On the trace of Pirates

Do you feel the soul of a pirate in you? I hope the idea of drinking a glass of rum does not make you seasick. No ? So here is the exciting tale of how ended the ship of Blackbeard, a lawless pirate who lived in fury and exaltation, to the rhythm of fighting and looting.

The story takes place in American waters and more precisely on the east coast of the United States. Underwater archaeologists there made a spectacular discovery. Examining the wreckage of a sailboat found in the waters off North Carolina, specialists came to believe that it may have been one of the fastest ships of the early 18th century, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, commanded by a pirate with the legendary name Blackbeard. A symbol of everything that has or could have happened in piracy in the 18th century, Blackbeard evokes more than one image. Despite the little information we have, there is one thing that is obvious: Blackbeard was a great sailor and nothing and no one could stop him!

In his book on piracy, written in 1724, Captain Charles Johnson explains how far Blackbeard was willing to go to terrorize those he met. He did not hesitate to light cannon bits in his hair to give the impression that he was spitting fire and Johnson writes: “He stared under the brim of his hat at two lit wicks which, burning on either side of his fiercely-eyed face, gave him such a terrible figure that imagination could not conceive of a fury of hell in a more terrifying aspect. According to 18th century legend and literature, Blackbeard terrorized for many years the Caribbean Islands. He stopped the merchant fleets, murdered, massacred, tortured… The “devil of the seas” fed all fantasies and became the image of the bloodthirsty villain beyond compare.

Probably born in Bristol in 1680, Blackbeard was first a privateer in the service of the British government during the war against France and Spain in the 1700s. Pirate, but legally, he received authorizations from the government to hunt down enemy ships. At the end of the war, like many of his compatriots, he chose piracy to survive. At the beginning of the 18th century, this was the golden age of piracy and therefore an opportunity to enrich oneself easily and quickly. The Blackbeard attacks have therefore become legendary.

Archaeologist David Moore, curator of the Museum of Maritime History, first crossed paths with Blackbeard in the 1990s. Digging through the archives of the University of North Carolina, he discovered a trial report about Steve Bonnet, a pirate who sailed with and under Blackbeard’s orders for a year. This document, of about fifty pages, gave very specific details on the loss of the ship Concorde , later renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground on a sandbank near the Beaufort impasse in North Carolina. It was this boat that made Blackbeard’s reputation. According to Johnson’s records and book, Blackbeard seized the Concorde on November 20, 1717, as evidenced by documents written by the captain of the ship Pierre Dosset.

La Concorde was a French slave ship on its way to Martinique. After a long transatlantic journey, the crew was too weak to resist Blackbeard’s attack. The pirate immediately saw the potential of this ship: it was fast and very well armed. Blackbeard renamed it Queen Anne’s Revenge and aboard it embarked on an assault on the seas. Faced with the speed and power of the sailboat, most of the boats surrendered without even fighting. Described as the greatest enemy of all time, his absolute rule over the Caribbean would however only last a few months. Blackbeard’s exploits ended in the shallow waters of North Carolina, where his sailboat ran aground on June 10, 1718.

What happened to Blackbeard’s ship at this moment? It took David Moore 25 years to locate the place where Queen Anne’s Revenge may have been stranded. The scientist reviewed the testimonies of the Blackbeard crew in search of details.

According to the documents he was able to gather, it turned out that the sailboat ran aground on a sandbank at the mouth of Beaufort Bay. He therefore searched for 18th century navigation maps to find out where this sandbank might be located. But even with this information, finding this ship after 300 years was an achievement. Guided by David Moore’s research, divers began exploring the seabed in November 1996. But the area was literally littered with wrecks. These waters had been nicknamed the Atlantic Cemetery. Between 1650 and 1850, nearly 2000 ships sank off these coasts. Locating a wreck there was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The team’s first mission was to locate the right boat among the thousands of wrecks. After 10 days of futile research, the team discovered, at a depth of less than 10 metres, the scattered remains of a tall ship, an anchor and cannonballs. The divers did not believe in their eyes. Was it the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship?

For months, the State of North Carolina, as well as several universities and companies, connected to extract the various objects, such as cannons, gin bottles, plates, miraculously preserved pieces of veil, bones, worked pieces of glass, almost intact shells, but also balls of all sizes and even a little gold. According to the writings of the Blackbeard period, a formidable loot had been accumulated during his captures in the Caribbean islands. Some of the objects found were stamped with 18th century French royal symbols, such as fleurs-de-lis. The remains discovered are now of crucial importance not only to better understand the daily lives of pirates but also to trace the origin of this ship. Archaeologists were looking for clues, evidence as to the identity and age of this tall ship. Given the conditions of the excavation, it was an extremely difficult and meticulous job. The identification was complicated because the ship was stripped of most of its cargo by the pirates, who took all the valuables with them. Davide Moore’s team tried to prove that these remains are indeed those of Blackbeard’s last ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. Discovered in 1995, the wreck had not yet been formally identified.

After many years of uncertainty, this has now been done: The authorities have stated that they have gathered enough evidence to state with certainty that the wreck found off the coast of North Carolina is indeed Queen Anne’s Revenge. Claire Aubel, public relations coordinator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, said two key pieces of evidence determined that this was Queen Anne’s Revenge. The immense size of the wreck and the phenomenal quantity of weapons discovered on board.

In the film “Pirates of the Caribbean IV” the charismatic Jack Sparrow embarks on board a replica of Queen Anne’s terrible ship. North Carolina State authorities hope to attract tourists with an anchor and other pieces of the wreckage kept at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Among other things, there is an exhibition dedicated to Queen Anne’s Revenge with most of the artefacts brought up to date. Research and conservation will still be ongoing for a while.

According to historical data, Blackbeard died in the Caribbean, killed during a battle against the English in 1718. However, some historians have imagined that the pirate deliberately stranded the ship to get rid of the majority of its 300 men and take the entire booty. For John Masters, who helped locate the wreck, it was necessarily an accident and therefore a chance to discover some more riches under the sand. According to Masters, if Blackbeard would have wanted to get rid of the crew and leave with the loot, he could have disappeared without any problems the day before the stranding. And then there is above all the personality of Blackbeard. Masters doesn’t believe he was the type to abandon one of the most successful fighter boats on the east coast.

For his part, archaeologist David Moore leaned more towards a deliberate act on the part of Blackbeard. The pirate is said to have faked an accident to better exploit his war treasure. Once Queen Anne’s Revenge had been abandoned on the sandbanks of Beaufort, Blackbeard would have formed another team of pirates and would have continued his looting on a smaller sailboat. Without his exceptional ship, Blackbeard is vulnerable. And his reputation will eventually turn against him. When the authorities were informed of his new hiding place, and in particular in the Ocracoke Islands, they sent two military vessels to capture him. On November 22, 1718, six months after the stranding of Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard was intercepted on his own boat. According to testimonies and military sources, it took no less than five bullets and twenty sword blows before he succumbed.

After Blackbeard’s death, the English laid hands on the ship’s cargo. In the hold of the boat they found a little cotton, sugar, spices, silverware, nothing extraordinary in short. But where had Blackbeard hidden his famous treasure? Some still think that the captain certainly hid it in the dunes of Ocracoke Island. For several years, archaeologists have been conducting excavation campaigns on the site, an area that has been protected for some time. Will we ever find the location? “Only the devil and I know the location of my treasure,” said Blackbeard at the time. “And the devil will have everything! ».

Image: Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, painted in 1920


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