By KEVIN DUFFUS
“Teach’s Hole Channel was like a mirror. Ragged tatters of cirrus clouds streaked overhead and were reflected in the water like a kaleidoscope of nature. And in the distance, the indistinct, gauzy horizon blended water and sky in a pale palette of mauve. Was I seeing the thin veil of time? Was all that had happened still there?”
–The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate
In 2007, on the morning of the 22nd of November, the air was still and the water lapped ever so lazily as I stood alone at the edge of Ocracoke Island where the sandy beach of Springer’s Point merged with the historic roadstead of Teach’s Hole Channel. The hour was eerily silent and entirely devoid of the malevolence, terror, and bloody life-or-death struggle that had occurred there long before.
What occurred there 289 years earlier was why I was there, to remember the day that Black Beard the notorious pirate, and most of his men, were killed in a furious hand-to-hand fight lasting fewer than six minutes. In all, 23 men were killed that day, including 11 Royal Navy sailors.
Even though the story survived the centuries and grew into a legend of outlandish proportions enriching authors, publishers, and film producers, the memory of those real-life souls who perished there near Springer’s Point had long-been forgotten. Those pirates, sailors, and slaves were “once living men” with hopes and fears, families and friends, whose fates delivered them to a pivotal moment in time that made world history, but cost them their lives.
They ought to be remembered, I thought. They ought to be honored for giving history something worth preserving. On that quiet day in 2007, I resolved that in forthcoming years I would not stand there alone. It was then that an idea was born that would take on a life of its own.
There are many ways that we can preserve and honor our history, to reflect on those who came before us, to learn what they did, and understand why they did it. We have innumerable museums, monuments, archives, and books where we can delve into history. But there is, perhaps, no better way to experience the past than to visit the very places where momentous events took place, to walk in the footsteps of our forebears.
That conviction first struck me years before on a cold, rainy winter day in the District of Columbia when I was alone at the Peterson House on 10th Street in the tiny room where President Lincoln drew his last breath. The tension and anguish of the past seemed to resonate through the air—alive, electric, palpable. Those present there on April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., may be long departed but their energy is still there. So it is at Ocracoke’s Springer’s Point. That is what makes history worth remembering.
Months later, my path from Springer’s Point led me to the rakish pirate re-enactor Pernell Taylor, captain of Virginia’s Blackbeard’s Crew, a dedicated troupe of living history performers. Taylor graciously offered to press-gang his fellow pirates in order to join me at Ocracoke for the next anniversary of Black Beard’s death in 2008.
One year to the day that I had stood there alone at Springer’s Point, I was surrounded by 60 pirates—even though the temperature was unusually frigid and the wind pierced the outer defenses of the pirate’s period clothing. And more than 100 self-invited Ocracoke residents and visitors joined us for what was a solemn event.
So was begun the annual “Black Beard Pirate Memorial.” Hymns were sung, the history was chronicled, a wreath was dedicated, and a canon or flintlock weapon was fired for every man who was killed there in 1718. The ghost of Black Beard had to have been pleased.
We’ve been doing it ever since, except for two years when hurricanes lashed the Outer Banks and severed Highway 12, the precarious highway lifeline linking the villages of North Carolina’s remarkable barrier islands. The autumn of those two years, 2011 and 2012, were financially bleak for the thousands of small business owners and their employees who rely on a steady flow of tourists and fishermen to support the vital economies of Dare and Hyde counties. The ghost of Black Beard must not have been pleased.
In the meantime, other plans were afoot to expand our Black Beard Memorial into a multi-day event during the typically benign and crystalline days of late-October but also when mainlanders’ thoughts of going to the beach begin to wane. Even though our memorial observance would not be held on the actual anniversary (for that matter, Nov. 22 is not the true anniversary either because of the 11 day shift of calendars in the mid-18th century—the actual anniversary on our calendar would be Dec. 3), greater numbers of people were expected to attend, making the ghost of Black Beard even happier on the eve of Halloween. A small, dedicated committee of Ocracoke business owners and volunteers got to work, plotting and planning with steadfast determination.
The first annual “Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree” held on October 25-27, 2013, was an enormous success, exceeding everyone’s expectations. The re-enactment of the Battle of Ocracoke within the watery amphitheater of Silver Lake was a spectacle to be seen and chilling in its authenticity. The sea battle, replete with smoke-bellowing black powder weapons, featured Capt. Horatio Sinbad’s Meka II sailing in the role of Black Beard’s sloop Adventure.
Performing the roles of Lt. Maynard’s vessels Jane and Ranger were Captain Ben Bunn’s historic skipjack Ada Mae manned by the crew of Carolina Coastal Classrooms from New Bern, and the boat Florie, crewed by the Devilmen of Cape Fear. Living history performers from multiple pirate crews including Virginia’s Blackbeard’s Crew recreated the bloody battle and demise of the infamous bearded captain. The docks and wharves surrounding Silver Lake were thronged with spectators. A crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Hatteras Inlet Station looked on approvingly from their imposing 47-foot motor lifeboat as Black Beard’s head was hoisted nearby.
