The Lost Pirate of Blackbeard’s Golden Age
Was Edward Robinson, the Newcastle Pirate, really a murderous sea-robber?
Edward Robinson left Newcastle upon Tyne, in the North East of England, in the early 1700s, when the old stone-arched Tyne Bridge still spanned the great river. Known as the Newcastle Pirate, Robinson sailed with Blackbeard during the Golden Age of Piracy. That fact alone should place him among the North East’s most interesting historical figures. Yet very little else is known about him, and he exists as a semi-mythical character, the subject of murderous tales and ghost tours, and credited as the inspiration for Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
I first heard Robinson’s name as a Treasure Island-obsessed kid who dreamed of sailing with Long John Silver to find Captain Flint’s buried loot. To discover there was a real pirate from my hometown was thrilling, but I could find no mention of Robinson in my favorite books. Today he is largely forgotten, and his story remains obscured by myth and legend. In an effort to put that right I trawled through hundreds of old records and documents, and spoke to leading historians and experts, then followed Robinson across the Atlantic, in search of the true story of the Newcastle Pirate.
The search begins on Newcastle’s Quayside, in the timber-framed merchants’ houses that survive from Robinson’s time, and the low-beamed pubs that occupy their ground floors. According to local historian Steve Taylor, Robinson was born in one of these pubs, the Beehive, now known as the Red House. Taylor conducts ghost tours dressed as Robinson in a tricorne hat and ruffled shirt. Although he admits facts are scarce, Taylor says Robinson grew up to become a murderer, killing a man in another pub, the White-Hart Inn, which stood on the river’s edge. “Robinson stabbed his victim in the neck,” says Taylor, “and threw his body in the Tyne.”
There are references in the archives to the White-Hart Inn, but no record of a murder. The implication is that Robinson fled Newcastle after the murder and subsequently became a pirate, but if that’s the case he left no evidence of the murder behind. The image of Robinson and other pirates as felons absconding to sea to escape justice may fit well with the popular narrative that has been constructed over the past 300 years, but the truth is the majority of pirates were ordinary seamen who were effectively forced into a life of crime.
The Golden Age of Piracy began in earnest in 1713, after the end of Queen Anne’s War, when Britain abandoned much of its navy, leaving up to 30,000 sailors stranded on the other side of the Atlantic. Stuck in American and Caribbean ports, many of them became pirates due to a lack of other options. Some sought revenge against the navy that had abandoned them, some were press-ganged into joining pirate crews, and others were simply desperate for a means to get home. Rather than being a fleeing murderer, could Robinson have been an ordinary sailor trying to get back to Newcastle?
At this point, it would be possible to believe that Edward Robinson is every bit as fictional as Jack Sparrow. But there is documentary evidence for Robinson’s existence, in the antique book A General History of Pyrates, written in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson. The book lists the crew of the ship the Revenge captained by Stede Bonnet, known as the Gentleman Pirate. Named among the crew is “Edward Robinson, late of New-Castle upon Tine”.
The reference to Bonnet leads to another document, The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates, which details an extraordinary trial conducted during October and November of 1718 in Charleston, South Carolina. Containing the personal testimony of Edward Robinson, the document confirms his life of piracy and signposts his eventual fate.
“You caused your terror to be on all that haunt the sea. Your sins were dyed in blood.”
To find out more, I visit Charleston, arriving on a glorious spring day, the sunlight illuminating multi-colored rows of antebellum houses, and throwing the spidery shadows of palmetto trees onto the ground. Almost nothing of the old walled town that existed in Robinson’s time survives today, but pirates remain a popular local topic. I speak to Eric Lavender of Charleston Pirate Tours, who describes Robinson and his fellow pirates as folk heroes. While Newcastle may have forgotten Edward Robinson, Charleston has not, and I’m finally able to piece together his story.
Robinson was with Blackbeard during much of the pirate captain’s infamous reign of terror, which included an audacious blockade of Charleston’s harbor. Robinson was identified by a witness as the pirate gunner, responsible for the cannons on Blackbeard’s 40-gun ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Blackbeard (real name Edward Thatch) was a sailor from Bristol who had fought in Queen Anne’s War before turning to piracy. The fact that Robinson held the role of gunner suggests that he too could have been a former Royal Navy sailor.
But Robinson and Blackbeard were not necessarily in cahoots, and whatever relationship they had ended in enmity. According to Robinson’s testimony, Blackbeard prevented him from leaving the pirate ship, then marooned him on a deserted sandbank and left him to die. After two days as a castaway, Robinson was picked up by Stede Bonnet’s ship. Robinson thought Bonnet was sailing to receive a pardon, but instead, Bonnet’s Revenge raised its death’s head flag and embarked on a plundering spree. Eventually, after a brutal battle with pirate hunting vessels, the Revenge was sunk, and Bonnet, Robinson and the crew were taken in chains to Charleston.
During the trial, presided over by the formidable Judge Nicholas Trott, Robinson claimed to have been forced into piracy and denied setting foot on plundered vessels. “When did you see me aboard your sloop?” he asked. Nevertheless, Robinson and the others were found guilty and sentenced to death. “You caused your terror to be on all that haunt the sea,” proclaimed Judge Trott. “Your sins were dyed in blood.”
On 8 November 1718, Edward Robinson and 28 others were taken onto Charleston’s White Point, overlooking the harbor. Nooses were placed around their necks and, in front of a crowd of onlookers, they were strung up and hanged. The more efficient “long drop” method of hanging, delivering a swift broken neck, had yet to be invented, so the men died slowly and painfully, twisting and strangling on their ropes. Two days later, Stede Bonnet clutched a small bunch of flowers in his hands as he met the same fate.
Today, White Point is a pretty harbor-side park filled with oak trees and military monuments. At the north-east corner of the park stands a large granite marker, engraved as a memorial of sorts to the pirates: “Near this spot in the autumn of 1718, Stede Bonnet, notorious ‘Gentleman Pirate’, and 29 of his men met their just deserts.”
After being left to hang for several days, Eric Lavender tells me, the pirates’ bodies were cut down and thrown into a creek that ran along what is now Water Street, a couple of blocks to the north. That’s where I find the last resting place of the Newcastle Pirate, in a quiet and pristine Charleston residential street. It’s the end of a long journey, but questions still remain. What drove Edward Robinson to piracy, and did he deserve his brutal fate? The answers are buried with him, 4,000 miles from his home. ♦
Paul Brown is the author of Sins Dyed In Blood: The Lost Pirate of Blackbeard’s Golden Age.