Dead Men Do Tell Tales: An exploration of anti-piracy campaigns under Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood and the demise of Blackbeard, 1696-1718

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718

A painting depicting the battle between the pirate Blackbeard and Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal Navy on 22 November 1718. 

Portrait of Alexander Spotswood

Alexander Spotswood sits for portrait in elegant attire holding a scroll in left hand with a fortified castle painted in the distance. Painted by Charles Bridges in 1736. 

Commonly referred to as "the Golden Age of Piracy," piratical activity throughout Atlantic and Caribbean waters surged considerably in the early 1700s. In response to this surge, a formal treatise titled, "A Discourse about Pyrates, with Proper Remedies to Suppress Them," was presented to the Commissioners of His Majesty's Customs on May 10, 1696 that forged a path towards more strategized methods of eradicating pirates.[1] Existing scholarship identifies several anti-piracy campaign advancements such as, the development of export staples in less prosperous colonies, the steady decline of privateering commissions, proclamations of general amnesty, and most of all, the fierce crusade in which colonial governors exercised their vengeance; Alexander Spotswood, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, was one of those governors.[2] [3] With his aggressive attitude towards pirates and his authoritative influence, Lt. Governor Spotswood introduced legislation, proclamations, and authorized commissions that positively impacted the anti-piracy campaign. 

In 1718, arguably his most impressive accomplishment on the anti-piracy stage, Lt. Governor Spotswood commissioned two sloops, commanded by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, to apprehended or otherwise neutralize the pirate captain Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard.  Leading up to this historic event, Lt. Governor Spotswood involved himself in a number of anti-piracy movements that forged his vengeful reputation towards pirates and sea marauders alike. Whilst a preoccupied England moved slowly to address the ever-present pirate threat, letters from Spotswood tell a different story; one that emphasizes his fervent determination to rid the seas and peripheral colonies of pirates entirely.  

Throughout this exhibit, the relationship between Blackbeard and Lt. Governor Spotswood unfolds, exposing a narrative that has yet to be detailed in length. While Lt. Governor Spotswood contributed much to the development of colonial Virginia during his tenure, scholarship concerning his efforts on the eradication of pirates is lacking. The purpose of this exhibit is to build upon trans-Atlantic discourse by exploring the information exchange of Alexander Spotswood in connection to Blackbeard. The goal of this exhibit is to reveal the dichotomy between political and social behavior regarding anti-piracy campaigns through the various correspondence and legislative actions of Alexander Spotswood. Furthermore, this exhibit attempts to highlight the political disharmony within colonial governorships; a symptom of the power imbalance created by earlier imperial unification of the colonies.[4]

This exhibit contributes to a larger research agenda centered around seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic history drawing particular attention to early modern piracy, trade, and information exchange.  

[1] Mark Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570-1740, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 222.

[2] Matthew Norton, “Classification and Coercion: The Destruction of Piracy in the English Maritime System.” American Journal of Sociology 119, no. 6 (2014): 1539, doi: 10.1086/676041.

[3] John Appleby, “Pirates, Privateers, and Buccaneers: The Changing Face of English Piracy from the 1650s to the 1720s,” in The Social History of English Seamen, 1650-1815, ed. Cheryl Fury (New York: Boydell Press, 2017).

[4] Hanna, Pirate Nests, 222. The 1696 treatise proposed a plan to create coherence within the peripheral colonies. This plan unified colonial parts (i.e., South Carolina and the Bahamas) and focused on colonial administration around the eastern coastline that effectively placed the entire region under royal control.