Stuck in a shallow sandbar in North Carolina’s Beaufort Inlet, Blackbeard’s famous flagship remains a maritime time capsule, preserving a pirate’s life from nearly 300 years ago. Since the Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in the 1990s, archaeologists have recovered cannons and cannonballs, an anchor and other artifacts.
Archaeologists are now studying previously recovered medical instruments to paint a picture of a pirate who wanted to keep his crew in fine fighting form, which wasn’t so easy at sea.
“Because his passion for piracy, I think he cared very much about keeping it going, and to keep it going, he had to have a healthy, functioning crew,” Linda Carnes-McNaughton, an archaeologist and curator with the U.S. Department of Defense, told The Washington Post. She volunteers her time on the excavation project.
The medical supplies found on board suggest Blackbeard’s crew fought more than just gunfire. Indeed, his surgeons were treating trauma — bullet holes, burns and bloody surface wounds — but they were also treating everything from mild ailments to chronic illness. Most notably, Carnes-McNaughton said, they contended with syphilis, scurvy and the “bloody flux,” an old term for amoebic dysentery.
Carnes-McNaughton said she compared the underwater artifacts to historical records to unlock that time in history. She presented her research, conducted with researchers at the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, at the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual meeting earlier this month.
“I started pulling all this together because I wanted to put people back in the picture,” she said.
Among the more gruesome items was a urethral syringe — a device with a small angled nozzle used to inject mercury into the male urethra to treat syphilis. Carnes-McNaughton said mercury was thought to be a cure. Another item was a clyster pump used to administer medical enemas for “quick absorption,” she said.
There was also a brass mortar and pestle that the surgeons used to grind compounds and medicines, nesting weights that stack inside each other used for measuring medicine, a silver needle and some scissors. Carnes-McNaughton said archaeologists also recovered a tool that could have been used for bloodletting as well as brass-set screws perhaps used for tourniquets during major operations such as amputations.
Many of the medical instruments had a French maker’s mark on them, she said.
Edward Teach (or Thatch), better known as Blackbeard, captured the ship in the Caribbean Sea in the fall of 1717. It was a French slave ship called La Concorde de Nantes that sailed from Europe to Africa to the Americas. Blackbeard evicted the slaves and kept key members of the crew — a cook, a carpenter and three French surgeons. Carnes-McNaughton said the ship was easy to steal because many on board were either sick or dead.
“They were severely understaffed because of disease and death,” she said.
For many months, Blackbeard used the vessel to terrorize the East Coast, earning his reputation as one of the most ruthless pirates on the sea.
In 1718, the ship ran aground while attempting to enter Beaufort Inlet off the coast of North Carolina. That’s where the ship remains — in a shallow grave of murky, turbulent water about a mile from shore.
The shipwreck was discovered in 1996 by a private search team. Since then, numerous dives have recovered clues that historians are studying to find out who these men were, where they came from and how they fought to stay alive. The excavation project, led by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, is about 60 percent complete, Carnes-McNaughton said. Many recovered artifacts are on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
Archaeologists excavated the stern of the ship all the way up to the mid-section. They are now moving toward the bow. Carnes-McNaughton said she suspects they will find more medical equipment there, which she hopes will shed more light on Blackbeard and his crew.
“I think that Blackbeard’s reign of terror truly outlives him,” she said. “As we study these artifacts, we’re learning more about the crew on the ship, the passengers on the ship, the slaves on the ship. We’re learning more about that moment in history. The sinking of the ship sort of encapsulates that moment in time.”