A Fury from Hell—or Was He?- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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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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It now appears that the wreck of the Queen Anne's Revenge may be Blackbeard's payback to the slightly off-the-charts colony that gave him shelter. She—or a ship like her—was discovered in shallow water just outside Beaufort Inlet in November 1996 by Mike Daniel, director of field operations for a small outfit called Intersal, Inc., which is devoted to locating and excavating historic shipwrecks. Intersal's president, Phil Masters, had originally intended to search for the remains of a gold-laden Spanish ship, but he knew that Blackbeard's ship was out there because of conversations he had with archaeologist David Moore, an authority on Edward Teach.

After investigating a 30-by-20-foot pile of ballast stones, barrel hoops and what looked like giant, shell-encrusted pick-up-sticks in 20 feet of water, Daniel called Moore. "Dave," he said, "I'm sitting on a whole lot of cannon; I think I've found your ship."
If there's poetic justice in the world, the discovery of what may be Blackbeard's flagship in the waters of coastal North Carolina is it. It's not a question of treasure. According to eyewitnesses, Teach purposely beached the ship and stranded some of his crew—in effect, downsizing his cumbersome pirate company—and removed everything of value. The discovery of this wreck would make no one a millionaire. Instead, the wreck would represent a remarkable cultural treasure, a collection of artifacts from the pirate who many in North Carolina regard as an honorary ancestor.

Edward Teach was probably born in Britain. According to the General History, he cut his seafaring teeth aboard British privateers out of Jamaica during Queen Anne's War (1702-13). Privateers were just this side of legal; in essence, they had permission from Britain to take French and Spanish ships and keep a percentage of what they found. This arrangement changed in 1713 when the major European powers declared peace, throwing more than a thousand privateers out of work.

So Teach and hundreds of others became outlaws. Teach sailed for a while with his mentor, Benjamin Hornigold. Like other pirates, they followed a snowbird routine. In the spring they'd head north in their small, maneuverable sloops and harass merchant ships, laden with cocoa, cordwood, sugar and rum if they were lucky, along the Delaware Capes or the lower Chesapeake. In the fall, they sailed back south to the islands. Hornigold and Teach were seen in October 1717 off the Delaware Capes; the following month they captured a ship near St. Vincent in the Caribbean. Teach claimed the ship and renamed her the Queen Anne's Revenge. With her, Blackbeard became a wild success, taking some 25 prizes.

For rest and relaxation, Teach headed to Nassau on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. Because New Providence was a proprietary colony, which meant it was not directly under the king's control, the pirates were not bothered by the law and could enjoy the rum and women in its waterfront taverns. In spring 1718, his bloated flotilla "fished" the old Spanish wrecks off the Bahamas. Then, with the cannon of the Queen Anne's Revenge loaded and ready for action, he headed north to Charles Town.

So how certain are archaeologists that the cannon-laden wreck outside Beaufort Inlet is the Queen Anne's Revenge, centerpiece of the flotilla that terrorized Charles Town? The cannon provide strong circumstantial evidence. Historical records in France indicate that the Queen Anne's Revenge was originally a slave ship out of Nantes named the Concorde; she was bound for Martinique when Teach took her. Teach renamed her and added more cannon, bringing her complement to about three dozen. So far, 21 cannon have been located in the wreck; no other 18th-century ship so heavily armed is known to have sunk in Beaufort Inlet.

Although not enough of the hull has been found to determine the size and type of ship, three seasons of limited trench excavations have yielded other valuable clues. There are pewter plates with the marks of a London manufacturer known to have been active for several decades beginning in 1693. A foot-high bell, possibly plundered from another ship, bears an inscription dating it to 1709. Other items are nearly identical to artifacts recently brought up from the Whydah, a slave ship that sank in 1717 off the coast of Cape Cod several weeks after having been taken by the pirate Sam Bellamy. Among them are a pewter syringe, a sea-serpent-shaped side plate for a blunderbuss or musket, and cannon aprons (movable metal plates that covered the touchhole of the loaded cannon).

A team of scientists, most of them college professors from North Carolina and Virginia, are examining everything from the chemical "fingerprints" of the shipwreck's ballast stones (they hope to match them with stones found at ports where Blackbeard's ship stopped) to the contents of the syringe (the scientists found traces of mercury, which was administered into the urethras of the unfortunate victims of venereal diseases—a cure that could itself kill the patient). Although funds are not yet available for full-scale excavation and conservation, there is a growing sense of urgency: the hydrologists believe that for most of its existence the wreck has been buried under sand—protecting it from destructive organisms and strong currents—but large portions of it have lately been uncovered by some natural events, perhaps the recent series of hurricanes.

While it hasn't been proven definitively—yet—that this wreck is indeed the Queen Anne's Revenge, that hasn't held back the town of Beaufort, which last year had a huge portrait of Blackbeard, slow-burning fuses and all, painted on its sky-blue water tower. And it hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the small army of underwater archaeologists, historians, conservators, scientists, divers, dive-boat captains and volunteers who have been assembled under the umbrella of the QAR Project. At the project's core are the staff members of North Carolina's Underwater Archaeology Unit, or UAU. This crew of a half-dozen resourceful people (all of them divers, from the office manager to the director) are experienced hands, since they're responsible for documenting and protecting the state's 5,000 historically recorded shipwrecks.

But this wreck is over the top—even if it isn't Blackbeard's ship, it's still the oldest shipwreck ever investigated in the state. Inside the QAR headquarters, a former scallop-processing plant around the bend from the idyllic Beaufort waterfront, two cannon, hooked up to Sears battery chargers, recline in their own tubs of water like patients on life support. They're undergoing a five-year-long electrolytic bath to free them of salts. Nearby shelves brim with smaller objects: pewter plates, one of them with a hole that looks suspiciously like a bullet hole; plastic bags filled with ballast stones; a set of brass dividers, cleaned up by the conservators, that Teach himself may have held in his hands. Hundreds of objects, many in their own little baths, fill another UAU conservation lab near Wilmington, North Carolina.

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