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The Background of Blackbeard the Pirate’s Flagship Vessel

The Background of Blackbeard the Pirate’s Flagship Vessel

Photo: History.com

The waters off the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina have claimed the lives of thousands of ships throughout the past several centuries. However, few vessels that have met their fate in their shoals along the Graveyard of the Atlantic are as well-known as the one sailed by a pirate named Edward Teach—better known as Blackbeard—in the early 1700s. In true pirate fashion, Blackbeard commandeered the merchant vessel—which he renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge—then overtook its crew and outfitted the ship with a series of armaments he would need to wreak havoc on the high seas and earn his title as one of the most notorious pirates who has ever lived.

Photo: Trip Advisor

Although Blackbeard—who was seen as a menace by merchants and a threat to the supplies sailing in and out of area ports—was killed by a lieutenant in the Royal Navy in 1718, the whereabouts of his infamous vessel remained a mystery for hundreds of years, until it was discovered at the bottom of the ocean in 1996. The flagship of Blackbeard’s small fleet of ships, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was a 200-ton frigate built in Rochefort, France. Originally named La Concorde, the ship was owned by Rene Montaudoin—a prominent French merchant who ran a slave-trafficking company—and used primarily for slave-trading operations. According to the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project, the ship operated out of a port in western France called Nantes, which was situated at the mouth of the Loire River and became the heart of the French slave trade during the 18th century.

Photo: Leah Marie Brown Historicals

From 1713 to 1717, La Concorde made three journeys. Each trip, the vessel was stocked with trade goods at the port of Nantes during the spring, and then it sailed south to the west coast of Africa, where its captain was responsible for purchasing enslaved Africans who would be kept as “cargo.” La Concorde would then set sail from the shores of Africa and head to the New World—a transatlantic voyage that typically took up to two months. The 500-plus slaves transported as human cargo during each trip were typically taken to islands in the Lesser Antilles, where they were sold as laborers to work in the sugar cane fields. Once the enslaved Africans were taken off La Concorde, the ship was loaded with new cargo—often sugar from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe—before it set off en route to France once again.

Photo: Replica of the Queen Anne’s Revenge pirate flag

During La Concorde’s third and final voyage transporting slaves from Africa to these island nations, the vessel was sailing through the shipping lanes of the Caribbean—an area known for the presence of pirates who would commandeer the ships and ruthlessly pillage any trade goods they found onboard. On November 28, 1717, La Concorde was captured by Blackbeard and his pirate crew as the ship was sailing near the island of Martinique. Blackbeard quickly converted the former merchant vessel into a ship better suited for acts of piracy, mounting 40 guns on the 103-foot-long frigate and renaming her the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Photo: PirateShipVallarta.com

Blackbeard and his crew of 300-plus men—including some who had worked aboard La Concorde before it was plundered—continued to sail back and forth between Africa and the islands of the Caribbean, attacking merchant ship after merchant ship along the way. Eventually, his flotilla made its way up the Eastern Seaboard to South Carolina, where Blackbeard famously blockaded the port of Charleston and looted virtually every vessel that sailed into or out of what was at that time one of the busiest ports in the southeastern United States. After successfully plundering dozens of ships in South Carolina, Blackbeard headed up the coast toward the Outer Banks, where he would frequently anchor the Queen Anne’s Revenge in the waters of Ocracoke Inlet—a high-traffic waterway that vessels making their way from the open ocean to mainland settlements along the Pamlico Sound frequently passed through.

Photo: Daily Mail

However, during a voyage that took his flotilla of pirate ships farther south, toward the Shackleford Banks on June 10, 1718, Blackbeard ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground on a sandbar near Beaufort Inlet. Supplies and stolen goods from other vessels were quickly transferred from his flagship to a smaller vessel in his flotilla, and Blackbeard and his crew escaped the ordeal. The damaged Queen Anne’s Revenge, however, was left stranded on the sandbar, where it eventually was claimed by the shifting shoals and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo: Queen Anne’s Revenge Project

The notorious 18th century pirate was later killed in combat on November 22, 1718, when he and his crew were the recipients of a surprise attack by British sailors who sought to put an end to piracy. For centuries, the exact whereabouts of his sunken flagship were unknown—that is until a marine archaeology team found what they believed to be the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge on November 21, 1996. Strewn along the seafloor, the team discovered several 18th century artifacts, including anchors and cannons. In 2004, the site where the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of the artifacts were transported to a conservation lab in Greenville, North Carolina, where visitors can view these pieces of piracy up close and personal during a tour of the facility.

