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Plunder disputes plague the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship

Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, inspired fear in the hearts of early 18th century mariners who dreaded the pirate crew’s plundering, but the vessel’s remains have become the linchpin of a hugely successful “heritage tourism” industry in coastal North Carolina. Recent lawsuits allege the state has reneged on agreements to share profits from the shipwreck with the salvors who discovered the infamous ship.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718, depicts the defeat of the infamous British marauder.

“It appears from where we are that they want it all now,” says John Masters, whose Florida-based company Intersal discovered Queen Anne’s Revenge in 1996 a mile-and-a-quarter off Fort Macon, which guards the inlet at Beaufort, North Carolina.

Masters says Intersal relinquished all rights to the wreck — the physical remains — and any artifacts from it to the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources so the state could pull the historical materials together in a swashbuckling Blackbeard exhibit, now the centerpiece of the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

In return, Intersal and Nautilus Productions, Intersal’s videographer for the salvage operation, were to get exclusive media and replica rights to the wreck, Masters says.

Intersal filed an $8 million suit July 27 in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh alleging breach of contract. The suit says the state hired an independent media company to do work related to Queen Anne’s Revenge and released 2,000 digital images and 200 minutes of video to websites without the watermark, time code stamp or links to the Nautilus website required in the agreement.

Masters says the salvage company hasn’t made a cent from the Queen Anne’s Revenge salvage, though it discovered the wreck 19 years ago and has helped raise it during an operation that is ongoing.

A second suit, filed Dec. 1 by Nautilus in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, alleges the state infringed on Nautilus’ copyrights by using company photographs and videography in violation of its agreement with Intersal. The suit also challenges a North Carolina law adopted in August — after Intersal filed its breach-of-contract suit — claiming as public record all photographs, video recordings or other documentary materials of shipwrecks or their contents that are in the custody of the state.

And, it says, any provision in any agreement, permit or license limiting the use of those materials “shall be void and unenforceable as a matter of public policy.” The suit challenges this new law as “invalid, unconstitutional and unenforceable,” in part because the state is infringing on federal powers to regulate and enforce copyrights.

North Carolina, in its response to the Intersal suit, denies it has infringed Intersal’s intellectual property rights or breached the contract, but also says that even if it has breached the contract the salvor and its videographer have no grounds to stand on now because their claim to exclusive media rights are invalidated by the state’s new “public policy.”

It takes months to clean and conserve the artifacts for display.

This law, which has become known as “Blackbeard’s Law,” does seem to indicate a change [in state policy],” Masters says. “A big change.”

The Blackbeard exhibit opened June 11, 2011, at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort with about 300 artifacts recovered from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which lay in the sand in about 25 feet of water. Focused on the historical Blackbeard, the exhibit generated a lot of fanfare, with one account describing the pirate this way: “He wore guns across his chest, a cutlass in his belt and a dagger in his boot. And then there was that beard, which covered much of his face. He would tie slow-burning matches or hemp to the ends and under his hat, making smoke billow around his face.” Blackbeard was a master of psychology who cultivated a notorious reputation among mariners of his day, but his deeds were far less fearsome than his appearance.

Opening day of the Blackbeard exhibit was brutally hot. “The air conditioning was on the fritz,” recalls David Moore, the museum’s nautical archaeology curator. Only three of eight units were working, yet visitors queued up gamely in a line that snaked around the museum. “People didn’t complain,” he says. “We had big buckets of bottled water for them.” Three thousand visited the exhibit over the first two days, Moore says.

The museum doesn’t charge admission, but the Blackbeard exhibit has become the centerpiece of coastal North Carolina’s burgeoning and lucrative “heritage tourism” industry. The exhibit includes gold dust, tools, pewter plates, medical syringes, two cannons, a vial of 300-year-old gunpowder and remnants of the wreck’s frames, planking, stem post and stem knee. It draws about 225,000 visitors annually.

The Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab in Greenville, North Carolina, where technicians conserve the wreck’s artifacts, opens its doors for behind-the-scenes tours, and a traveling exhibit takes the artifacts and Blackbeard history around the state and to South Carolina, where Blackbeard famously blockaded Charleston Harbor to get medical supplies., a tourism website, promotes a four-day itinerary highlighting Blackbeard tourist attractions: the museum in Beaufort; Bath, North Carolina, Blackbeard’s final home; Ocracoke Island, where on Nov. 22, 1718, Blackbeard and a number of his crew died in a battle with an armed contingent led by Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard; and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, where there are exhibits about ships lost to storms, shoals and pirates off the Outer Banks.

The state has volumes of information about Queen Anne’s Revenge on the Web — on its Queen Anne’s Revenge website, on Facebook. “The number of hits continues to grow,” Moore says. The public’s fascination with Blackbeard, Queen Anne’s Revenge and the whole subject of piracy is reflected in the flood of requests he gets from students — in grade school, high school and college — for interviews about the museum exhibit. He says the Blackbeard phenomenon isn’t just about earning tourism dollars. It’s also about educating people about the history, economics, sociology and technology of early 18th century piracy, and artifact conservation.

Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been recovered, including cannons and anchors.

Historians believe that in June 1718 Queen Anne’s Revenge — formerly the French slave ship La Concorde, a large pirate ship with 40 cannons — went aground on a sandbar in the company of three other ships while attempting to enter Beaufort Inlet. One of the other pirate ships, Adventure, also went aground. David Herriot, Adventure’s captain, claimed in a deposition that Blackbeard intentionally grounded the two pirate ships to break up the crew, which had grown to more than 300 pirates. Whether or not the grounding was intentional, Blackbeard abandoned the ship and left Beaufort with a hand-picked crew and most of the valuable plunder, Moore says in a 1997 paper.

