June 6, 2011

Blackbeard’s real treasure may not have been what you think it was


The whereabouts of the mythical pirate treasure of the notorious Blackbeard has bewitched folks ever since the smoke cleared following the Battle of Ocracoke 292 years ago.

Minutes after Blackbeard’s death, Royal Navy sailors began a search for the bearded pirate captain’s ill-gotten gains. They were soon disappointed. They found no treasure chests of gold, silver or jewels. And despite many enticing claims, nor has anyone else found Blackbeard’s lost treasure since that historic November day on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

However, there was a treasure, and it likely survives to this day in eastern North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Department of Cultural Resources proudly boasts – and rightly so – that it has retrieved over the past 15 years more than 250,000 artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, including the anchor recently brought to the surface. Few experts, however, have considered the cargo of flesh and blood transported by the famous ship.

This is not the pirate history you will see on the silver screen, find on roadside historic markers, read on museum walls or hear at our state’s historic sites.

But it is our history.

In November 1717, north of Barbados, Blackbeard positioned his flotilla in the path of slave-trading ships arriving from West Africa, where he captured the French slaver La Concorde, renaming her the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Historians have surmised that he wanted to capture a big slave ship in order to mount up to 40 guns aboard, making her as powerfully armed as any Royal Navy warship patrolling the West Indies.

I believe it was to serve a different purpose.

Six months later, near the end of his two-year career of piratical mayhem, Blackbeard sailed to North Carolina and purposely wrecked the Queen Anne’s Revenge in the entrance to what is today Beaufort Inlet. There, records say, he disbanded his 400-man company, marooned some men on an island, tricked all but his closest allies out of all of their communal treasure, and left aboard a fast and nimble sloop he named Adventure. About 10 days later, Blackbeard arrived at Bath, where he surrendered to Gov. Eden and applied for a royal pardon.

Depositions filed in Charleston, S.C., later that year by former members of Blackbeard’s crew – the ones he left behind at Beaufort Inlet -- are well-preserved and very detailed.

When Blackbeard and his inner-circle of associates sailed to Bath, they had with them 60 African men. Some pirate historians wax lyrical at the apparent racial diversity of Blackbeard’s crew, marveling that six out of 10 of Blackbeard’s pirates were black. But what the pirate historians don’t tell you is that six months later, when Blackbeard was killed at Ocracoke, he had aboard his sloop only six Africans. What happened to the 54 other African men?

I believe they were the pirates’ secret treasure, a labor force delivered to the impoverished plantation society of the Pamlico region, which was desperately short on manpower and far from the slave markets at Williamsburg, Va., and Charleston.

The colony of North Carolina had been wracked by years of political strife, punitive trade restrictions, drought, sickness and war with Indians. As her wealthier neighbors, Virginia and South Carolina, began to grow because of navigable, deepwater ports, the northern colony of Carolina was severely constrained by the vagaries of shoaling inlets, shallow sounds, and great distances between her plantations and the travelled byways of the sea.

From the beginning, North Carolina settlers struggled to produce the volume of commodities necessary to support their economy because, compared to South Carolina and Virginia, North Carolina had few slaves.

“For the want of suitable ports slaves were not imported directly into North Carolina, and the planters there were forced to buy from Virginia and South Carolina. And in this very important particular North Carolina was at great disadvantage,” wrote Colonial Records editor William Saunders.

There is wide gulf of opinion among those who have studied the question – historians such as David Cordingly, Kenneth Kinkor, and Marcus Rediker – regarding the status of blacks among pirates and whether they were treated as equals, servants, or slaves.

Rediker wrote that “Negroes and mulattoes were present on almost every pirate ship, and only rarely did the many merchants and captains who commented on their presence call them slaves.”

Kinkor even presents examples of blacks who were leaders of predominantly white crews.

Conversely, Cordingly wrote that “pirates shared the same prejudices as other white men in the Western world. They regarded black slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and used them as slaves on board their ships for the hard and menial jobs.”

Having analyzed the references found among the primary sources pertaining to Africans among Blackbeard’s crew after June, 1718, I would have to agree with Cordingly’s assessment. The 60 blacks who departed Beaufort Inlet aboard the sloop Adventure were most certainly treated as commodities to be bought and sold, and were used as servants to do the hard and menial jobs.

For example, four blacks named Richard Stiles, Thomas Gates, James Blake, and James White, accompanied Blackbeard on an arduous 36-hour, 95-mile round trip journey across the Pamlico Sound for a mysterious midnight visit to Bath on Sept. 14, 1718. Records indicate that the black crew member’s jobs were to row the Adventure’s launch. They were in all likelihood Blackbeard’s servants or slaves – men who were perhaps trusted to carry arms, but servants or slaves just the same.

As an example of the value that slaves held in the 1718 economy of Bath, the Beaufort County deed book shows that Stephen Elsey and James Robins, two mariners who appear in the records shortly after Blackbeard’s arrival in North Carolina -- suggesting that they may have been former members of his crew -- purchased Gov. Eden’s former 400-acre plantation, house, and outbuildings on Bath Creek, for the price of three slaves named Barsue, Lawrence, and John. This same property was sold again eight years later to Blackbeard’s cooper-turned-merchant, assemblyman, and patron of Bath’s St. Thomas Church, Edward Salter, for 600.

Records reflect that other slaves were sold by members of Blackbeard’s crew, including two to Customs Collector Tobias Knight – probably 26-year-old Pompey and 23-year-old Caesar, each valued a year later at 60. Former quartermaster William Howard was apprehended in Virginia with two African slaves after having retired from Blackbeard’s crew at Bath. According to a letter from Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Spotswood, Howard admitted that his slaves had “been piratically taken.”

Over six months, Blackbeard’s company acquired, traded, and gleaned the healthiest, fittest, strongest African men and then delivered them to North Carolina’s destitute settlement of Bath – the very place in colonial America that needed them the most. Using a popular calculator for measuring worth of historical prices (MeasuringWorth.com), Blackbeard’s flesh and blood “treasure” in 1718 would be worth more than $8.8 million today.

It has long been whispered among a number of eastern North Carolina families that they consider themselves descendants of pirates. Until now, few people have taken the time to remember the untold numbers of black families whose roots might lead to the 60 African slaves brought in by pirates in the summer of 1718.

The importation of African slaves is the forgotten legacy of the Great Age of Piracy, and an unappreciated but important part of North Carolina’s heritage.

Who knows who might be related to Barsue, Lawrence, and John, or Tobias Knight’s Pompey and Caesar, or the pirate-cooper Edward Salter’s Priamus the shoemaker, Toney, Aberdeen, Cimrick, and Tom?

I list their names here so that they might not be forgotten. It was by their heartache, their labors, their suffering, and by the sacrifices of their families and others who shared their plight, that eastern America was wrought out of wilderness.

The slaves brought to North Carolina by Blackbeard in 1718 were a true treasure, indeed. Perhaps someday they will be so remembered by our historical community.

(Kevin P. Duffus of Raleigh is the author of “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate – Within Every Legend Lies a Grain of Truth.”)

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