Ahoy, lubber: Pirate Parley hoists sails

Published 12:43 am Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two historians — one from England, one from North Carolina — attempted to brush away some of history’s cobwebs Saturday by helping their audience peer into the lost graves of 18th-century pirates.

Well, metaphorically speaking.

An old salt calling himself “Dutch” helped defend the Belle of Washington from pirates Saturday during the first-ever Pirate Parley on the Pamlico. The Belle cruised from Bath to Washington as part of the event. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

E.T. Fox, a historian from Devon, England, and Raleigh researcher Kevin Duffus gave presentations at Washington’s Turnage Theater during the inaugural Pirate Parley on the Pamlico.

Fox is curator of the Golden Hind museum ship in England.

Duffus is a writer-historian and a strong proponent of the theory that remains unearthed at Bath’s Beasley Point area in the late 1980s were those of barrel-maker Edward Salter.

Salter purportedly was a member of the legendary pirate Blackbeard’s crew, and the evidence for Duffus’ case reportedly is mounting — but that’s a tale for another day.

Saturday’s symposium was set to incorporate a question-and-answer session with Fox and Duffus trading facts and theories about colonial-era pirates.

The parley was organized by members of the Blackbeard Adventure Alliance, a nonprofit group working to build a replica of Blackbeard’s sloop the Adventure.

In an advance interview Friday, Fox and Duffus offered previews of their programs, and Duffus promised to reveal new information based on very old records.

Duffus, author of “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate,” reached back in time to 1718, the last year of Blackbeard’s life.

History’s most famous pirate, Blackbeard, also known to millions as Edward Teach, was killed in a brief battle with Royal Navy seamen led by Lt. Robert Maynard.

Before that fateful battle on Nov. 22, 1718, Blackbeard and members of his crew delivered something to Bath — a treasure, perhaps.

Duffus believes he has discovered Blackbeard’s real treasure, dubious though that distinction may be in this case.

“I’ll go ahead and give away my secret, which is what I believe was the true treasure that Blackbeard and his crew delivered to Bath in the Pamlico region in the summer of 1718,” he said. “And that was slaves.”

After Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was wrecked at Beaufort Inlet in 1718, Blackbeard “very hurriedly” disbanded his 400-man company, marooning some and “dispatching” others, according to Duffus.

The remaining crewmen transferred the pirate company’s communal treasure onto a Spanish sloop they had captured off the cost of Cuba, he said.

They renamed this ship the Adventure.

Duffus cited a deposition given by a man named David Herriot, whose ship was taken by Blackbeard and his marauders.

Herriot was forced into service as a pirate, Duffus said.

Herriot’s deposition shows that when Blackbeard left the inlet wreck site he had 40 white crew members and 60 black crew members.

“Historians have waxed lyrically over the past few years about how racially diverse Blackbeard’s crew was,” Duffus said. “Imagine that six out of 10 of his crew members were black. Yet, six months later, when Blackbeard was killed at Ocracoke, the Royal Navy records indicate that he was in the presence or had with him six blacks. The question, of course, that comes to mind is what happened to the other 54 African slaves or former slaves?”

Duffus theorizes the black crewmen left behind by Blackbeard were sold to planters in the Bath and Pamlico area.

He nodded to records pertaining to Tobias Knight, a colonial secretary and customs collector who lived at Bath. Suspected of collusion with Blackbeard and his men, Knight was tried for — but not convicted of — colluding with pirates.

In the course of this trial, the secretary admitted having purchased two slaves from one of Blackbeard’s crew, Duffus pointed out.

Another crewman, William Howard, was arrested in the Hampton Roads, Va., area in the company of two slaves, whom Howard said were taken piratically from two different ships, Duffus shared.

For his part, Fox said his talk at the Turnage would zero in on pirate myths and legends including the widely held, but perhaps mistaken, belief that pirates made people walk the plank.

Fox said there are some examples of pirates persuading people to walk the plank in the 1822-1829 period, more than a century after Blackbeard’s death.

There also is evidence mutineers forced people onto the plank in the middle of the 18th century, and this is probably the origin of the myth that pirates pushed people overboard as a matter of routine, he related.

“Kind of the big point that I’m trying to make is that by concentrating on the myths we’ve sort of overlooked a lot of the real history underneath and by sort of trying to … dispel the myths a lot of historians I think have gone too far the other way and have actually sort of created new myths in place of the old ones,” said Fox.

Fox doesn’t really mind the myths and legends perpetuated by generations of authors and Hollywood types. Works of popular culture help sustain people’s interest in pirates, he agreed.

“As long as we accept them as myths there’s nothing wrong with it,” Fox said.

And for both of these men, there still are many more of history’s cobwebs — real or imagined — to brush away.

“What we ought to do is forget all about the myths and not try to prove or disprove them but actually just kind of concentrate on research and researching the real history for its own sake,” Fox commented.