Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pirates? Pirates!: G6 Grandfather Joseph Brooks (?-1718)

Joseph Brooks (? -1718)

Blackbeard's Battle Flag
I don't know where Joseph Brooks came from, but I do know where he ended. He and his family, a wife Esther and at least two boys, Joseph Jr. and Stephen,  lived on the outerbanks of North Carolina at the turn of the 18th century.  It was a remote and wild area, and residents would have lived a primitive lifestyle. How they came to live in this land is unknown, though some have a theory that they were descendents of The Lost Colony and Crotoan Indians. None of this, however, has been proven. What we know is they were there, and their lives must have been very hard against the elements, storms, lack of proper nutrition, and little to do in the way of making a living. Perhaps because of the wild nature of the land, or lack of enforced law, whatever the case, this area was ruled by pirates or "bankers" from 1710-1718. Joseph and his son, Jr., were some of the pirates. In fact, they were pirates in the infamous Blackbeard's crew.

It is unknown when Joseph hooked up with Blackbeard, but it has been well recorded in every account of Blackbeard's death that Joseph, Sr, my g6 grandfather, was killed on the Queen Anne's Revenge when Leut. Maynard attacked. His son, Joseph, my 5th great grand uncle, was captured and later hung in Williamsburg, Virginia. I think he was about 18 years old, as I believe he was the oldest of the two brothers since he was named after his father. Stephen, my g5 grandfather, was born in 1703.

According to a fellow researcher, Baylus Brooks, "'Outer Bankers' were a surly sort, prone to living by beachcombing after shipwrecks and even creating disaster in order to assist the shipwrecks’ occurrence" (delabrooke.com). One historical account states that Bankers without ships would lame a horse, hang a lantern from its neck, and force it to walk back and forth on the shore. Because of its stumbling, the lantern mimicked a ship's light bobbing on the waves. Thinking that direction was deeper water, ships would come to shore and run aground, allowing the Bankers to plunder their stores.

It goes without saying, North Carolina was wild at this time. There was little “civilized” behavior, even the Governor was in cahoots with Blackbeard. Bayless Brooks conjectures, "Imagine what the average colonist must have been like and especially the “lower-classed” Indians, for which most English had great distrust. A lawless life probably looked perfectly natural to them. But, the Colony of North Carolina was growing fast and Indian ways and Piracy could no longer be tolerated, as Joseph Brooks and his son found out in 1718" (delabrooke.com).

Apparently, England did not have a problem with pirates as long as pirates did not direct their attentions towards the English. Blackbeard and his men were not discerning with their victims and Leut. Maynard was sent to stop them. This resulted in a horrific battle.

But first, a little of what life was like for the pirates. The General History of Pyrates by Capt. Charles Johnson, published in 1724, was particularly helpful in finding facts about their actions.

In Spring 1717, Blackbeard and his men took a French ship off the coast of Barbadoes. They renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge, and mounted it with 40 guns.
Queen Anne's Revenge
They soon took another ship near St. Vincent, plundered it, and set it on fire, setting all its men on shore without harm. They got in a scuffle with Scarbourough which lasted a great while, but won.

They sailed to Honduras, Grand Caymen, Jamaica, The Bahamas, then on to Carolina. Off the coast of Charleston, they created much havoc by attacking English ships and disrupting trade.

At one point, according to Capt. Charles Johnson, Blackbeard and his men needed medicine. They sent a crew on shore who demanded from the city a chest of medicine. They held prisoners hostage and threatened to set ships on fire if they were not given it.

They walked the streets publicly and were openly despised as thieves and murderers. Probably to rid the streets of them, the city gave in to their demands. Blackbeard let the prisoners go, after relieving them of their gold and silver.

From Charleston, they sailed to North Carolina. Blackbeard planned to break up his company, securing money for himself and his best friends, ultimately cheating the rest. He grounded his ships at Ocracoke Inlet and left many men on a deserted island to die. (They were saved a couple days later by a ship passing by.)

In early 1718, Blackbeard married his 14th wife, a 16 year old girl. According to Capt. Johnson, it was Blackbeard's custom to force his wives into prostitution to his men after his wedding night.

In June, 1718, they sailed for Bermuda. They returned to Ocracoke early that fall, and patroled the area for several weeks. Eventually, sailors and planters living near the shore tired of Blackbeard's whoring and thieving ways. They requested help from the Gov. of Virginia. The governor sent Leut. Maynard to stop him. A proclaimation was issued asking for the death and capture of all pirates.

On November 21st, 1718, Maynard caught up with Blackbeard at Ocracoke Inlet, and engaged him in battle. The Queen Anne's Revenge was fitted with guns; Maynard's ship, The Pearl, was not. Still, he came close to Blackbeard's ship and Blackbeard boarded, thinking he was getting the upper hand. It was there a close hand to hand fight ensued. Blackbeard was wounded 25 times, and shot 5 before he died. My grandfather, Joseph, was killed aboard The Pearl. Joseph, Jr. was wounded but captured. Maynard cut off Blackbeard's head and posted it on the bow of his ship. He paraded it like that along the James River for weeks on end.
Thus was the fate of Blackbeard and my grandfather Joseph Brooks. The fate of Uncle Junior was similar in kind.

In his book, Blackbeard: America's Most Notorious Pirate, Angus Konstam writes of Joseph Brooks, Jr. and the fate of Blackbeard's crew. To paraphrase:

In jail awaiting trial, 5 of the 16 pirates captured that day turned informant with the hope of remaining alive. Joseph Brooks, Jr. was not one of those men. One after the other, Joseph Brooks, Jr and the other pirates listed below were forced to stand on a cart, their hands tied behind their backs. A rope was looped over a convenient tree and the noose tightened around the pirate's neck. The condemned men would have been given a chance to speak, then a preacher should have said a short prayer. The cart and horse were led away, leaving the men kicking in mid-air (271-276).

A General History of the Pyrates, by Capt. Charles Johnson, pub. 1724

Though Captain Johnson was obviously biased against pirates, reading his account of the often brutal ways of Blackbeard and Joseph Brooks leaves me with mixed feelings. While pirates are often romanticized in popular culture, and certainly by my beloved Johnny Depp, they were in truth very cruel and crude in real life. Even after all this research, I can't say I know much about Joseph Brooks, but here's what I do know:

He knew the ocean and was well-traveled. He desired all things rich and sparkly. He drank rum in excess. He was supersitious. He knew the smell of cocoa, the particular color of indigo, the blurred lines between salt and fresh water. He was loyal, brave, and fierce. Though many say he fought on the wrong side, it may have been all he knew. No one knows where he came from, and his body was most likely committed to the sea without ceremony.

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