*Stay tuned for our upcoming blog about the discovery of the Queen Anne’s Revenge off the coast of North Carolina as well as the numerous centuries-old artifacts that were found within the wreckage of Blackbeard the pirate’s famous flagship.

The Mirlo Rescue on Hatteras Island

Nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the coastline of the Outer Banks of North Carolina is sprinkled with thousands of shipwrecks that lie just offshore from Carova to Ocracoke Island. While many of the vessels that sank to the bottom of the sea ran aground in storms during the 17th and 18th centuries, others—such as a tanker called the Mirlo—were the victim of attacks as recently as World War I.  

Chicamacomico Historic Site & Museum / Photo: Scenic USA

A British tanker that weighed 6,667 tons and had a crew of 51 members, the Mirlo was carrying a cargo load of gasoline and oil from a port in New Orleans, Louisiana, to New York Harbor in August 1918. As the ship emerged from the Gulf of Mexico, rounded the Florida Keys and began making its way up the coast of the Eastern Seaboard, it became increasing exposed to the threat of enemy German submarines that had invaded U.S. shipping lanes during that spring and summer. Several ships were sunk by mines laid and torpedoes launched from the U-boats, putting Captain John Allen Midgett and his crew of surfmen at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station on Hatteras Island on guard should any ships be sunk off the Outer Banks. 

Photo: NCGenWeb.us

Located in the village of Rodanthe, toward the northern end of Hatteras Island, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station was commissioned on Dec. 4, 1874, and home to the first shore-based rescue responders in the state of North Carolina. In the early afternoon on Aug. 16, 1918, the Mirlo struck a mine dropped by German U-boat 117 off Wimble Shoals, resulting in a series of explosions that destroyed the engine room and caused the cargo load of gasoline the ship was carrying to erupt into flames. Realizing that the boat was not salvageable, the captain ordered his crew to board the Mirlo’s three lifeboats and evacuate the sinking ship.

Photo: TripAdvisor
Photo: NPS.gov

The first lifeboat to leave the Mirlo capsized in the Atlantic Ocean, tossing all 16 of its passengers into the sea. When a third explosion erupted on the nearby Mirlo, all but six of the sailors who clung to the capsized lifeboat perished in the seas that were still rough from a recent storm. A second lifeboat contained 19 passengers and drifted helplessly amid the fiery gasoline-soaked seas while a third lifeboat, which carried 16 crewmen and the captain of the Mirlo, was able to clear the flaming wreckage and head toward the coastline of the Outer Banks.

The rescue that ensued has since been deemed one of the most dramatic rescues in maritime history. A Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station lookout named Leroy Midgett was in his post when the Mirlo first exploded and notified Captain John Allen Midgett Jr. of the attack. The alarm was sounded, and the crew raced to the stables to harness the team of horses, rode to the station and readied the McLellen Boat wagon that carried the rescue boat: Surfboat No. 1046. The crew put the surfboat into the ocean and fought their way through strong offshore winds and crashing waves with heights up to 20 feet to attempt to reach the crew members of the Mirlo who were stranded in lifeboats off the coast.

Photo: OuterBanks.com

The huge breakers overwashing the surfboat ultimately flooded the small vessel before it could reach the crew of the shipwrecked Mirlo, forcing it to return to the shore to be drained. Two relaunches were attempted, but the breaking waves were too large and too strong, and the surfmen from the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station were unable to get the surfboat past the breakers. The rescue crew tried a fourth launch, which was ultimately successful, allowing the boat to clear the rough waves and make it through the surf into the open waters where the Mirlo crew was stranded near the burning wreckage of the tanker approximately five miles off the coast of Rodanthe.

The Chicamacomico rescue crew reportedly first encountered the lifeboat that contained the Mirlo’s captain, who instructed the rescuers to bypass their boat and search instead for the survivors of the boat that had capsized after the explosion. Pushing through flames that shot 100 feet in the air from exploding barrels of gasoline that had been aboard the Mirlo, the rescue crew pressed on until they reached the capsized lifeboat—and found a handful of survivors clinging to the overturn boat in the smoke and rough seas. According to accounts by the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, the six surviving men were exhausted from the ordeal and coated in oil. The Chicamacomico rescue crew pulled the sailors from the sea and continued their search for any remaining survivors in the other lifeboat.

Captain John Allen Midgett Jr.

