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History's buccaneers: bad guys or bad rap?

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 2005


Mark Wilde-Ramsing may be ashore in his office, but his thoughts are often on a patch of water that's displayed on his computer screen via a live feed from a tower-mounted zoom camera.

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On the surface, the picture is not much to look at: a marker buoy being tossed about by whitecaps on the angry brown waters of North Carolina's Beaufort Inlet. But 30 feet down lie the remains of a 17th-century vessel that experts say once belonged to the notorious pirate Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard.

Since its discovery in 1996, Shipwreck Site 0003BUI has drawn journalists, television crews, and thousands of curious tourists and pirate enthusiasts to this subdued port and resort town on the central Carolina coast. The wreck's location, size, age, and contents seem to match what is known about Queen Anne's Revenge, the 40-gun pirate ship that Blackbeard ran aground here in November 1717.

"I tell you, I just can't believe people's level of interest in pirates," says Mr. Wilde-Ramsing, an underwater archaeologist who is managing the careful excavation of the site for the state of North Carolina. "It's like dinosaurs, Robin Hood, or the Wild West: People really want to know about this stuff."

In recent years, experts have been able to piece together a far clearer picture of Blackbeard, "Black Sam" Bellamy, Bartholomew Roberts, and other participants in the so-called "Golden Age" of piracy in the early 18th century. Driven in part by the discovery of pirate wrecks along the US Atlantic seaboard, historians and archaeologists have combed British archives, colonial legal records, French logbooks, and even the the sea floor itself, searching for clues about these elusive outlaws, who captured the imagination of their contemporaries and never let it go.

Pirates, the new argument goes, got a bad rap in many ways. The popular image of pirates as a gang of sadistic monsters led by a despotic, possibly deranged captain is largely a product of an early 18th-century propaganda campaign against them, says historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh.

"The authorities at the time were not only trying to capture and kill the pirates, they were also trying to delegitimize them in the eyes of common people who didn't necessarily see them as killers," says Mr. Rediker, author of "Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age." The book cites numerous references to the pirates' popularity in the letters of frustrated officials from Jamaica to Boston.

At a time when the British Empire restricted trade in the colonies, pirates were a source of cheap goods and tidy profits for merchants and others who sold them supplies. But pirates were also heroes in the eyes of many sailors, indentured servants, and others who saw them as rebels against tyrannical merchant captains, plantation owners, and government officials. "This particular phase of piracy was more of a maritime revolt than simple crime," notes Kenneth Kinkor, research director of Expedition Whydah, the Provincetown, Mass., group excavating Sam Bellamy's wreck. "There was a level of democracy and tolerance aboard pirate vessels that was very difficult to find anywhere in the Western world at that time."

The early 18th century, Mr. Kinkor notes, was a time of growing centralization of economic and political control, with a rising gap between rich and poor, and when working conditions on sugar plantations, tobacco farms, and merchant and naval ships had become more exploitative than in the past.

Pirates, by contrast, ran their ships democratically, voting their captains in and out of power, making important decisions collectively, providing benefits to injured crew, and sharing food and loot equally. Aboard Bellamy's ship, Whydah, which was wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod in a 1717 storm, Kinkor's colleagues found 100 pieces of African gold jewelry that had been broken up to divide among the crew.