Blackbeard’s Cacao Treasure
Is your mental image of Blackbeard, the adventure-swashbuckler pirate from the early 1700s with a mythic-proportion level reputation for fierceness, based on Hollywood images? From the 1952 film, 2006 TV series, or the rogue as seen in Pirates of the Caribbean, Crossbones, or Black Sails?
History describes Edward Teach (or Thatch, his real name and account are a bit murky) as lanky, with a long dark beard – often tied in ribbons, smoke coming out his ears (or, rather, from the wisps of smoldering hemp woven into his hair), guns draped across his chest, and blades at the ready to plunder.
Now, can you imagine him sitting, reading a book, and drinking a cup of hot cocoa?
Why Would A Pirate Drink Chocolate?
Pirates have been known to drink rum, grog, and ale. But chocolate? Yes, while not (yet) a well-known fact, pirates, just like other trendy people of the times, consumed cocoa as a refreshing drink or even – with bread or maize added, along with sugar and spices, taken as a meal. Since coffee didn’t arrive in the Caribbean until 1717, drinking chocolate was most people’s energy-giving addiction.
Cacao was also considered to be worth its weight in silver. In the 1500s, when Cortez brought cacao and the tools for making it into a drink to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, they loved this magical new beverage. They declared that all the chocolate from New Spain (aka Mesoamerica or modern-day South America) would only be theirs! The Aztecs (and their predecessors) used cacao beans for money. The farmers were accustomed to giving cacao to the government as “tribute.”
The Spanish did manage to keep this elixir vitae a secret for about 100 years, but in the 1600s, news started leaking out. Chocolate was often considered medicinal – recommended as a cure for digestive issues. A health benefit the pirates may have liked was the rumor it was good for hangovers.
Burn The Brig
Edward Teach grew up in high society Jamaica in the late 1600s. After his father passed, he returned to England and joined the Navy. In the early part of his career, he was a privateer (basically government-approved pirating against the enemy) during the “War of the Spanish Secession.” We join his story when the first records of his pirate days began in 1716. He was under Captain Hornigold, was part of the Pirate Republic, and raided towns and ships along the Spanish Main.
In the early 1700s, the Spaniards who controlled Trinidad used imported enslaved labor (as the indigenous had been killed off through disease and torture) to grow the intensive commodity cacao. Sugar, tobacco, and other worthwhile goods weren’t compatible with the island’s environment. By the time Blackbeard came around, plantation owners were wealthy from their endeavors. One family of the time, The Farfans of St. Joseph, kept notes about the events. A historian, E.L. Joseph, in 1839, writes an entertaining story from that family’s papers.
“In 1716, the pirate Edward Tench, commonly known as Black Beard, committed sad depredations in the Gulph of Paria. He plundered a brig loaded with cacoa, bound for Cadiz, and then set fire to her, in sight of the town, or rather village of Port of Spain. He remained in the gulph for some days; and at length, a Spanish frigate came in, “which they cannonaded him at a distance.” He appeared to very leisurely to have passed out at the Grand Boca.”
In other words – to spite the Spanish, Blackbeard burned a Spanish Galleon filled with tons of chocolate that was leaving Trinidad and headed towards the principal port in Spain, Cadiz. Those ships could hold anywhere between 200-400 tons of merchandise. In today’s dollars, almost $3 million went up in smoke!
I wonder how that must have smelled?
Cocoa on the ship La Concorde, aka Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge
Back in November of 1717, Blackbeard and his crew of rogues came across a French slave ship, La Concorde. It traveled from Nantes, France (an important slave trade port) to Juda (a slave port in Africa) to Martinique, carrying around 600 enslaved people and other treasures. The pirates lobbed a few cannon shots, and the scurvey-bedeviled Frenchmen couldn’t defend themselves and gave up.
Blackbeard decided he wanted the bigger, 40-gun warship, and in short order, they took over. Ten enslaved people stood forward to join the sea rovers, plus other tradesmen who were valuable to pirates – carpenters, surgeons, and a cook! Ooh la la, a French cook must have been quite an addition for the buccaneers who often brought fresh-killed game on board.
The former La Concorde commander reported to the ship’s owners the details of his travails with the voyage and the take over by the ‘forbans’ (aka those corsairs of the West Indies). Blackbeard took an additional 75 enslaved people – apparently only to drop them off later in Grenada. So what else was on board besides gold and some brandy? The report (translated from French) states the value total was around 110,926 pounds, including “the sum of 737 pounds of cocoa, and for 62 pounds of futailles [casks] and a copper cauldron sold 212 pounds, plus 600 pounds for two negrillons that had been stolen from them by Spaniards.”
Blackbeard renamed his plundered ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge. He and his merry crew of rebels sailed into the sunset with a treasure containing 737 pounds of chocolate! Do you think he shared some of that brown gold with his mate, the pirate Gentleman Stede?
Blackbeard’s Last Treasure
By 1718 Blackbeard seemed ready to settle down in the colony of North Carolina, in a small town called Bath, near the Ocracoke Islands. Rumor has it that he purposefully ground the Queen Anne’s Revenge on the shores of those islands. This act was to get rid of his crew and open up the opportunity to retire, as much as a pirate could go on to live a quiet life.
After taking advantage of a royal pardon of pirates given through a proclamation by King George, Teach buddied up with the governor and became a privateer, of sorts. He shared his loot with the local government. Blackbeard gained for himself a sloop named the Adventure. While on a mission for prizes, not far from Bermuda, the sea rovers struck two more French ships heading from Martinique to Nantes, France.
Why were ships carrying brown gold to France? By this time, the Royal Court of France had become addicted to the exotic elixir. King Louis XII had married Spanish royalty, and she brought chocolate with her as a wedding present. King Louis XIV had made it trendy, and his son – made king at age five in 1715, adored the rich beverage. The process for turning beans into a luscious liquid was labor intensive – and the nobility had specially trained enslaved people to make it for them.
The second French ship Blackbeard captured that summer day contained “hundreds of bags of cocoa and nearly two hundred barrels of refined sugar.” The Adventure couldn’t hold the load, so he took the French boat back to North Carolina. On the shores of Ocracoke Island, they hid their share of the cacao and sugar plunder. The rest went to bribes of the local judge and the governor.
On a mission to eradicate the colonies of vermin who robbed merchants on the seas, the governor of Virginia – a man who detested pirates since childhood – decided to send teams on a secret assignment to end Blackbeard’s evil ways. A bloody battle ensued, and with Teach fighting for his life, he may have killed someone for the first time in his short career. After it was over, all the pirates died, and the Navy placed Blackbeard’s severed head on the ship’s bowsprit to show the people of Virginia.
Before returning, the Lieutenant who offed the famous rogue went to Blackbeard’s lair to collect the stolen treasures. Did they find chests filled with pieces of eight, gold, silver, jewels, silks, and other items we often associate with pirates? No. Blackbeard’s treasure consisted of 140 bags of cacao and ten casks of sugar.
Enough for a lifetime of sitting on the beach, watching sunsets, and drinking hot chocolate.
Like this new way of looking at pirate history? What other pirate & chocolate story would you like to read? Want some other random, fun facts on chocolate? Check out this post- Random Fun Fact About Chocolate