After Intersal discovered the Queen Anne’s Revenge in 1996, the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources decided to authorize its excavation, first because of its location close to shore but also because the wreck and its contents were concentrated in “one big pile of concretion,” Moore says. One-tenth of the site was sitting 3 feet off the bottom; the rest was buried in a foot to 18 inches of sand. It would be easy to raise. Then he and others were worried that hurricane activity would scatter the wreck and its contents if they were left in place. And, lastly, though the DNR wouldn’t officially decide the wreck was Blackbeard’s flagship until 2013, Moore believed it was from the get-go, and that made it historically significant and potentially a big draw for North Carolina.

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“We feel fairly strongly that she is French and that she served in Queen Anne’s War [1701-1714] as a privateer,” Moore says. After the war, its owners impressed the ship, then named La Concorde, into the slave trade. She made 2½ trips as a slave ship. Halfway through the third voyage, in the fall of 1717 and just 100 miles from Martinique, Blackbeard and his two ships engaged the La Concorde. According to historical accounts, one of the pirate ships carried 120 men and 12 cannons, the other 30 men and eight cannons. The French crew, having already lost 16 members and with another 36 seriously ill from scurvy and dysentery, could hardly put up a fight. The pirates fired two volleys at the slave ship, and its captain surrendered.

La Concorde’s cabin boy and three crewmembers joined the pirates; a pilot, three surgeons, two carpenters, two sailors and the cook were forced into Blackbeard’s service. Blackbeard relinquished the smaller of his two ships and put the rest of the French crew and the slaves on it and let them continue on their voyage.

Renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge, La Concorde and her pirate crew made a name for her captain plundering ships in the Caribbean. Leaving there for England’s Atlantic colonies in spring 1718, Queen Anne’s Revenge blockaded Charleston Harbor for nearly a week, her crew seizing several ships and holding their crew and passengers hostage for a ransom of a chest of medicines. Continuing up the coast, Queen Anne’s Revenge and one of Blackbeard’s other ships ran aground while entering what was then known as Topsail Inlet at Beaufort.

Moore says the excavation of the site and recovery of the wreck and its artifacts have gone slowly — 19 years — because weather often doesn’t cooperate and state funding has been in short supply. Also, conservation of the artifacts is a “long, laborious process,” so the museum displays have grown slowly. “For every month spent on site, we spend another 12 months cleaning the material, breaking down chemical concretions to get to the artifacts embedded inside, then conserving them,” Moore says. In some instances, the metals inside have oxidized to the point that conservators use the void in the concretion left by the artifact to make a mold, which they fill with epoxy to create a replica of the piece.

Moore estimates that the archaeologists have raised 300,000 to 400,000 pieces, including an estimated 250,000 pieces of lead shot, cannonballs, 23 cannons, spikes and barrel hoops, with a third of the wreck site yet to be excavated. He hopes to finish the excavation by 2018, in time for the 300th anniversary of the grounding of Queen Anne’s Revenge and Blackbeard’s death. He’s hoping to dive on the wreck for five months at a time for each of the next two years and, with all the new artifacts, open a new building at the maritime museum dedicated exclusively to the Queen Anne’s Revenge exhibit, plus about 10 percent of materials from other wrecks around the state.

Meanwhile, Masters and Intersal are pressing their suit for a bigger share of the financial return on the Queen Anne’s Revenge excavation. They also are fighting North Carolina for renewal of a permit to search for and salvage the remains of the Spanish ship El Salvador, which is believed to have gone down between Topsail Inlet and Cape Lookout in a hurricane in August 1750. The ship reportedly was carrying four chests of gold coins and 16 chests of silver coins belonging to the Spanish Royal Treasury, and 50,000 pesos in commercial funds.

A Blackbeard exhibit is the centerpiece of the North Carolina Maritime Museum and the state’s “heritage tourism” industry.

Masters says that in its initial agreement with the state, in 1998, giving North Carolina all rights to the Blackbeard artifacts, it recognized Intersal’s permit to salvage the El Salvador wreck — which it hasn’t found yet — and a 75-25-percent split in any treasure raised, with Intersal getting the lion’s share. That permit is now in jeopardy. On Nov. 11, the DNR notified Masters that it intends to terminate it.

About the same time, Intersal received a letter from James A. Goold, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, asserting that the treasure belongs to his client, Spain, and that the wreck and treasure are military in character and immune from salvage under international law. This “mandates termination of the Intersal permit,” the letter says.

Spain’s claims to “sovereign immunity” for her treasure-carrying ships have been upheld in salvage cases involving La Galga, which went aground on Assateague Island, Virginia, while serving as a military escort of the 1750 fleet, and the Mercedes, a Spanish ship that was sunk in an 1804 naval battle off Gibraltar while carrying 17 tons of coins.

Masters maintains that Intersal has a contract with the state of North Carolina giving it media and replica rights to the Queen Anne’s Revenge and a permit to salvage El Salvador.

“They’re claiming those parts of the contract are no longer valid,” Masters says. “This is disheartening. … Intersal believes it has done everything right and followed the law, and NCDNR has not. We look forward to going before a North Carolina judge and giving our side of the story. We believe we’ll do OK.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.