Completion of Blackbeard Excavation May Depend on Corporate Funding

A 2,000-pound cannon hauled up from the wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship off the North Carolina coast last week has stirred more interest in the infamous 18th-century pirate and brought more visitors to Beaufort, a small seaport near the site of the wreck. And since state funding for the work on the Queen Anne’s Revenge has all but dried up, archaeologists may have to rely on that public interest to resume work at the shipwreck next spring.

North Carolina State Archaeologist Steve Claggett said funding for next season’s work is uncertain. “We’ll do our darndest to find money and keep working,” Claggett said. “I’ll be optimistic and say there’s a small chance we won’t go back.”

It takes about $150,000 per season to fund the work at the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Archaeologists work at the site when conditions are most favorable in late May and June and in September and October.

The excavation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge is under the supervision of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Claggett said the state legislature last provided direct funding for the project in 2008. Although some state funds have been used since then, that money was moved from other state departments, he said.

“The prospects for appropriated funds (from the state legislature) in the foreseeable future is pretty dim,” Claggett said. “That’s why we’re mounting an effort to get private corporate funding for the project.”

The eight-foot cannon recovered October 26 was the 13th cannon removed from the wreck since work started at the site in 1997. Archaeologists think about 700,000 artifacts are contained in the wreck site. About 280,000 artifacts have been removed.

A major exhibition of those artifacts has been mounted at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, about 150 miles southeast of Raleigh. About 150,000 visitors have toured the museum since the exhibit opened a few months ago. Jennifer Woodward, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources, said news of the cannon’s recovery brought 800 more visitors to the museum that same day. One visitor drove all the way from Wisconsin, she said.

Visitors lining up at the museum to see the Blackbeard exhibit are proof that the pirate who once terrorized the seas from the Caribbean to the southeast U.S. coast still has a powerful grip on the public’s imagination.

Blackbeard assembled a varied collection of cannon during his brief, colorful career. It’ll be several years before archaeologists know where the most recently recovered cannon was built. But marks on the other cannon from the site indicate that they were the type of firepower a pirate would assemble. They were built in England, France and Sweden. The variety of manufacturers is what you’d expect in a pirate’s arsenal since he’d take whatever guns he could get, Claggett said.

The cannon recovered last week fired a six-pound solid iron cannonball about the size of a modern softball. The eight-foot-long gun is covered with concretions that formed during the nearly three centuries it lay offshore near Beaufort. Claggett said the concretions probably contain other artifacts.

“There could be almost anything in there,” Claggett said.

The cannon has been moved to East Carolina University in nearby Greenville, where it will undergo a lengthy treatment to preserve it. Students and faculty in ECU’s Maritime Studies Program have provided invaluable help with the Queen Anne’s Revenge project, Claggett said.

The cannon will be submerged in an electrolytic solution to remove salt from the iron, Claggett said. If the cannon was allowed to dry without removing the salt, the salt would form crystals causing the cannon to break apart, he said.

Not much is known of the man who called himself Blackbeard. The pirate’s real name is thought to have been Edward Thatch or Edward Teach, and he may have been born in England sometime before 1690. He may have become a sailor during the War of Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714, when England hired private sailors to harass and plunder Spanish and French shipping.

But when the war ended, the sailor who would become Blackbeard was out of a job. He joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, another out-of-work sailor who turned to piracy after the war ended.

When Hornigold’s crew captured a French ship, Le Concorde, in 1716, Hornigold gave command of the ship to Blackbeard. He renamed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge and started his career as a pirate. In only about two years, Blackbeard became so feared that the mere sight of his ship prompted other vessels to surrender.

In 1718, the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground near Beaufort. Some historians think the grounding was deliberate because Blackbeard wanted to get out of piracy. Grounding his ship would have allowed him plenty of time to remove the loot he wanted to keep.

But in late 1718, he was killed in a battle with a British fleet in Pamlico Sound.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.