Mystery solved about coal on Blackbeard’s ship

Mystery solved about coal on Blackbeard’s ship

Blackbeard was a notorious pirate in the early 18th century. © Gwengoat/ iStock

In 1718, the flagship of the famous pirate Blackbeard ran aground and sank off the coast of North Carolina. When divers examined the wreck of the “Queen Anne’s Revenge” in 1996, they discovered an unusual amount of coal scattered throughout the ship. Analyzes are now clarifying where this coal came from: it was not part of the pirate ship’s cargo, but only got into the sea through coal transports in the 19th century and collected on the much older wreck.

The notorious pirate Blackbeard was actually called Edward Teach or Thatch and was born around 1680 in England. After being involved in privateering trips for the English crown for some time, the buccaneer became self-employed and joined pirates in the Caribbean. In 1717 they captured a French slave ship, renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and made the flagship under Blackbeard’s command. For about a year, Blackbeard and his crew made the American coast and the Caribbean unsafe with this ship. In May 1718, Blackbeard led a blockade of Charleston harbor which he only ended after a ransom was paid.

Where did the coal in the wreck come from?

The Queen Anne’s Revenge’s story ended shortly thereafter, however: the flagship Blackbeards ran aground and sank while attempting to reach the port of Beaufort, North Carolina. The wreck of the ship was only rediscovered in 1996 and has been examined again and again by underwater archaeologists since then. Among the objects found in the wreck, apart from the ship’s cannons and other equipment, are grains of gold, glass beads and – strangely enough – hundreds of pieces of coal. These were scattered throughout the shipwreck. Since the Queen Anne’s Revenge was a sailing ship, this fuel could not have been used to propel the pirate ship.

“There are reasons why sailing ships had coal on board back then,” explains James Hower of the University of Kentucky. Coal was used, among other things, to prepare meals or for heating on board. However, the large amount of coal found in the shipwreck was very unusual in this context. “So we wanted to know where that coal might have come from in the wreck, because there wasn’t much large-scale coal mining in America in that era,” Hower explains. “We therefore had to find out whether the coal actually came from the ship.”

Anthracite coal raises questions

Hower and his team therefore examined four samples of the coal pieces recovered from the seabed. The chemical analyzes showed that the coal samples differed significantly in their nature and composition. Some samples were bituminous coal with 87 to 90 percent carbon content and low volatile content. Other samples, on the other hand, were the much harder, more compact anthracite coal, which consists of more than 90 percent carbon, as the researchers report.

But that raises a few questions: “Coal with few volatile components can be found in Virginia, among other places,” explains Hower. “This charcoal was good for cooking and was later used on steamboats because it emits little smoke when burned.” The higher quality anthracite charcoal, on the other hand, is much rarer and is only found in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania in the USA. “In the 19th and 20th centuries, the simplest explanation for both types of lumps of coal would be coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains. But in Blackbeard’s time, these quarries didn’t exist,” explains Hower. European settlers did not discover these deposits of anthracite coal until the late 1760s. At the time of the pirate, anthracite coal was primarily mined in Europe.

Coal was never on Blackbeard’s ship

But how did the anthracite coal get into the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship? As Hower explains, the solution to the riddle is amazingly simple: the coal was never on the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Instead, the discovery of these lumps of coal in the wreck is mere coincidence: the shipwreck lies near a port that was an important supply station for steamships during the American Civil War. Large supplies of coal for the Confederate fleet were stored at Beaufort beginning in April 1862. Between 1862 and 1864 more than 450 ships called at the port to load fuel.

“So the coal on the wreck probably came from Civil War-era ships,” says Hower. When coal was loaded and cargo that fell overboard, plenty of coal ended up in the flat sea area, which was characterized by strong currents. Over time, these lumps of coal were displaced and accumulated at natural obstructions on the seabed, including the much older wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. “This coal was therefore definitely used – but it wasn’t Blackbeard, it was the US Navy,” says the researcher.

Source: University of Kentucky; Article: International Journal of Nautical Archeology, doi: 10.1080/10572414.2022.2101775

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