BEAUFORT, N.C. -- The crew stowed its plunder and raised the Jolly Roger in triumph, and skipper Walter Matheson set the wheel for home. It was a cold, bright day in November aboard the lumbering Pelican III, and a long quest had finally ended.
Crew members believed they'd found the flagship of Blackbeard the pirate, the 40-gun Queen Anne's Revenge, buried on a sandbar in 20 feet of water two miles offshore. They'd felt it in their bones almost from the moment a diver emerged from the brown water to shout, "There's cannons down there!"
But as the ship approached the town dock, bad news came aboard like a fallen albatross: Don't tell a soul. Mum's the word. Batten down your flapping hatches and keep quiet.
"It's like getting all your birthday presents and then having to put them in a closet for four months," Matheson recalled.
Recently, the tale of what might be the final pursuit of Blackbeard could finally be told, beginning with a news conference and unfolding further in subsequent interviews. It is not only a fine sea story but a first-rate archival mystery, a historical treasure hunt in which crumbling old maps and court documents proved as indispensable as the costly hardware that tracked down the ship's remains in murky, swirling water.
The discovery's impact here is already so great that by week's end restaurants were contemplating changing their names to accommodate pirate themes, and village was squabbling against village over the inevitable haul of museum booty.
Such intense interest was one of the reasons the four-month gag order was placed on the crew.
"We have to worry about piracy," said Phil Masters, who, as president of the marine search firm, Intersal Inc., is one of the two leaders of the expedition.
Or, as North Carolina's chief archaeologist, Stephen R. Claggett, explained, "Even Blackbeard himself was known to fish around old wreck sites and try to recover cannon or old treasure." So have any number of amateur divers and treasure hunters along the North Carolina coast, so rich in shipwrecks that it's called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."
For those people, the possibility of finding a Blackbeard relic might be too tempting to resist. That's why the state has declared the site off limits, and Masters said his team won't return to the site -- drawing attention to the exact location -- "until we are sure there is both electronic and eyewitness surveillance on a 24-hour basis."
That likely won't happen until May, when salvage teams hope to bolster their claim of an 80 percent probability that the wreckage is indeed Queen Anne's Revenge. Bringing up everything that's salvageable, perhaps including pieces of the hull, could take up to five years.
No booty expected
The haul won't likely include Blackbeard's legendary treasure.
The ship ran aground in calm weather on a June morning in 1718, trying to sail through a Beaufort inlet to join three, smaller sloops in his flotilla. That left time to unload the booty taken from 20 ships captured during the previous seven months, although one of the sloops, The Adventure, also ran aground in the process.
Blackbeard had just come from his most daring escapade, a blockade of the port of Charleston. Not only did his crews seize ships as they came and went, but a landing party terrorized the citizenry and took a valuable trunkload of medicines as ransom.
The general circumstances of the ship's loss have been known for ages, but Masters had to search archives from New York to London before he found the most detailed account, a deposition of witness David Harriott, master of the sloop Adventure.
That, with old maps and charts, helped Masters and partner Mike Daniel, president of Maritime Research Institute, pinpoint the probable location.
Along the way Masters learned a thing or two about Blackbeard, and he argues that the pirate's reputation as a bloodthirsty demon should be revised. Blackbeard has been said, for example, to have subjected his numerous wives to gang rapes and to have forced one captive to eat his own ear.
But according to Masters and others who have pored over
eyewitness accounts, the pirate was more blustery than bloody, a warrior who cultivated a nasty reputation to help save him time, trouble and ammunition.
"To me, he was the first great practitioner of psychological warfare," Masters said. "He was a big man, a tall man, with a thick, black, bushy beard. He wore a crimson cloak; he had pistols, knives and swords all over his body."
To enhance his fierce appearance, he sometimes lighted matches beneath his beard, making his face seem to smolder. Then, as he approached a shipload of fresh victims, Masters said, "He would stand on the bridge, look fierce and mutter that he was the devil, or the brother of the devil, and that if they resisted him they were going to go to hell. Virtually every potential victim surrendered meekly in abject fear."
