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Solved: Blackbeard’s shipwreck coal mystery

Blackbeard - but why all that coal?
Blackbeard - but why all that coal?

What use would an 18th-century pirate frigate have for coal, long before the age of steam? The reason so much of it lies scattered around Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, had long eluded archaeological divers excavating the North Carolina shipwreck – but close analysis of those lumps has now offered a simple solution.

Queen Anne’s Revenge started life as a British merchant ship before being captured by the French for use as a slave-trader. After being captured again by pirates in 1717 it was renamed by their leader Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. With up to 400 crew he sailed the Caribbean and America’s Atlantic coast for about a year in the ship, amassing much treasure that has yet to be discovered.

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His reign of terror ended when the vessel struck a sandbar while trying to enter what is now Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina. The wreck was not discovered until 1996, lying in only 8.5m of water about a mile off Atlantic Beach.

Since then about half of it has been excavated with some 300,000 items recovered, from cannon and other weapons to gold grains, mercury and glass trade beads – and those hundreds of puzzling pieces of coal scattered evenly around the site.

Coal-mining had yet to get underway in the New World 300 years ago. Coal was sometimes used as cooking or heating fuel on sailing ships, but no evidence had been found of such usage on Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Coal samples

It was US coal expert Dr James Hower, who works at the University of Kentucky, who examined four samples of the coal and, with colleagues from North Carolina and Kentucky, has now published a paper on their findings. 

“We first needed to put together the entire picture of the Queen Anne’s Revenge to discern whether the coal belonged to the ship – which it most likely did not,” said Hower, who is also a research professor at the UK’s Centre for Applied Energy Research. In CAER’s Applied Petrology Laboratory he ranked the coal samples by carbon content and heat energy produced.

They varied widely, from low volatile bituminous coal (87-90% carbon), generally found in Virginia and relatively smokeless, to anthracites and meta-anthracites (above 90% carbon) from Pennsylvania but not commonly found in America in the 18th century.

Both types were mined in the Appalachians but not before the 19th century, so at the time of the sinking such coal would only likely have originated in Ireland or Portugal.

Golf-balls too

“It turns out we didn’t need to sort out the source, because the happenstance of the shipwreck and the coal was totally a coincidence,” said Hower. “It was most likely dumped from US Navy ships in the Civil War era.”

The shipwreck lies near Beaufort, North Carolina, which until 1865 had been a harbour and a coal-refuelling station for shipping during the Civil War, especially during the Union’s blockade of the Confederate port of Wilmington. Between 1862 and 1864, 421 vessels made nearly 500 trips into Beaufort to take on coal.

The inlets and sand shoals along North Carolina’s Outer Banks have often shifted over the years through the action of waves, tidal currents, tropical storms and hurricanes – which explains why anachronistic items such as 19th-century glass and ceramic artefacts, 20th-century coins, soda bottles and even golf-balls have been found on the Queen Anne’s Revenge

It turns out that the Civil War steamship coal must have been deposited on Blackbeard’s frigate in the same way. “This research demonstrates that our studies of coal are not just for utilisation,” said Hower. “We can do something that teaches us about our history, and not just mining history.

“One way or another, somebody used this coal. It wasn’t Blackbeard – but it was the US Navy.” The study is published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

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