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A Fury from Hell—or Was He?

As underwater archaeologists pull artifacts from what may be the wreck of Blackbeard's flagship, historians raise new questions about the legendary pirate

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Not surprisingly, the QAR team has recently been conducting magnetometer surveys at the wreck site—searching for more cannon and other ferrous objects buried in the sand—rather than bringing up more artifacts. The site is 20 minutes away by boat. That's ten scenic minutes in protected water—past the large shrimpers tied up along the wharf, and the low rooftops of Beaufort—and ten minutes of rock-and-roll through the inlet itself, that geographic hourglass where the shallow but expansive back bay shakes hands with the ocean through a narrow opening.

North Carolina's barrier islands are only several hundred yards wide in places, and the inlets that cut through them enable careful boaters to go back and forth between the ocean and the sheltered back bays, which lie between the barrier islands and the mainland. This broken ribbon of sand, called the Outer Banks, reaches down from the Virginia line, far out to sea at Cape Hatteras, with its deadly offshore shoals, and then arcs southwest back to Cape Lookout; Ocracoke Island is along this stretch. Another arc of sand, where Beaufort Inlet is found, follows more closely along the coast from Cape Lookout southwest to Cape Fear. Throw in tides, wind and a shifting geography, and it's no wonder pirates came here. North Carolina's barrier islands are equivalent to the labyrinthine slot canyons of the Southwest into which a different sort of outlaw often holed up.

Getting through any of the inlets, including Beaufort Inlet, can be quite a ride. Julep Gillman-Bryan, captain of the UAU's 24-foot dive boat, the Snap Dragon, routinely has to wedge herself in, feet hard against the bulkhead, backside pressed against the seat, as the boat climbs and falls with a shudder through five-foot swells. Imagining pirates negotiating this hostile environment with no engine, hundreds of yards of sailcloth and a 200-ton vessel gives one an appreciation for their seamanship.

For the better part of a week in June, the Snap Dragon is one of four dive boats that make this run as the magnetometer surveys get under way. On the days when the water at the site isn't too rough, the boats tie up at moorings and the divers get to work. In the hazy distance to the north, Blackbeard watches from the water tower, the tallest landmark on the low-lying shoreline. Some divers collect ballast stones, others sketch. David Moore, coordinator of the maritime archaeology program at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, is on loan to the QAR Proj-ect. He will spend the day underwater in front of a tangle of ship's rigging, drawing a detail of it. A big bear of a man, he holds a waterproof sketching slate against his chest as he gently falls backward off the boat with a splash.

In the water, two divers with a magnetometer sensor are swimming in a grid over the shipwreck, stopping every two-and-a-half feet to record a reading. The sensor, which resembles a stainless steel pipe duct-taped to an upside-down PVC patio table, will yield more than 200 readings over the site, which will later be crunched on the computer. These readings may yield the location of more cannon. During the next excavation session, in October, they'll survey a larger area, hoping to find more buried cannon; or, even better, a ship's bell bearing the name "Concorde." The team members are confident that they'll find the proof they are seeking.

As the divers continue to piece together the shipwreck puzzle, the historians have been doing the same thing with the historical record. One of the divers on the QAR team—also a Tarheel—is retired historian Lindley Butler. "What's great about this shipwreck and that of the Whydah is that they're a dose of reality amid all the myth," Butler says. "Everybody has the image of pirates from the Errol Flynn movies, but Teach and the other pirates of this era didn't want to fire the cannon. They tried to avoid sea battles. Teach did all he could to intimidate—he cultivated his image, and in the end, it did him in." Typically, in taking a ship, he would fire a cannon across the bow of the intended prize—a warning shot—and then hoist the flag. Usually that was enough. One look at the dreaded Blackbeard, his rough-and-ready crew, cannon poking out from every port, and the black flag running up the mast could scare even the most courageous merchant captain into immediate submission. Those fools who did resist drew more cannon fire, as well as hand grenades fashioned from bottles filled with powder, shot and lead.

A couple of warning shots, a hoisted flag, a lot of shouting and, finally, surrender, says Moore, is basically how Teach took the Concorde. We know this because in 1719 the captain of the Concorde returned to France and gave a detailed report about the engagement. He also said that Teach had given him a sloop so he could reload his cargo of slaves and continue on his journey.

As with the hostages in Charles Town Harbor, it was not so bad an encounter that the captain didn't live to tell about it. Which brings up the character issue. Butler, Moore and other historians from North Carolina have a take on Blackbeard that's quite different from the one shaped back then by, well, Teach himself and the British. Teach's motive: the worse he looked, the better it was for business. The British motive: the worse the pirates looked, the more they could justify hanging them. The North Carolinians have their own collective memory of Blackbeard—and for all the evil things that were said about him, they recall a kinder, gentler pirate. Drawing on local legend, for instance, North Carolina former law professor Robert E. Lee wrote of Teach's dealings with women that "few pirates treated women or girls with greater respect....He would not let a girl serve him a drink; he preferred to serve the drink to the girl." This is a far cry from the story that circulated in Teach's time, and was repeated for posterity in the General History—that Teach prostituted his wife in North Carolina to the other members of his crew.

In search of the real Teach, Moore has gone through all the available historical records. Although they often contradict each other—everybody had an agenda—there are surprisingly many of them. In addition to the General History, they include trial testimony of captured pirates who sailed with Blackbeard; eyewitness accounts of captains whose ships he captured; letters written to London by exasperated British officials; and logs of British patrol ships sailing out of Virginia.

A surprising discovery concerns a rip-roaring battle, chronicled by the General History, in which Teach supposedly routed a 28-gun British ship, the Scarborough, shortly after acquiring the Queen Anne's Revenge. The battle seems never to have occurred. Moore went through the ship's log in the British Public Record Office and found no mention of this incident. Even more surprising is another Moore observation: "Blackbeard cultivated a ‘demon from hell' look, but we have found no evidence that he killed a man until the battle with Lieutenant Maynard."

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