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Blackbeard: Fear, Fable, and Fact-finding
Pirate's Gold Lures Tech Researcher to Sunken Ship

by Sally L. Harris

You're hunched over a table on a lower deck of a captured slave ship in 1718. Lanterns glow dimly as you and your fellow pirates divvy up gold pieces. One of your crewmates sports a scar from forehead to chin, one an eye patch. You rub the stubs of two missing fingers lost to someone's cutlass.

But the man who holds your furtive attention sits across from you.

Blackbeard. Captain of your ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. Feared pirate. Your heart thumps at thoughts of marauding adventures, but fear ripples the back of your neck. The man makes you twitch with anxiety, especially the way he looks in battle.

Craig and colleagues examine cannon from shipwreckTall with long black hair and a long, bushy black beard, the captain dresses for battle in solid black and twists his beard into numerous strands tied with ribbons. He wraps a long wick around the back of his head and across each ear so it sticks out on each side of his face; he lights the ends, so his face and wild eyes glow through the smoke. Pistols, swords, and knives hang all over him. If ever the devil walked the Earth, here he is! Even you, his crew member since he overtook your cargo ship two years ago, fear himand not just because you've seen how he treats enemies. Once, without provocation, he fired unexpectedly under the table, shooting one of his crew in the knee! "Keeps the men in line!" he said.

Yet this fearless man's zest for adventure keeps you sailing with him. Both of you hate boredom.

Suddenly, from across the table, he orders, "Light the pots." Your heart thuds. What now? Crewmates light pots of sulfur. Brimstone. The nasty smoke billows. Your eyes burn. Your lungs scream for air. The smoke surrounds the devil captain. You all sit stunned, then dash for the door. Blackbeard remains, sauntering out later to show who has the real courage.1

Today, the name "Blackbeard" conjures up images of swash-buckling men with peg legs and eye patches waylaying ships for their cargo. Blackbeard was the king pirate, whose fierce appearance and reputation caused brave, adventuresome sea captains to surrender their ships without a fight. Now it's hard to separate fact from myth.

His name still lures people to the North Carolina inlet where he holed up between raids. So when the ruins of a ship turned up in the waters off the shore of Beaufort, N.C., after a hurricane in 1996, the world shivered. Could it be Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge? Virginia Tech geology professor James Craig is helping to make that decision.

Blackbeard, whose real name was either Edward Teach or Edward Thatch, had run his ship aground in that area and escaped with some of his crew and most of his loot. Fearing that the infamous captain would plunder Virginia's coastline, Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood sent two British Navy ships after him. The ships caught the pirate offguard.

Blackbeard was drunk and groggy from days of partying when he and Lt. Robert Maynard of the British Navy faced each other, pistols drawn. Blackbeard's gun misfired. Maynard's mini-ball stunned the dreaded pirate, but he continued the fight, breaking Maynard's cutlass off at the hilt. As Blackbeard went in for the kill, a member of the British crew slashed the pirate's throat. Blackbeard continued fighting as Maynard's crew stabbed and shot him un til one finally cut his head clear off.

Maynard hung Blackbeard's head from the ship's bowsprit and threw his body into the water. According to legend, it swam around the ship several times searching for the severed head.

Into these waters, once red with pirate blood, the Virginia Tech geology professor now dives.

A swashbuckling adventurer like Blackbeard capturedand still capturespeople's imaginations. So the opportunity to work on the wreckage of what is most likely Blackbeard's ship thrilled Craig, whose research on gold and metals has been published in numerous professional journals and led to the request for his assistance. Craig became certified in scuba diving so he could descend the depths to the ship's remains with other researchers.

The dives have yielded several cannons, barrel rings, pewter platters, and grains of gold that will help determine if the long-lost vessel is Blackbeard's flagship. Craig works with the North Carolina Division of Cultural Research's Underwater Archaeology Unit to study the precious and base metals and with John E. Callahan of Appalachian State University and J. William Miller of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

The items are encrusted from 250 years underwater. The researchers have recovered more than 20 of the 40 cannons reputed to be on Blackbeard's ship and have found lead shot of many sizes, evidence of the wide use of pistols and various cannons.

Craig has determined that gold found at the site is placer gold, or panned gold, that probably belonged to someone on the slave ship Concorde before Blackbeard commandeered it and renamed it Queen Anne's Revenge. Craig also is studying the gold grains and the nature of the other metals in seawater to determine what minerals are formed. This information, especially on lead and pewter, helps in understanding the corrosive attack by seawater and the way mineral coatings protect the artifacts. The Virginia Tech professor has discovered a very rare tin mineral forming on the pewter and can interpret it and the presence of the sulfides, galena, and pyrite as evidence of the long period of burial since 1718.

Craig returned from his latest diving expedition Oct. 6. Up to this point, he says, everything the archeologists have found fits the time, place, and the ship that would have been Blackbeard's. Tin-based pewter platters, a medical syringe containing mercury used as medicine, and the cannons are from the right period and have hallmarks confirming their age. Researchers have studied some of the small amount of wood that is left and determined that its age fits timber that could have been on the Queen Anne's Revenge.

The North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort will hold the ship's preserved remains. According to an article by museum registrar David D. Moore, the studies of the artifacts allow archaeologists to learn about types of colonial ships and also provide "the rare opportunity to examine a microcosm of piratical society."

These artifacts are all that is leftexcept the legendsof the pirate described in The General History of Pyrates by Capt. Charles Johnson as "a Figure, that Imagination cannot form an idea of a Fury, from Hell, to look more frightful."

1 This anecdote about Blackbeard is based on a fictionalized version of incidents described by George Humphrey Yetter in "When Blackbeard Scourged the Seas" in the autumn 1992 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal.