$450,000 In Private Donations Will Allow Excavation Of Blackbeard’s Ship To Continue

Underwater archaeologist Lisa Briggs points to a fleck of gold dust she recently recovered from the wreck of the pirate Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. The ship ran aground near Beaufort, North Carolina in 1718.


A spur-of-the-moment donation today of $32,500 allowed the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to meet its fund-raising goal of $450,000 to continue excavating the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of the legendary 18th-century pirate Blackbeard.

The contribution from Rita and Eric Bigham, a retired couple who divide their time between Chapel Hill and the small beach town of Beaufort, came at a special gathering at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. NCDCR officials scheduled the assembly to announce that they were within sight of their goal and to display a few of the thousands of artifacts that have been recovered from the wreck since it was discovered in 1996.

The Bighams were in the audience when NCDCR Secretary Linda Carlisle announced that her agency was just shy of reaching its goal. Moments after the assembly ended, Carlisle learned that the Bighams were willing to contribute the money to reach the goal.

“We weren’t planning to do this,” Eric Bigham, a retired chemist, said after the donation was announced.

Rita Bigham, a retired teacher, said she and her husband decided to make the contribution because they wanted to see work completed at the Queen Anne’s Revenge site.

Cuts in the state’s budget that followed the economic downturn of 2008 greatly reduced funding for underwater archaeology work at the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck site.

The ship ran aground a few miles offshore from Beaufort in 1718. Historians think Blackbeard may have deliberately grounded the ship so he could disband his crew of 400 pirates and have his pick of the treasure accumulated during his brief but lucrative career in piracy.

Blackbeard, whose real name may have been Edward Thatch or Edward Teach, became a pirate after the War of Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714. In 1716, he took command of a captured French ship that had been used to haul slaves from Africa to the Caribbean. He re-named the ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge. His exploits included holding the entire city of Charleston, South Carolina for ransom, and he became so feared among sailors that the mere sight of his ships often was enough to make other vessels surrender.

After grounding his ship in 1718, Blackbeard lived briefly in the coastal town of Bath, a colonial capital of North Carolina. He became known in Bath for his free-spending and his pledge to help the town economically.

Although the colony’s governor, Charles Eden, pardoned Blackbeard for his piracy, he was still a wanted man outside North Carolina. In late 1718, Blackbeard was killed in a battle with British warships in Ocracoke Inlet.

Despite his reputation as a ruthless killer, many eastern North Carolina residents consider Blackbeard something of a hometown boy. And the long-ago pirate is still bringing money into the state. When a special exhibit of artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge opened at the North Carolina Maritime Museum last year, it drew 50,000 visitors during its first month.

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue, who attended the gathering in Beaufort, noted Blackbeard’s lasting legacy to the state.

“He was a slimy old man, but we’re glad he dumped his ship here,” Perdue told the audience.

State political and tourism leaders, aware of the international interest sparked by the discovery and excavation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge and the public’s fascination with Blackbeard, did not want to suspend the excavation work because of the economic downturn. The effort to find private donors so the work could continue began in November 2011.

Underwater archaeologists have brought up some prize artifacts, including gold dust, sword handles, and rare French apothecary weights. But Steve Claggett, North Carolina’s State Archaeologist, said some of the less spectacular artifacts are poignant reminders of how the ship was used before it became a pirate vessel.

Claggett said divers have found many small glass beads that were used in the slave trade in Africa in the 18th century. The beads — about the size of a nail head — were produced in the Netherlands and Italy. European traders used the beads as currency to buy Africans who had been captured and sold into slavery, he said.

Lisa Briggs, an underwater archaeologist who is working at the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck, said the opportunity to work on Blackbeard’s ship drew her away from a project in Cyprus. Although she has found gold and other artifacts at the site, she also has brought up chunks of concretions — a stone-like encrustation that forms around artifacts that are submerged in water for a long time. The concretions can contain many artifacts, which must be carefully removed in a process that can take years.

“What’s cool about this site is that you might not know for years what you’ve found,” Briggs said. “You may have found an amazing artifact.”

The $450,000 in private donations will allow work to continue at the Queen Anne’s Revenge through 2014. Other financial contributers include Grady White Boats, Bucky and Wendi Oliver of Beaufort, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Cannon Foundation, the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation, and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.

Willie Drye is a contributing editor for National Geographic News. Visit his blog, Drye Goods.

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