Once the lifeboat was spotted, the rescue crew realized that the vessel was extremely overloaded, leaving it so crowded that the men aboard could not move enough to row it toward the shore. Instead, it was drifting out to sea. The Chicamacomico crew pulled their surfboat alongside the lifeboat, tossing a line aboard so the lifeboat could be towed to safety. The crew then headed back to the spot where they had encountered the Mirlo captain’s lifeboat and been instructed to move on to save those in more immediate danger and provided a tow for that lifeboat as well.

As darkness fell on the coast of the Outer Banks, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station rescue crew towed the two lifeboats toward Hatteras Island, ultimately saving the lives of 36 sailors from the sunken Mirlo tanker. Later that fall, on Nov. 8, 1921, Captain Midgett and his crew of surfmen were awarded gold lifesaving medals for “gallantry and humanity in saving life at sea” by the British government for their incredible efforts to save the lives of dozens of sailors who were aboard the Mirlo when it was destroyed by German forces. Today, surfboat No. 1046 and an assortment of photos, artifacts and replica equipment can be viewed at the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Historic Site and Museum in Rodanthe.

 

 

Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Part 1

Characterized by converging currents and constantly shifting offshore shoals, the waters off the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina are commonly referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Despite the construction of navigational aids such as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton and the Bodie Island Lighthouse further north in South Nags Head, thousands of vessels have found themselves wrecked off the coastline of these barrier islands for centuries, resulting in a significant loss of lives and the destruction of both boats and the seafaring cargo they carried. While many of these ships have sunk to the bottom of the sea and can only been seen experienced divers—or, in some cases, from the sky above during an air tour of the shoreline—the remains of handful of Outer Banks shipwrecks can be spotted from the beach when the sand shifts just enough—or out in the surf when the tide is low enough to expose them.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest

Laura A. Barnes

The Laura A. Barnes was a four-masted wooden schooner that wrecked off the coast of Nags Head on a foggy night during a nor’easter on June 1, 1921. At 120 feet in length, the Laura A. Barnes was built in Camden, Maine, and was traveling from New York to South Carolina when she foundered in the dense fog. The Bodie Island Coast Guard successfully rescued the entire crew, but the ship wasn’t salvageable, so its wreckage was left sitting on the beach for several years. In 1973, as the Outer Banks became an increasingly popular vacation destination, the National Park Service moved the remains of the ship approximately one mile south, where it currently can be found near the Bodie Island Lighthouse at Coquina Beach. Unprotected from the elements, the wreckage has continued to deteriorate and break apart during hurricanes and other coastal weather systems; however, many large pieces of the ship can still be spotted in the sand dunes at this popular beach access along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Photo Courtesy of Fine Art America

Oriental

Farther south, off the coast of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island, the wreckage of the Oriental can be spotted in the surf by those walking along the beach. A steamship that served as a transport for Federal forces during the Civil War, the Oriental ran aground approximately three miles south of Oregon Inlet on Hatteras Island in 1862. The remains of the Oriental are often referred to as “The Boiler Wreck” because the ship’s smokestack can frequently be seen jutting out of the water just 100 yards offshore and resembles a boiler. Because the wreckage of the Oriental sits in shallow water that is only 15-20 feet in depth, this shipwreck is popular among snorkelers and divers alike. A wide array of large local fish now call this wreck their home, making it a prime spot for viewing underwater wildlife. To view the shipwrecked Oriental, park at the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge visitor center and head to the beach, as it’s easily visible from shore during good conditions, particularly at low tide. Or, grab a kayak or standup paddleboard and paddle out to sea to witness the wreck up close and personal.  

Photo: Nick Beltly

Pocahontas

Also located off the coast of Hatteras Island is the wreckage of the Pocahontas, a Civil War-era wooden paddle wheel steamer that sank on the shoals 75 feet offshore of Salvo more than 150 years ago. The wreck sits in about 15 feet of water half a mile north of Ramp 23 in Salvo, near the end of Sand Street. According to VisitOuterBanks.com, the steamer was lost during a storm on January 28, 1862, when gale-force winds rendered its boilers useless and caused the ship to wash ashore just before the battle of Roanoke Island. Although no lives were lost in the disaster, 90 of the 114 horses being transported onboard the vessel perished. The Pocahontas wreck is one of the most popular shipwrecks on the Outer Banks, as it’s easily visible from shore and serves as an excellent spot for diving. Surfers and paddleboarders have also been known to paddle out to the wreck—which, thanks to the presence of a large iron rod and portion of the paddle wheel that stick out of the ocean—makes it a one-of-a-kind location for a unique photo op.

Photo Courtesy of Eastern Surf Magazine

*Stay tuned for Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks: Part 2, coming soon!

 

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