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"Blackbeard's Ship" Yields New Clues to Pirate Mystery

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 12, 2005
 
The pirate Blackbeard's flagship may finally be yielding its identity after nearly 300 years on the ocean floor. Though researchers have yet to find definitive proof, evidence continues to surface off the coast of North Carolina that wreckage there was once the vessel known as Queen Anne's Revenge.

The wreck has generated attention ever since its 1996 discovery in Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina.

The wreckage includes a dozen cannon and large anchors rated for a 350-ton (355-metric-ton) ship, found amid a mound of debris where records indicate Blackbeard's flagship ran aground in 1718.

"We have extensive historical records, and there is no evidence of any [other] vessel of this kind of armament sinking anywhere during the 18th century on this coast," said Mark Wilde-Ramsing, director of the Queen Anne's Revenge Shipwreck Project, a consortium of researchers investigating the wreck.

Shipwreck records in the region are surprisingly complete. They include accounts of ships lost decades before the QAR and in more remote areas.

"There were people living in the area, and a [different] wreck of this size should not have gone unrecorded," Wilde-Ramsing said. "Beaufort was a little fishing village, and really less than a handful of ships that size were ever reported in the area."

Blackbeard captured a French slaver known as La Concorde in 1717 and renamed it Queen Anne's Revenge. He captained the ship until it ran aground, perhaps intentionally, at Beaufort Inlet in June 1718. (For more on Blackbeard, see sidebar.)

Some accounts at the time suggested that Blackbeard wanted to break up his crew of some 300 to 400 men—and keep the choicest booty for himself.

The ship is still officially classified as "believed to be" the QAR. But mounting evidence suggests to many that the wreck is that of Blackbeard's ship.

"It's not like CSI," said Cheryl Ward, a Florida State University maritime archaeologist not involved in the project. "In the real world nobody solves anything in a 24-hour period. We may never get a definitive answer, but I think that they've got a very good case for this being the Queen Anne's Revenge. I certainly know of nothing they've found to suggest that it can't be."

Evidence Rises From the Deep

Assorted cannonballs and ammunition found at the wreck suggest that the ship had been significantly armed. To date the site has yielded 24 cannon.

Researchers have recovered a bell engraved with the date 1705 and a blunderbuss musket barrel dating from the same period. The average date of the 25 datable artifacts found so far is 1706.

Radiocarbon dating of hull timbers, performed at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, suggests that the ship was built between 1690 and 1710. Unfortunately, no known records indicate where and when La Concorde was constructed.

Among the more intriguing finds is a wineglass stem dated to 1714-15—during the reign of Britain's King George I, who succeeded Queen Anne.

The glassware commemorated George's coronation, but to pirates it may have had a very different symbolism.

"You think of these pirates who had been fighting for Queen Anne as privateers, and when she died this German became King," Wilde-Ramsing said. "They used that as an excuse to begin attacking anyone—even their own [British] ships. Your mind kind of goes back to some interesting toasts they might have made to King George with this glass."

Yet nothing has definitively identified the ship. It may be that nothing ever will.

"My opinion is that it's likely the Queen Anne's Revenge," said Florida state archaeologist Roger Smith, who is not a member of the project. "As to proving it beyond a shadow of a doubt, I don't know whether that's possible. It's a pirate ship as opposed to a merchant ship, so you're not going to find a nameplate or something like that."

Some researchers harbor doubts that the wreck is that of the QAR. Most of their reservations center on a cannon that bears the number 1730 scratched into its surface.

"If this is a date, it definitely eliminates the identification of the site as Blackbeard's 1718 shipwreck," states a paper co-written by former QAR project conservator Wayne Lusardi and East Carolina University archaeologists Bradley Rodgers and Nathan Richards. They expressed their doubts in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology this spring.

Still, several researchers dispute that the number is a date, suggesting that it refers instead to the weapon's price or its weight.

Shipwreck "One of the Best"

All agree that the site is special.

"I've seen a lot of colonial shipwrecks, but this is one of the best," said Smith, the Florida state archaeologist. "It has a bit of everything—lower hull, cargo, personal possessions, arms and ammo, anchors. It's kind of like a site that's been lost in time."

The unique wreck and the name recognition of the QAR have attracted experts from diverse archaeological fields to work side by side, Smith added.

"The days of John Wayne archaeology are finally over," he said. "Today we do it with a lot of different heads put together—experts in ceramics, wood, fabric, geology, ship construction, and more."

The romance of pirate lore has also generated public interest in maritime archaeology, history, and the colonial era.

"Some people are never going to believe it's the Queen Anne's Revenge, and I think that's part of the mystery and the excitement," Wilde-Ramsing said.

"I'd be very, very surprised if it's anything else—but we've excavated less than 5 percent of the site, so there's a lot of interesting stuff still out there."

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