Others who have researched Blackbeard, such as David Moore, curator of the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, concur, maintaining, "Not one document indicates he ever killed anyone until his last battle."
Blackbeard got started the way many pirates did, by first serving as a privateer, an ocean-going mercenary for a warring nation, whose income depended on how much plunder he could capture for himself and the mother country.
When wars ended, some privateers kept on doing what they'd done all along, except working for themselves. That left even the ships of their former employers vulnerable to attack.
Blackbeard knew how to make the right political connections. Charles Eden, North Carolina's proprietary governor at the time, "was widely suspected of being in cahoots with Blackbeard," said F. Wilson Angley, a N.C. Archives research historian.
That left it up to the royal governor of Virginia, Alexander Spots-wood, to put a stop to this coastal crime wave. Spotswood put together a small fleet, which found the pirate aboard one his sloops on Nov. 22, anchored off Ocracoke Island in one of his sloops, five months after the Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground.
Robert Maynard, a first lieutenant in the Royal Navy, led the ensuing battle. David Cordingly's de-mythologizing 1995 book, "Under the Black Flag," describes a creeping pursuit on a morning in which there was so little wind that oars were used. Blackbeard was at a disadvantage, not only because he had only 19 men, but because they'd "spent much of the night drinking."
Maynard's sloops ran aground, and he and Blackbeard hailed each other from their decks, with Cordingly citing Maynard as saying, "At our first salutation, he drank Damnation to me and my Men, who he stil'd Cowardly Puppies, saying, He would neither give nor take Quarter."
Maynard waited for the rising tide, then rowed toward Blackbeard's sloop, which answered with a volley -- killing one and wounding five. As the ships came together, Blackbeard and 10 pirates jumped aboard Maynard's, Cordingly wrote, and the battle turned theatrical. The two captains dueled with their swords, although the fight quickly detoured from its cinematic script by turning into a free-for-all. One of Maynard's men lopped off the pirate's bearded head with two sweeps of his broadsword.
The British took the treasure and threw the body overboard. Legend says that the headless corpse swam three times around the sloop, and the historical record is hardly less grisly, saying that the British hanged his bloody head from the bowsprit.
N.C. salvage policy
That left only Blackbeard's ship to search for.
November's expedition came about partly because North Carolina still maintains cozier relations with would-be plunderers than many other states, offering salvage permits in exchange for the booty. (Masters and Daniel's backers hope to profit by selling film and book rights.)
The policy drew Masters to the North Carolina coast in late 1986, although in those days he was seeking an 18th-century Spanish treasure ship. Then a state archaeologist mentioned he might want to look for the Queen Anne's Revenge as well.
"What's that?" Master recalled asking. "And when he mentioned Blackbeard, it piqued my interest."
Did it ever. For the next decade he was obsessed at times. But not until he and Daniel plotted Harriott's information on the old charts did they narrow the location enough for a search using scanning device known as a magnetometer.
From there, it took only 11 days. And once they anchored at the right spot, it took only five minutes for a diver to discover the cannons below, recalled Matheson, the skipper of the ship. Five minutes later the diver surfaced with a foot-high bell marked with the year 1709. That, with a few 24-pound cannonballs, made a strong case that this was the Queen Anne's Revenge.
Daniel, on board at the time, phoned Masters, who quickly journeyed to the site.
"To have handled the original documents, as I did in London, then read the story, dive on the site and look at and touch the cannon is like, you know I'm still on cloud nine," Masters said.
The hard part, Matheson said, was keeping their find a secret in a small town where the best source of news is often the bars and the docks. By February, word was beginning to spread.
So, the state scheduled a news conference and prepared to protect the site. Its greatest ally may be the very currents and shoals that sent the ship to the bottom.
"It's very active water, a lot of turbulence, and pretty near the dredged channel," said Claggett, the chief archaeologist. "By all accounts it's not a very pleasant place to dive."
Nor, as Blackbeard found out almost 279 years ago, is it a very easy place to sail your ship.
Pub Date: 3/16/97