Author Interview: A conversation with Mark Wilde-Ramsing and Linda Carnes-McNaughton
Yesterday, June 10, marked the 300th anniversary of the grounding of Queen Anne’s Revenge. The story of the pirate Blackbeard’s ship, and it’s discovery in the waters off Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina, is told by Mark Wilde-Ramsing and Linda Carnes-McNaughton, in Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne’s Revenge, just published by UNC Press, and available now in both print and ebook editions.
Here, UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek interviews the two authors on this notable anniversary.
Gina Mahalek: June 10, 2018 marks the 300th anniversary of the grounding of Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR). How did the QAR sink, and why?
Mark Wilde-Ramsing: We know from historical accounts given by some pirates at the scene and from archaeological evidence, Queen Anne’s Revenge grounded at the entrance to Beaufort Inlet (called Topsail Inlet in the old days) and after their hasty abandonment, the ship deteriorated in place slipping under the water and waves, and then into the sand bar itself. The ship had been out to sea for a year and a half, earlier as a French slave ship (Concorde) and later under pirate control and with all that time under sail, it would have been heavy, leaky, and hard to manage through the narrow, shallow, and unmarked inlet channel towards the safe harbor of Beaufort. The concentrated footprint of the wreckage, not much larger than the ship itself, indicates to archaeologists that it grounded and deteriorated in place. The fact that only a few coins and a small amount of gold dust have been recovered indicate there was ample time to save lives and valuables. Some of the pirates accused Blackbeard of sinking the vessel on purpose, for only he and a few comrades reportedly took all the loot, estimated at hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars taken during the raid of Charleston, South Carolina.
Linda Carnes-McNaughton: Two lines of evidence describe the sinking event; first are the eyewitness accounts of those pirates and crewmembers who survived and later gave testimony; second is the archaeological record, which indicates a slow-wrecking event reflective of a ship that became stuck on a hidden sandbar and then heeled over onto its side as the days and weeks passed. We also know that it was a larger vessel than [Blackbeard’s] other fleet ships and was armored with numerous heavy cannons and spare anchors, so once things began to go wrong, there was little chance to save it. As the call to “Abandon Ship” was echoed across the water, everyone got off, some into the water and some in smaller boats (like Blackbeard and 80 others). What is also relatively absent from the shipwreck indicates to us that they took workable weapons, portable personal gear and of course, the valuables as they left their sinking vessel. Whether the grounding was intentional (as some suspected) or accidental, we can never be totally sure, but as archaeologists, we are certain that what went down that day is what we are left to recover.
GM: Tell us about the moment of discovery.
LCM: I must be totally honest, I did not know the QAR was LOST until it was FOUND! I was unaware anyone was looking for it. Working as an archaeologist in North Carolina, my focus had been primarily on land sites or what we call Terrestrial Archaeology—historic towns, plantations, battlefield sites, the homes of famous NC people, and so on. I had not paid that much attention to pirates or underwater shipwrecks. But when my bubble-head colleagues called a special “all hands on deck” meeting in the NC Museum of History Auditorium, and rumor had it the governor was going to speak, of course we showed up to hear the news too in November 1996. Little did I know what lay ahead for me in terms of my involvement with the discovery of this special wreck. Here we are now, some 20 years later, having spent thousands of hours working with the underwater archaeologists and conservators, and analyzing hundreds of artifacts, I find myself partnered with Mark, the former QAR director, authoring a book on this very topic, a book intended to share all we know about this ship and its contents and passengers with a global audience. In 1996 I could not have dreamed of all this.
MWR: When the salvage company Intersal announced the discovery of a shipwreck in Beaufort Inlet, the same place Queen Anne’s Revenge was lost, we began to imagine the impact it might have due to public reaction. Once the find was confirmed by state archaeologists, a flurry of discussion and planning, cloaked in secrecy, ensued. It wasn’t until six months later that the public announcement was made by North Carolina Governor James Hunt, which garnered widespread media reporting. The fanfare and public interest generated that day, nationally and internationally, continues unabated to our amazement and pleasure. It has driven us to write our book in order to bring an eager audience into our world of archaeological discoveries as we investigate the famed pirate’s ship, both on the seafloor and in the conservation laboratory.
