A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Raising the wreck of Queen Anne's Revenge, flagship of the notorious pirate
The divers below me are kicking up sand, so I almost swim face-first into a nylon-urethane lift bag before I get my bearings. Two of these tan, balloon-like bags, each capable of lifting about a ton off the sea floor, are attached to a vaguely cylindrical object nestled in the sand. Its surface is covered in gray, warty masses, but the general outline is clear--it's an eight-foot-long cannon, from the wreck of a ship that ran aground just off Bogue Banks, North Carolina, in July 1718. Chris Southerly, the project's lead archaeologist, fills the lift bags with air from a tank. When each is about three-quarters full, a billow of sand bursts from the bottom and the 3,000-pound mass glides past me and hangs below the bags, about six feet from the surface.
Southerly and a team from Underwater Archaeology Branch of North Carolina's Office of State Archaeology hope this cannon, labeled C16, and the artifacts cemented to it, will illuminate the six tempestuous months it may have spent in the company of Edward Teach, better known by his professional name, Blackbeard. Since the wreck was found in 1996, state archaeologists have been convinced that it is the remains of Queen Anne's Revenge, the flagship of his pirate fleet. Questions about the wreck's identity remain, but its thousands of artifacts have captured the public imagination, brought the golden age of piracy to life, and revealed details about the men who manned the ships, villains who became legends.
Little is known of Teach (whose name is spelled a dozen ways in historical sources) before he turned to piracy in 1716, apprenticing under the fierce and highly esteemed pirate Benjamin Hornigold. In November 1717, near Martinique, they captured La Concorde de Nantes, a 100-foot-long, three-masted French slave ship. Hornigold, who planned to retire, gave Teach the ship, which he refitted and renamed in honor of Queen Anne's War, the American theater of a major European conflict over the fate of the Spanish throne, known as the War of Spanish Succession.
According to historian Robert E. Lee's Blackbeard the Pirate (1974), Teach was a disciplined leader, a relentless fighter, a capacious drinker, and a lover prone to falling madly for a new woman in each port. He also had a profound sense of theatricality, and knew that in piracy, it was easier to cow victims into submission than fight them. So Teach cultivated the image of Blackbeard, with his wild beard and mustache, pistols hanging from his shoulders, and cannon fuses that burned from each side of the brim of his hat.
At Topsail (now called Beaufort) Inlet, Queen Anne's Revenge and a captured sloop, Adventure, ran aground on a submerged sandbar. Some said Blackbeard grounded the ships to clean their hulls, while others, including pirates under his command, suspected he wanted to split the crew and make off in a sloop with most of their plunder. Blackbeard then went into semi-retirement, until Royal Navy soldiers sent by Governor Spotswood of Virginia caught up with him off Okracoke Island in November 1718. Blackbeard was killed in the battle, but he went down in style; he fought on as blood spurted from a wound to his neck, and it took five pistol shots and 20 sword cuts to stop him. Queen Anne's Revenge settled into the sandbar by Beaufort Inlet, buffeted by currents and scoured by sands.
The excavation team expects to finish by 2010, at which point the real time-consuming work begins. The day after the cannon-raising, I rejoin them at Fort Macon, where a giant mobile crane has held C16 underwater overnight by the same straps used to raise it. Coast Guard staff lift it from the water and team members guide it into place on a set of wooden braces on a trailer. They cover every inch in wet T-shirts and chunks of saturated foam, and then wrap it in a tarp. First, the cannon is due in a nearby park for a public viewing, and then it will move on to the conservation lab, two hours north in Greenville, on the East Carolina campus.
The concretions make the gray, cigar-shaped amalgamation look tumorous. A piece of hull wood is attached to one side, and at least three pewter plates and various other chunks of glass, pottery, and lead shot are stuck on. But the extended conservation process will take at least five years, if not more.
The cannon waited nearly 300 years to be found, so a few more aren't going to hurt. And who knows--Blackbeard himself may have scrawled something on the barrel.
Samir S. Patel is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.