Pirate Invasion in Bath

Jul 11, 2014

Bath is celebrating its pirate heritage this weekend with its “There Be Pirates in the Port” event, featuring a historical re-enactment of the report of Blackbeard’s death and two lectures examining the life of Blackbeard and other pirates. 

For better or worse, piracy is an important part of colonial North Carolina’s history. The notorious pirate who operated out of Bath, Blackbeard, is too, and the town he may have called home is proud to honor his legacy with tomorrow’s/today’s presentations. The legendary sea dog has become an increasingly popular figure over the years, serving as one of the definitive examples of a pirate. Bath Historical Society site manager Leigh Swain says Blackbeard is also a tremendous contributor to Bath’s heritage.

“Whether or not he was here his entire life, whether or not he was here just a few months; the importance of Blackbeard is a strong story for us.”

Though he might not’ve been quite the celebrity he is today, Swain says there’s evidence to suggest that Blackbeard attracted some kind of affection from the people of Bath, especially when you consider the possibility that Blackbeard was a Bath native.

“He did supposedly marry a local girl, so they had to be appreciating him on some level. He would’ve been bringing in cheap goods, letting them have items they were not normally able to get in such a small, little village as Bath, so that could’ve paved the way for his popularity. If he was one of Bath’s own, the son of James Beard, then they certainly would’ve loved their own pirate.”

Despite Blackbeard’s historical prominence, historians know surprisingly little about his true identity. Take his date of birth, for instance. According to author and film producer Kevin Duffus, the commonly held belief that he was born sometime around 1680 has almost no factual basis.

“I researched the source of that information and discovered that it was first written by a former law professor at Wake Forest University in a 1974 book. He based his estimation of Blackbeard’s age at the time of his death on pictures that had been made of Blackbeard about ten years after he was killed, and these pictures were drawn by artists who had never seen Blackbeard.”

Duffus will present his lecture, “What’s Wrong with Blackbeard,” tomorrow/this afternoon at 2:00 PM, where he re-examines and debunks much of the lore surrounding the pirate. Of particular salience is his proposition that Blackbeard actually began his career in Bath.

“This evidence is really based on the identity and existence of a black man who became famous as one of Blackbeard’s most trusted allies. I have been able to prove his presence in Bath in 1716, two years before the Queen Anne’s return. I don’t think that they left Bath thinking they were going to become pirates, but two years later they did, in fact, come back as pirates.”

While historians might still be trying to puzzle out Blackbeard’s background, his exploits on the High Seas are significantly better documented. Those exploits may not match our modern day preconceptions of a pirate’s life, however. Charles Ewen, an anthropology professor at ECU, will expound upon the less-than-glamorous realities of piracy in his lecture, “X Marks the Spot: the Archeology of Piracy.” Based on various archeological discoveries, he’s concluded that, ultimately, pirates weren’t all that different from the sailors they preyed upon.

“I don’t think you’d be able to tell just by looking at them. You might be able to tell an ordinary seaman from a pirate in that an ordinary pirate crew member might have nicer clothes or some other stuff that your ordinary seaman wouldn’t, because they’d stolen it. We’ve really looked at a lot of the artifacts from pirate ships versus commercial vessels and naval vessels, and it’s difficult to really say ‘Ooh, well that just jumps right out at you!’”

Aside from a more liberal chain of command and, of course, the raiding, pirate ships didn’t operate that differently from other, more lawful vessels either.

 “Pirate ships, the two that we really looked at, went down with their cannons loaded. And this was something that the navy certainly didn’t do routinely, or merchants vessels, who usually didn’t have a lot of guns, and to sail around with cannons that were loaded at all times meant that you were ready for action, so that might be something. There might be some tell-tale signs, but, honestly, there wasn’t that big a difference.”

The pirate captains themselves were more distinct, at least. According to Ewen, there was no such thing as a typical pirate captain. Each one used different methods and maintained different images, from the gentlemanly Steve Bonnet to the fearsome, fiery Blackbeard himself.

For an even more in-depth exploration of the character of Blackbeard and piracy in general, you can attend the lectures presented by Kevin Duffus and Charles Ewen.  Duffus’ presentation is made possible by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and will take place at 1:00 P.M. at the Bath State Historic Site on Saturday/today. Ewen’s presentation will take place on the site at two. The lectures and re-enactment are free and open to the public, with seating on a first come, first serve basis. For Public Radio East, I’m Lee Jenkins.