Did Archaeologists Uncover Blackbeard’s Treasure?

Cannons. Gold dust. Turtle bones. For archaeologists researching the notorious pirate’s flagship, every clue is priceless

Archaeologists have been recovering historical artifacts from the vessel possibly stolen by Blackbeard since 1996. (Granger Collection, New York)
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Except for a sprinkling of gold dust—less than one ounce so far—no treasure has been found aboard the vessel likely piloted by Edward Teach, the British-born pirate known as Blackbeard. According to 18th-century depositions, Blackbeard—named for his impressive facial hair, which he styled in braids—seized his best and biggest warship from French slave traders in 1717, one hundred miles off Martinique. Capable of carrying about 300 tons and armed with 16 cannons, the vessel carried hundreds of slaves and 20 pounds of gold dust. It was called La Concorde, but Blackbeard, who’d served the crown in Queen Anne’s War against France (1702-13) before going into business for himself, promptly renamed his prize in honor of the English monarch. After offloading most of the slaves and the captured crew, and relieving them of their gold, Blackbeard spent months marauding in the Caribbean, acquiring a miniature navy of smaller boats and amassing a huge crew.

In May 1718, the Queen Anne’s Revenge blockaded the port of Charleston, holding prominent citizens hostage in return for a chest of medicine. After collecting the ransom, Blackbeard retreated to North Carolina, which had plenty of hiding spots in obscure coves and inlets behind the Outer Banks. Alas, in early June, as Blackbeard and his fleet advanced on the sleepy fishing village of Beaufort, North Carolina, the Queen Anne’s Revenge foundered on a sandbar.

The details of how the ship ran aground remain a matter of dispute. Some experts believe Blackbeard was just another victim of the treacherous sandbanks at the mouth of Beaufort inlet, which tend to shift during storms, confounding even modern captains. Others, however, think Blackbeard deliberately abandoned the ship, which was far too large to navigate North Carolina’s shallow sounds, in an effort to downsize his crew (some of whom later testified as much) and travel light, transferring his treasure to the smaller ships in his fleet. Whatever the scenario, the demise of the Queen Anne’s Revenge was what archaeologists call a “nonviolent wreck event,” meaning that the pirates had ample time to offload plunder.

Luckily, the archaeologists have a different notion of treasure. They’ve found hundreds of historical objects including a diminutive signal gun, turtle bones (possible remnants of a favorite pirate food), a pewter syringe, a funnel-shaped spout that served as a urinal and an intact piece of window glass, blue-green and rippling like a sculpture of the sea. The 2010 dive yielded an ornate sword hilt made of iron, copper and an animal horn or antler.

The trouble is, none of these proves the ship’s identity. Though the datable artifacts can be traced to the decades before the vessel’s sinking (any dates after June 1718 would be powerful evidence against the ship’s claim to fame), so far there is nothing conclusive.

By contrast, the wreck of the Whydah Galley, the best-established American pirate ship, which sank in a storm off Massachusetts in 1717, yielded a bell inscribed with the ship’s name. Without a similar trophy, it’s challenging to make an airtight case that Daniel’s discovery is the Queen’s Anne’s Revenge. “We’re trying to get into the minds of piratical characters from 300 years ago with limited historical and archaeological evidence,” says David Moore, an archaeologist with the North Carolina Maritime Museum, in Beaufort, where many of the wreck’s artifacts are on display. But the clues keep mounting.

First, there’s the general location of the wreck, which is consistent with the historical accounts and antique maps that Daniel used in his search. “In the world of shipwrecks, our basic philosophy is that it is where it’s supposed to be,” he says. “Here’s the sandbar, here’s the channel coming in, and in that channel sits the QAR.” Then there’s the sheer size of the three-masted ship, which would have made it an unusual, if not unique, visitor to the little-traveled Beaufort inlet. The boat was also armed to the teeth—excavators have recovered some 225,000 pieces of lead shot and identified at least 25 cannons (though La Concorde carried only 16, the pirates would likely have added some of their own). The guns were apparently kept loaded at all times, a typical scofflaw practice. And then there’s the stuff with which they were loaded. At least one has iron bolts in its bore, and there are other suggestions of deck-clearing ammunition, like the remains of canvas bags full of broken glass, nails and other shrapnel. “A proper Englishman would not do that,” says Jim Craig, the head geologist for the project. “But a pirate is a pirate and he does anything he wants.”

Researchers are also finding potential links to the ship’s past as a French slaver. Manacle-like restraints and glass beads of the sort frequently traded in Africa have been recovered. Divers siphoning sediment from the wreck site have found dustings of gold that might have been part of La Concorde’s cargo. Archaeologists have salvaged several objects inscribed with fleurs-de-lis—a symbol that was often, though not exclusively, associated with France.


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