David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Parshat Balak – The infamy of Blackbeard

What happens when a man coasts on his reputation for just a little too long? And what if that man is prophet? Or a pirate? (Balak)
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, painted in 1920. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, painted in 1920. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

I was listening to Motorhead’s version of Louie Louie the other day, and finally understood the lyrics.

But those lyrics were the subject of huge controversy back in 1963 when the Kingsmen released their hit (a cover of the original 1956 song by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs).

In 1964 an outraged parent wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to complain about the obscene lyrics:

Who do you turn to when you teenage daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials…? My daughter brought home a record of “Louie Louie” and I, after reading that the record had been banned from being played on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter.

This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on TV. How can we stamp out this menace?

In the early 1960s J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI spent over two and a half years investigating whether the song’s lyrics violated federal obscenity laws. But even when they slowed the 45 rpm single down to 33 rpm they were unable to decipher the words that vocalist Jack Ely sang.

In their defense, the lyrics are tough to decipher because initially the band was planning on recording the track as an instrumental. When they decided to add vocals, Ely had to stand on tip toes yelling into a single boom microphone set way too high in the studio. He had also strained his voice with a marathon 90-minute “Louie Louie” jam the night before.

What is certain is that, as a result of the FBI investigation and rumors of dirty lyrics, the song rocketed up the chart to number 1.

Despite interrogating many people connected to the song, the FBI never actually asked Ely what he had sung, partly because he had been fired by the Kingsmen long before the song became a hit.

You can listen for yourself and decide whether the lyrics are fit to print or not.

As best I can tell, it is a simple song about a lovesick sailor or pirate in the Caribbean who misses his girlfriend. Which is my segue into what I really wanted to write about today, which is the most famous pirate of the Caribbean – Blackbeard.

He is so famous that he is even in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Blackbeard’s real name was (probably) Edward Teach (though his last name is sometimes written as Thatch and a variety of other spellings). Although we know very little about his early life, he was probably born in Bristol in the late 17th century. Baylus Brooks, a Florida-based historian claimed that Teach was a well-educated gentleman whose father owned an estate in Jamaica. At some point, Teach (either the father or the son) sailed from England to the Americas. Brooks thinks that the future Blackbeard joined the Royal Navy in 1706.

Blackbeard, as pictured by Benjamin Cole in the second edition of Charles Johnson’s General Historie. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

However, he soon abandoned the navy and became a privateer. Privateers were civilians issued with a warrant allowing them to engage in maritime warfare. The privateers were permitted to keep a share of the spoils from any ship they captured. This was a much more lucrative profession than being in the Royal Navy.

During Queen Anne’s War (which was really part of the War of Spanish Succession), British, French and Spanish privateers faced each other off the coast of Florida and the Carolinas. But in 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht brought the conflict to an end, there were hundreds of sailors who had spent years attacking and pillaging other ships, who were now jobless. Many became pirates.

Blackbeard first appears definitively in the historical record in the summer of 1717 when he served as an apprentice under the pirate captain Benjamin Hornigold aboard the Ranger. By the fall of that year he was terrorizing the coast off Delaware and Chesapeake bays along with Hornigold and Stede Bonnet. Bonnet had been wounded in battle so Teach took command of his ship Revenge.

On September 5, 1717, King George I issued a proclamation granting a pardon to all pirates who surrendered. In December, Hornigold sailed to Jamaica and received a pardon from the governor there. He later became a pirate hunter and spent the next 18 months in the Bahamas chasing his former colleagues, including Teach.

Teach, meanwhile, had bigger plans. He and his men captured a French slaveship La Concorde off the island of Martinique. The pirates took the crew of La Concorde to the island of Bequia. Several of the Frenchmen remained with the pirates, including a cabin boy, a pilot, three surgeons, two carpenters and the cook. Blackbeard gave the remaining French sailors his smaller ship, which they renamed Mauvaise Rencontre (Bad Encounter) and he sailed of in La Concorde which he fitted with 40 guns and renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

For the next two years, Blackbeard was the most feared pirate in the world. He went on to capture more than 30 ships, hundreds of sailors and copious amounts of treasure.

However, in June 1718, Teach followed the earlier example of Hornigold and later of Bonnet, and accepted a pardon from Charles Eden, Governor of North Carolina.

The most famous book on piracy of that time, though not always accurate, is A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, published in 1724. It was written by one Captain Charles Johnson, though this is probably a pseudonym. The book may have actually been written by the famous author Daniel Defoe.

Johnson claims that after his pardon Teach married the daughter of a local plantation owner, though there is no other evidence for this. But soon Eden gave Teach permission to once again become a privateer, and by the end of August he returned to piracy.

Eventually, he was killed in battle with Lieutenant Robert Maynard of HMS Pearl. Blackbeard had no more than 25 men on his ship, whereas Maynard had 57 men, many of whom were hidden below deck and ambushed the pirate when he boarded the ship. Maynard said that before Blackbeard finally fell, he had been slashed by swords at least 20 times and shot five times. Maynard hung Blackbeard’s head from the bowsprit and threw the rest of his body overboard.

