and resolute officer."

The initial meeting of Teach's ship with Maynard's seems cordial enough with tankards hoisted in greeting. As we know, though, things got ugly quickly. Teach boards Maynard's vessel, thinking that the Lieutenant's men have been killed by his pirate ship's broadsides. In fact the Royal Navy sailors are only hiding and they surprise Teach's boys:

The most desperate and bloody conflict ensued: - Maynard with twelve men and Black Beard with fourteen. The sea was dyed with blood all around the vessel, and uncommon bravery was displayed upon both sides. Though the pirate was wounded by the first shot from Maynard, though he had received twenty cuts, and as many shots, he fought with desperate valor; but at length, when in the act of cocking his pistol, fell down dead.

Teach's head is cut off and hung from the bowsprit of Maynard's ship. His men are taken to Virginia where they are tried and hanged with the notable exception of First Lieutenant Israel Hands. He receives, inexplicably, "his Majesty's pardon" just as he is about to be executed.

The usually stories - Teach's fondness for attaching lit fuses to his hat in battle, his random shooting of a crewman under a table, the sulfur lit below decks with hatches closed to see who can stand the horror the longest - follow with Ellms leaving nothing out. It's all there. And it is, of course, a great story.

Still, I wonder how much of it was really true...


Daggar said...

The new Pirates movie is very loosely based on a Tim Powers book called On Stranger Tides. It's a fun little read about Voudou and pirates. Powers has a way of playing fun games with history.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! Actually, On Stranger Tides is on my reading list. I thought I might put it off a bit and review it here closer to the PotC release date next year.

By the way, I spent a year volunteering in Haiti back in college. Props to you on the voudon reference. (It's only "voodoo" in the movies, after all).

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! What is the other upcoming movie featuring Blackbeard? Or the ghost of Blackbeard as the case may be... I'm sure it was all true, by the way. Ellms would never exaggerate or make something up to be more entertaining after all, as I'm sure you know, Pirate Queen.

Ozarklorian said...

Hi Pauline, actually plans are in the works for a movie about the Laffites. Still in the very early stages, though.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy & Ozarklorian!

Timmy: the Dreamworks "bio pic" was slated for release summer 2011 but, as always with Hollywood, nothing is certain...

Ozarklorian: well, ditto the above I guess. If it does come off I hope that some real research is done and that no space aliens/time travel/vampires are involved.

These fascinating guys' life stories are full of all the adventure, heroism and heartbreak any saga could ever provide. Why mess it up?

Ozarklorian said...

LOL re space aliens/time travel/vampires. Although, of course, it would be historical accurate to include Marie Laveau :) Who do you think would make the best actor for Jean Laffite? I'm betting on Robert Downey Jr. or Ed Norton. Not sure who would be a good Pierre. Also not sure who nowadays could beat Heston as Andrew Jackson.

Pauline said...

You know me. I think my Creole genes make me a natural chuckle head.

And you bet! No problem with a little NOLA voudon in the form of Madame Paris.

I'm not one of those hard core Depp fans, but he's such a chameleon that I think he would do a great Jean. Pierre? I'm thinking of that French actor that was in "Night At The Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian". He's quite popular in France and he's good but I can't think of his name.

No one beats Heston, of course, but Russell Crowe could handle Jackson without blinking. Oh! And Paul Bettany as William C.C. Claiborne, too. They could have some real tension in their scenes.

I'll get back to you on Dominique and Beluche. Talk about chuckle heads.

Ozarklorian said...

Yeah, Alain Chabat as Pierre would be good, I had forgotten him offhand. Now I do like Johnny Depp, but he doesn't have the charismatic acting ability along with the chameleon skill like, say, Edward Norton. (If you saw the Illusionist, you know what I'm talking about.) Depp does, however, have cheekbone structure matching Yul Brynner's :) However I'm afraid if Depp was in a Laffite movie, everyone would think it was a Pirates of the Gulf Coast romp and not take it seriously:)

Timmy! said...

How about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for Dominique and Hank "Kamunrah" Azaria for Beluche?

steve said...

That's all well and good, but I'm sticking with Muppet Treasure Island.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, steve! I can easily see Animal as an outstanding Andrew Jackson!

Ozarklorian: I hear you. But any time you put the word "pirate" next to a character, Hollywood is going to think of Jack Sparrow first.

Timmy: Dwayne and Hank have the sense of humor and the sailory muscles to pull it off. Plus Hank's ears look exactly like Uncle Renato's!