It was November 21, 1996, when a team of divers working for a private salvage outfit found a shipwreck in 28 feet of water off the coast of North Carolina. The searchers identified the structure as a vessel from the early 18th century. The wreck was located about a mile from Atlantic Beach, near Beaufort Inlet, and it soon became clear that it had endured a very colorful past.
In fact the shipwreck was more akin to a scrapyard than a sailing vessel when it was discovered by private salvager company Intersal Inc. of Palm Bay, Florida. What the divers initially came across was a tangle of cannons, anchors and other fascinating debris.
The Intersal divers unearthed a variety of intriguing artifacts from the site, now labeled rather unromantically “North Carolina shipwreck site 31CR314.” These included the barrel of an English blunderbuss dating from between 1690 and 1710, a couple of cannonballs and a sounding weight. Crucially they also found a bronze bell carrying the date 1705, confirming with near certainty that this wreck was from the early part of the 18th century.
It was fall of the following year before archaeologists from the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology began to make a systematic survey of the underwater find. On that first expedition they brought up a pair of cannons, some pottery, sundry cannonballs and a pewter plate.
The folks from Intersal were in no doubt that the wreck they had discovered was that of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of the notorious and much-feared 18th century pirate Blackbeard. But the North Carolina State archaeologists were initially a little more circumspect in their opinions.
However the weight of evidence inclined to an inescapable conclusion: this vessel had indeed been captained by Blackbeard himself. In fact, Intersal had not been exploring the site at Beaufort’s Inlet merely by chance. That location was exactly where they had hoped to find Blackbeard’s ship.
The Intersal crew had picked their spot based on research by the company’s president, Phil Masters. Maritime archaeologist David Moore also provided research input. And historical documents gave a good idea of the position of Blackbeard’s vessel when it was wrecked.
One of these documents included evidence from one of Blackbeard’s fellow pirates, Captain David Herriot. David Moore’s 1997 study A General History of Blackbeard the Pirate, the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the Adventure quoted Herriot, who was an eyewitness to the wrecking of Queen Anne’s Revenge. Indeed Herriot’s own sloop, the Adventure was wrecked at the same time.
Herriot’s deposition said that “Thatch’s [Teach’s] ship Queen Anne’s Revenge run a-ground off of the Bar of Topsail-Inlet.” We know that Blackbeard – also known as Thatch or Teach – blockaded the harbor at Charleston, North Carolina, in May 1718 and another contemporary account describes a pirate ship’s attempt to enter the nearby harbor of Topsail Inlet. Today Topsail Inlet is known as Beaufort Inlet, just where the wreck was found.
So a combination of the artifacts discovered and their known dates, plus the historical documentary evidence, made a strong case for this shipwreck being Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. And finally, 15 years after the discovery was first made, North Carolina state officials confirmed in 2011 that that was indeed the case.
So who was this Blackbeard? Well, we actually know very little of his background before he came to prominence as a pirate. He’s believed to have been born around 1680 somewhere near the English sea port of Bristol. Even his real name is unclear. It’s likely he was either Edward Teach or Edward Thatch, but we can’t be sure. Edward Teach is the name he’s most commonly known by.
Before turning to piracy it seems likely that Blackbeard was a sailor based in Jamaica. He may have been a privateer who fought in the War of the Spanish Succession, which ran from 1701 to 1704. In 1716 he probably started his buccaneering career as a crew member with the infamous corsair Captain Benjamin Hornigold.
By 1717 Hornigold and Teach were each captaining a single-masted sailing vessel. The duo cruised the waters around the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, harrying Caribbean merchant vessels. They variously plundered 100 barrels of wine and 120 barrels of flour from vessels they intercepted. A cargo of Madeira wine was also among their booty.
On November 28, 1717, having previously parted company with Hornigold, Teach came across a French slave ship, La Concorde de Nantes, near the Caribbean island of Martinique. At 200 tons, this vessel was a much grander affair than the small sloops Teach had been sailing.
The Concorde had made two trips transporting slaves to the Caribbean, one in 1713 and the second in 1715. Her third voyage in 1717 would be her last as a slaver. It was on this trip that Teach, or Blackbeard as we can call him now, came across Concorde and engaged her in battle.
Blackbeard’s two ships fired devastating broadsides at Concorde. Some of the French ship’s crewmen were killed leading to her captain surrendering his vessel. Renaming her Queen Anne’s Revenge Blackbeard sailed the ship to the island of Bequia in the Caribbean where he refitted her and strengthened her armament. Blackbeard was now ready to wreak havoc in the Caribbean and along the North American coast.
A report of one of Blackbeard’s acts of piracy in the Boston News-Letter in 1717 recorded him taking, looting and burning the well-defended merchantman the Great Allen. The report noted that Blackbeard was now in command of the 32-gun Queen Anne’s Revenge, a 12-gun sloop and a ten-gun briganteen. Blackbeard was now commanding a small pirate fleet that in all likelihood included more than 150 men.
Blackbeard continued to attack merchant ships and then in May 1718 he embarked on one of his most audacious schemes, blockading the port of Charles Town, South Carolina. He arrayed his ships across the harbor mouth and refused to allow any other vessels to leave or enter. Over a few days, some nine vessels were stopped and stripped of their cargoes. Eventually, Blackbeard accepted medical supplies from the town and sailed away.
Soon after the blockade, Blackbeard’s flagship ran aground off Beaufort Inlet. Whether this was by accident or design is still debated. In any case, Blackbeard escaped and was actually given a royal pardon. But he soon returned to piracy. Justice finally caught up with him when a force led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard fought a fierce battle with Blackbeard’s men on 22 November, 1718. Teach was killed in the engagement and his head was suspended from Maynard’s rigging.
Our fascination for the exploits of the Caribbean pirates of the 18th century continues unabated. Blackbeard has been immortalized in a several films and books and some say that Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is based on the infamous buccaneer. In terms of notoriety, you could say that Blackbeard was the Johnny Depp of his day. Except that Teach’s murderous piratical pursuits were all too real.