Blackbeard was a master tactician and commanded men on several pirate ships, creating a formidable force. He also had tremendous audacity.

For example, in May 1718 Blackbeard’s flotilla blockaded the port of Charles Town in South Carolina. For five of six days, all vessels trying to sail in or out were stopped and looted. He stopped one boat sailing for London and took all the passengers hostage. He sent messengers to the colonial government saying that he needed medical supplies for his crew and if he did not receive it all the prisoners would be executed. Following a nerve-wracking few days when the pirates sent to receive the drugs got too drunk to return to Blackbeard, eventually he received the supplies he had demanded and freed all the captives.

But the main thing Blackbeard had was his reputation as a blood-thirsty demon. Johnson writes:

So our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared there a long Time. This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramilies Wiggs, and turn them about his Ears.

Despite the fact that in many encounters, Blackbeard had a smaller crew and fewer weapons, most ships surrendered to him. If not, he would confront them using all sorts of tricks to terrify his enemies, including sticking lit matches in his hat to cover himself in a cloud of smoke. Johnson writes:

In time of action, he… stuck lighted matches under his hat, which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightful.

But the truly amazing thing about Blackbeard, was that as far as we know, until his final battle when he was killed, he never harmed anyone. Almost all his enemies surrendered to him, and after terrifying them, he would let them go.

For Blackbeard, image and reputation was everything. And although his career as a pirate captain lasted less than two years, he still represents the epitome of a pirate more than 300 years later.

Johnson summed it up when he wrote:

In the Commonwealth of Pyrates, he who goes the greatest Length of Wickedness, is looked upon with a kind of Envy amongst them… The Hero of whom we are writing, was thoroughly accomplished this Way, and some of his Frolicks of Wickedness, were so extravagant, as if he aimed at making his Men believe he was a Devil incarnate.

But it was all bluff.

In this week’s Torah reading, Balak, we are introduced to the prophet Balaam, who was hired by the kings of Midian and Moav to curse the Jewish people.

Balaam and the Ass, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Although the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 20:1) describes Balaam as the greatest non-Jewish prophet who ever lived – comparable to Moses in the clarity of his prophetic vision, his success was mainly based on his image and reputation.

He began his career as a dream interpreter, graduating to become a magician, and finally achieving the spirit of prophecy (Bamidbar Rabba 20:7).

But what he really had going for him was his ability convince people to believe in his powers.

He walked with a limp, was blind in one eye (Sanhedrin 105a) and rode a donkey. He was not the heroic figure usually chosen to lead an attack against an enemy. But his reputation was so great that when the local kings heard that the Israelites were approaching, they could think of no better tactic than to hire the lame seer.

When he was first approached by envoys from Midian and Moab (Numbers 22:5-7) Balaam told them he was unable to curse the Children of Israel because they were blessed.

Yet when Balak heard that Balaam refused to do his bidding, instead of giving up on him or punishing him for treason, he sent even greater emissaries to plead with the prophet, promising him even greater reward.

Eventually, Balaam agreed to go and curse the Israelites, but like Blackbeard, he was offered a reprieve. As he was riding to meet Balak, an angel blocked the way, and his donkey stopped three times, refusing to lead him to his death. Eventually, the donkey turned and spoke to him, and the angel was revealed to Balaam.

The sham was revealed – the greatest prophet couldn’t even see an angel that was visible to a donkey. Yet though Balaam admitted his error, he refused to turn back (Numbers 22:34).

Balaam said to the angel of God, ‘I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing before me on the road. And now if it is evil in your eyes I will return.

Instead of seeing the error of his ways, Balaam’s regret was insincere, so the angel allowed him to continue.

Either the people with him failed to notice Balaam’s incompetence and fear, or he bluffed his way out of it. By the time he reached Balak, the king rushed out to meet him offering him honor and glory.

The next day, Balaam tried three times to curse the Jewish people. And each time, God put words of blessing in his mouth instead. But until the end, Balak believed in him. His reputation was so great that even continual failure could not dent it.

After failing three times to do what was asked of him, “Balaam rose up and went and returned to his place,” (Numbers 24:25). Balak did not imprison him for failure or execute him for treason, but rather, “Also Balak went on his way.”

Balaam’s reputation withstood repeated failure. And his infamy continues to this day. The Mishna (Avot 5:19) states:

Anyone who has these three attributes… is a student of Balaam the wicked… an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a limitless appetite.

The same attributes that made Balaam successful and famous are those that lead him and his students to Gehinom and the pit of the underworld.

Though both Blackbeard and Balaam were skilled in their respective fields, they achieved international notoriety based primarily on their infamous reputations. Reputations which ultimately led to the downfall of them and all who sailed with them.

I’ve started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley. You can also listen to some live or recorded Torah classes at WebYeshiva.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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