Medical supplies found aboard the wreck of Blackbeard's flagship
Over the last few years, researchers have gained some valuable insight on what life was like aboard Blackbeard’s most famous ship. In January 2015, marine archaeologists recovered medical equipment from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, flagship of the pirate Blackbeard, which lies in shallow water on a sandbar at the Topsail Inlet in North Carolina. The artifacts, combined with historical records, show that the infamous buccaneer had to keep his crew in fighting shape. And just three years later, in January 2018, paper fragments were found hidden in a cannon chamber from the same ship, revealing that pirates may have gained inspiration from others of their kind.
Edward Teach (1680 – 1718), affectionately known to his crew as ‘Blackbeard’, was a notorious English pirate who captained the Queen Anne’s Revenge, operating around the West Indies and the eastern coast of the American colonies. Despite the modern-day picture of the traditional tyrannical pirate, Blackbeard is said to have commanded his vessels with the permission of their crews and there is no known historical account of his ever having murdered those he held captive.
'Blackbeard', 1736 engraving. ( Public Domain )
The Queen Anne’s Revenge was formerly a French slave vessel named La Concorde de Nantes that was captured by pirate Captain Benjamin Hornigold on November 28, 1717. Hornigold turned the ship over to Blackbeard, who made La Concorde his flagship, adding cannons and renaming her Queen Anne's Revenge. The name may come from the War of the Spanish Succession, known in the Americas as Queen Anne's War. Blackbeard sailed the ship from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean, attacking British, Dutch, and Portuguese merchant ships along the way.
At one point, he formed an alliance of pirates and blockaded the port of Charleston, South Carolina. He ransomed the port’s inhabitants, and then ran Queen Anne's Revenge aground while entering Beaufort Inlet after refusing to accept the Governor’s offer of a pardon. He disbanded his flotilla and escaped by transferring supplies onto a smaller ship, ‘The Adventure’.
Digital reconstruction of Queen Anne's Revenge (Jin Zan/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge was discovered in 1996 and has been under continuous excavation since then by the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project, which has recovered numerous artifacts including cannons, an anchor, numerous gold, silver, and brass relics, and a set of medical instruments.
According to Live Science , archaeologists recovered a urethral syringe that had originally contained mercury. During the 18th century, mercury was used to treat syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, which would have relieved the short term effects of the disease but carried a high risk of mercury poisoning.
They also found a porringer, used in bloodletting treatments, a brass mortar and pestle for preparing medicine, containers for storing balms and salves, a silver needle, and two pump clysters that would have been used to pump fluid into the rectum. Markings on the instruments indicate they were manufactured in France.
Top: Urethral syringe used to treat syphilis. Bottom left: Brass mortar and pestle, used to prepare medicine. Bottom right: Clyster pump used to pump fluid into the rectum. Photo credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
"Treating the sick and injured of a sea-bound community on shipboard was challenging in the best of times," archaeologist Linda Carnes-McNaughton wrote in a paper she presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting. She added that the people on a ship like Blackbeard's would have had to contend with many conditions, including "chronic and periodic illnesses, wounds, amputations, toothaches, burns and other indescribable maladies."
Blackbeard acquired some of his medical supplies when he spent a week blockading the port of Charleston in South Carolina. The governor attempted to negotiate with Blackbeard by offering him a pardon, but he refused, escaping on ‘The Adventure’. Blackbeard eventually settled in Bath Town, North Carolina, where he accepted a royal pardon. But he was soon back at sea, where he attracted the attention of Alexander Spotswood, the Governor of Virginia. Spotswood arranged for a party of soldiers and sailors to try to capture Blackbeard, which they did on November 22, 1718. During a ferocious battle, Blackbeard and several of his crew were killed.
More details on pirate life aboard Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge were found in 2018 in the form of paper fragments . The pieces were drawn up from a cannon chamber and with luck and timing, conserved. Experts discovered that the text on the paper came from a 1712 first edition book by Captain Edward Cooke, “A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World.” It was a popular work amongst English readers at the time. There are questions if the document came from a book that was looted from another ship or if it was owned by a member of Blackbeard’s crew. But Erik Farrell, a conservator with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources' Queen Anne's Revenge Lab, said "Given the levels of literacy among English sailors at the time, it could belong to any member of the crew there."
Top Image: ‘Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718’ depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay. Source: Public Domain