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Historian’s pirate book a treasure trove of facts

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The notorious pirate Blackbeard once threatened to turn Bermuda into a pirate's den.

So claims historian William S Zuill in his new book, The Pirate Menace.

“He was a rogue with a vivid personality,” said the 84-year-old. “In the height of battle, Blackbeard would light slow-burning matches and put them into his hair to create a wreath of smoke around himself. “This made him more frightening.”

Blackbeard's real name was Edward Teach, and his origins are unknown. Some historians believe he was from Bristol, England, while others think he was from a wealthy family in Jamaica.

In 1718, Blackbeard successfully blockaded Charleston, North Carolina. By taking hostages, he forced the town's people to hand over a large quantity of money and a medicine chest. Reports reached England that he was threatening to take over Bermuda.

“In June, 1718 Blackbeard set sail and steered towards Bermuda,” Mr Zuill wrote. “Pirate threats were always a matter of concern, and Blackbeard had shown what he could do when he blockaded Charleston.

“In fact, news that he was sailing towards Bermuda probably never reached the Island.”

Blackbeard became distracted by plunder on the high seas and did not carry out his plan. One of his ships, was the sloop Bermuda, gifted to him by another pirate, Benjamin Hornigold. Blackbeard renamed it Adventure.

Mr Zuill said the information about Blackbeard comes from an account written by a Captain Charles Johnson, thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.

“My own guess is that Defoe was Captain Johnson's editor,” said Mr Zuill. “Captain Johnson remains a man of mystery.

“Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and novels like Treasure Island have really romanticised pirates. They make it seem like pirates were really good people. In reality, there was nothing romantic about pirates. There was cruelty to men and women who fell into piratical hands. The pirates took sadistic pleasure in tormenting the officers and crew of captured ships.”

In one case, he said pirate crews tied captives to ropes and hoisted them high above the ship, and then let them drop to see their bones break.

Blackbeard was said to have 14 wives including the 16-year-old daughter of a plantation owner. After he married her he invited his favourite crew members to rape her.

There is no evidence that Bermuda was ever a stronghold for pirates, but a few Bermudians did join the ranks. One example was Nathaniel North.

“He was pressed into the Royal Navy,” said Mr Zuill. “His ship was at anchor in Kingston Harbour, Jamaica when he jumped overboard and swam to another vessel. He became a pirate and went out to Madagascar. His family was in Bermuda.

“In the end he carved out a little bit of Madagascar as his own little kingdom and lived there the rest of his life. He was eventually murdered by enemies. You had to keep a strong guard around you in those days.”

Mr Zuill said he had thought about writing the book for the last 30 years, but only started writing it recently.

“Whenever I passed a library I would go in and look for pirates in the card catalogue for things related to pirates and the time period,” he said.

He was surprised by many of the things he learned, such as New York being a popular hangout for pirates in the 1700s. It was in New York that looted treasures were bought and sold.

His granddaughter Zoe Brady, helped him source visual material for the book. She is currently studying artefact conservation at the University of Cardiff in Wales.

“I want to thank my granddaughter for reinvigorating me to push on with completing the work,” Mr Zuill wrote in his book.

Mr Zuill is a former editor of The Royal Gazette and the retired director of the Bermuda National Trust. He has written several other books.

He'll sign copies of his book at Brown and Company on Saturday at noon.

William S Zuill with his new book The Pirate Menace
New book: William S Zuill with The Pirate Menace. He will be signing copies on Saturday at noon at Brown and Company

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Published March 02, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated March 02, 2015 at 1:33 am)

Historian’s pirate book a treasure trove of facts

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