GM: What do we now know about the notorious pirate captain Blackbeard that we did not know before?
LCM: I think our analysis of artifacts and research have provided us a revised image of Blackbeard that we did not previously focus on or fully understand. First, in the analysis and research of medical equipment found on the shipwreck and historical research into 18th medical practices of the sick and wounded, we gained a better understanding of period ailments, treatments and recipes, and who the doctors were. This in-depth study provided greater insight as to the surgeon’s responsibilities versus those of the ship’s captain, and who provided what, where, and when. We learned that Blackbeard specifically kidnapped or retained the French surgeon and his aides because he desperately needed their services for his crew. This finding, coupled with what we know about his blockade of Charleston Harbor to demand medical supplies, gave us new insight into this pirate captain’s thinking—that in order to continue this life of pirating he needed a healthy, functioning crew. While we might not go so far as to say he was compassionate about their care or the care of the slaves he retained, he clearly understood it from a business perspective.
GM: What does Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize offer readers that cannot be found elsewhere?
MWR: Queen Anne’s Revenge is an amazing and unique find given its rich history and ultimate discovery and excavation. As the 300th anniversary neared, the prospect of writing Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize was exciting, because while a vast amount of media coverage, popular and scholarly articles, and documentaries had covered nearly every aspect of the QAR project, there had not been a successful effort to bring the collective findings into a comprehensive, single read. We sought a writing style that combined a deeply researched and factually accurate text with an accessible narrative that shared stories of our work offshore and in the conservation lab alongside tales from the days of the pirates. The book is supplemented with fantastic, colorful images of the artifacts, the site, and historical imagery that heighten its appeal to a broad audience of many ages and many cultures. Concurrently, the book contains extensive endnotes to satisfy avocational and scholarly researchers.
GM: Which artifacts do each of you find the most intriguing?
LCM: As a historical archaeologist who specializes in material culture, I am most interested in those artifacts (or artifact categories) that relate directly to people, like their dishes and cookware, and personal gear like clothing items and adornment. In the lab, as I carefully handled each item, I had a constant thought that I was holding something 300 years old and previously touched or used by pirates, slaves or French captives. Additionally, I continue to be fascinated by the artifacts that reflect the state of science of that period, like the medical equipment and the items used for metrology (all types of measurements). Studying these items has increased my knowledge of 18th century material culture in so many ways. This was a period of great transition for European cultures—this early period was before The Great Enlightenment of the mid-1700s.
MWR: So many of the finds from this pirate ship came with a measure of intrigue. The shoe buckles engraved with initials “SB” could actually be those of the Gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet. The King George wine glass and the Queen Anne coin weight made me wonder how the rebellious pirates viewed royalty. The ship’s bell, dated 1705, could be an important clue to confirm the vessel’s date of construction, has eluded researchers. The urethral syringe for administering mercury to treat syphilis and the three enema clysters made me cringe. And while we are on the subject, the lead liner for officer’s toilet, i.e. Blackbeard’s head (nautical term for toilet), gave me a chuckle and when I handled it, brought me very close, perhaps too close indeed, to the pirate captain. Most intriguing in terms of public interest were the cannons, which met with sheer joy and amazement as massive artifacts were raised from the seabed and brought safely to shore where folks could lay eyes on them for the first time since the days of pirates 300 years ago.
Mark U. Wilde-Ramsing is the former deputy state archaeologist (underwater) of North Carolina and past director of the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project. Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton is the current program archaeologist and curator at Fort Bragg’s Cultural Resources Management Program. You can read their UNC Press blog post here.
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