Throughout the day, the streets of Ocracoke village were crowded with visitors. Families flocked to the authentic pirate encampments of tents, guided by the smell of wood smoke and savory meats roasting on spits. They watched spellbound by demonstrations of navigational skills and rope making, or participated in a scallywag school for young aspiring pirates.
The ever-present and indefatigable Motley Tones of Raleigh performed melodious madrigals or bawdy sailor songs—depending on the age of their audience. And Steve Whetzel of the Shadow Players Stage Combat Group had audiences rollicking in laughter with his bullwhip antics assisted by gullible volunteers (on most Saturdays, Steve is East Carolina University football’s home-field-charging pirate—they had an away game that day). A Friday evening pre-Jamboree “Meet the Pirates” social hour and lecture billed as disproving 15 commonly-believed myths about Black Beard were anticipated to attract about 40 guests at the Community Center—approximately 170 people attended.
Two hundred ninety-five years ago, Black Beard and his Carolina pirates aided the ailing economy of North Carolina’s tidewater region in ways grossly overlooked and under-appreciated by history. They still contribute to the economy. Well into the off-season, retail shops were busy again, hotels were filled, and restaurants were crowded—a welcome sight for Ocracoke’s business community. It seems, Black Beard’s long-lost, mythical treasure might yet be found, if only for a weekend.
There is a lot of competition. These days, practically every port town—and many far from the high seas—hosts its own pirate festival. Communities everywhere are seizing upon the economic potential of pirate popularity, chasing the massive wake of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Few places in America, however, have real pirate history to commemorate, and even fewer have a valid reason to celebrate the notorious Black Beard, arguably the world’s best known pirate. In North Carolina, surprisingly, there are just two—Ocracoke and Bath. (No doubt the preceding statement will be controversial for those Black Beard fans along the Crystal Coast or the Albemarle region, but there is no convincing evidence that the famous pirate ever set foot on sand or soil of what later became Carteret County even though he wrecked and abandoned his flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge off Bogue Banks, nor did he bury his treasure up the Chowan River or reside near Elizabeth City.)
Black Beard’s temporary base of operations at Ocracoke, the well at Springer’s Point that provided the pirates’ fresh water, the “tattered sailcloth” encampment on the shore, and the pivotal sea battle that cost most of them their lives (and their likely burial there), indisputably makes the Hyde County island the most important Black Beard destination in the world.
Across the sound, 50 miles to the west, the little Beaufort County town of Bath along the Pamlico River is where Black Beard and his men surrendered to Gov. Charles Eden and accepted the pardon of the King (even though the pardon was invalid). Bath and Beaufort County is also where, arguably, a majority of the pirates originated. The plantations of the Pamlico are also where nearly all of Black Beard’s secret treasure of slaves were traded and where many of North Carolina’s oldest African-American families will find their colonial ancestors. Bath is also where America’s only verifiable pirate burial exists—that of Edward Salter, a reformed pirate-cooper turned assemblyman, church patron, and grandfather of Revolutionary War heroes.
America’s pirate history is nothing like the Hollywood pop-culture, romantic, fairy tale version so perpetuated by publishers and producers and adored by its fans. True pirate history is actually more interesting, more complex, more relevant to our own life and times. The story of North Carolina’s own Black Beard remarkably mirrors today’s newsworthy issues of political conflict, economic distress, deficits, taxes, unemployment, social discord, health concerns, government corruption, and climate change.
Certainly, there’s a place in our hearts and minds for folklore and fiction, for swashbuckling, swaggering, Errol Flynn-like pirates, but we should never fail to understand and appreciate the real story.
At 10 a.m. on Sunday of the first annual Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree, dozens of us began a solemn procession at Ocracoke’s Blackbeard Lodge and Back Porch Restaurant, led by the stirring sounds of a lone bagpiper. We marched the long, mile and a half route to the sandy shores of Springer’s Point, paced by the beat of a drum and refrains of Amazing Grace, past bystanders, quaint homes, and the sphinx-like Ocracoke light. Already there were dozens more spectators awaiting the somber tribute to the fallen. A couple of hundred yards offshore were the venerable sailing vessels Meka II and Ada Mae, anchored not far from the site of the 1718 battle and Black Beard’s death.
Similar to previous years, specially-composed songs were sung, the history was recalled, a wreath was dedicated, and a bell tolled singly for each man who died in battle on Nov. 22, 1718. After a brief moment of silence, a seven-gun salute was fired from the vessels offshore, and once more, 295 years later, clouds of acrid smoke billowed over the waters of Teach’s Hole Channel.
Each year, weather permitting, we will do it again and again—make our own history where history was once made. We hope to see you there.
(Kevin Duffus is the author of four non-fiction books on North Carolina maritime history, including “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate—Within Every Legend Lies a Grain of Truth.” Last month, the North Carolina Society of Historians presented Duffus with the “Barringer Award for Excellence” for outstanding work on behalf of our state’s history. He has also received the 2013 Harlan Joel Gradin Award for Excellence in the Public Humanities from the North Carolina Humanities Council.)