OCRACOKE ISLAND, N.C. -- When boarding a ship, he burned cannon wicks in his hair, scaring victims into thinking he'd come from Hell. He shot his own sailmaster in the knee to discourage mutiny and commanded a pirate navy bold enough to blockade a whole city.
Yet Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard, has never been more popular on the Crystal Coast and Outer Banks of North Carolina. His personal flag, a demon with hourglass and a spear piercing a crimson heart, flutters from many homes and shops. Blackbeard is big business here, from his one-time home at Bath, to Beaufort Inlet where his Queen Anne's Revenge is now being salvaged, to Ocracoke, where he met a violent end. There is everything from a beer to a rock band named for the world's most famous pirate, whose glory days covered 1717-18.
Tourists will come to fish or surf the blue Atlantic, stroll the sandy white beaches, explore lighthouses or see wild horses cross green marshes at low tide. But they're just as keen to hear about when this part of the Carolinas ran red with buccaneer blood.
There are too many gaps in early American annals to verify the whole Blackbeard saga, though you get the vital parts while hop scotching north up the Banks by car, ferry and later by pedal, kayak or foot.
Blackbeard regained fame this year through veteran rogue Ian McShane in the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie. But with no sign of those mermaids and zombies with whom he consorted, we looked up local Blackbeard expert Kevin Duffus. He's dug into pirate lore here and in Blackbeard's birthplace in Bristol, England. Gazing at the watercraft bobbing on the Pamlico River at Bath, the state's first capital, Duffus noted that Hollywood keeps making his job harder.
"Through the years, it's been legend built upon legend," Duffus said. "We know that not all pirates were killers, that Blackbeard was at one time in the service of the Royal Navy and he used mostly psychological warfare."
Not to say Blackbeard wasn't influential in American history. Today, he'd be a cross between Donald Trump and Tony Soprano and might even be a bad-boy politician. Next stop is Beaufort, at the North Carolina Maritime Museum's new Queen Anne's Revenge exhibit. Two miles from here, Blackbeard ran his 40-gun flagship aground, not recklessly or to quell a revolt as some thought, but an act of corportate downsizing. He chose to operate with a smaller fleet in the shallow waters of the Outer Banks, while the shifting sandbars hid the QAR until 1996.
In June, more than 5,000 people attended the exhibit opening, just a week after one of the greatest prizes of all was raised, the QAR's anchor. Cannons, wine bottles crude medical instruments and even a makeshift toilet have already been brought up for display. About 50% of the wreck is now excavated. The museum also has a hands-on ship building component next to the harbour and public beach.
Beaufort also has a historic buildings' tour, ample boat tour and charter fishing opportunities and some outstanding restaurants that go far beyond catch of the day. Some of North Carolina's under-rated wines should also be sampled. Ditto for dining in neighbouring Morehead City, the weigh station for many angling derbys, such as the $1 million US Big Rock Blue Marlin tournament. This past June's winner was a game 652.8-pounder.
After Blackbeard accepted the King's pardon, but continued attacking ships, the Royal Navy went after him in force. Now in command of the Adventure, Blackbeard was chased to Ocracoke, a 26-km spit on the Outer Banks, which is today accessible via car ferry from two directions.
This part of the pirate yarn is filled in by Philip Howard, a 10th-generation resident of this unique village of less than 1,000, and a descendant of Blackbeard's quartermaster, William Howard. Philip's tour includes an overgrown plot where a local eccentric had himself and his horse interred. There is a small British naval cemetery where four sailors, two of them unidentified, were recovered from HMS Bedfordshire in 1942, torpedoed off-shore. Because the unknown dead might be Canadians, the maple leaf is flown in an annual remembrance ceremony, when Queen Elizabeth sends a new flag.
Ocracoke is home of the official Blackbeard Exhibit and Pirate Specialty Shop with dedicated displays about the swashbucklers of the era. Stede Bonnet, the so-called "gentleman pirate" will be honoured this summer further away at Southport near the Cape Fear River.
Howard's tour took us through gnarled trees and past the freshwater well that first lured many French, Spanish and Engish explorers. Further inland is the town of Manteo on Roanoke Island, posssible site of the Lost Colony. Originally organized by Sir Walter Raleigh and birthplace of Virginia Dare, the first English child born on American soil, more than 100 settlers were on their own for three years beginning in 1587. Supply ships that eventually returned found no trace of anyone.
Howard's path through the trees dramatically opens to the isolated crescent beach at Teach's Hole, where Blackbeard and his cohorts made merry and split their plunder, at least until they were cornered by the British on Nov. 22, 1718.
Blackbeard's crew fought savagely against Lieutenant Robert Maynard's force, climaxing with the two commanders in hand-to-hand combat. Blackbeard died from five pistol and musket balls and about 20 stab wounds, his severed head displayed on the bow of Maynard's ship on the way to port.
William Howard, having had the good fortune to be away in Virginia at the time, was arrested, pardoned and later bought Okracoke from the local Wocow Indian hunters for about 105 pounds. With the feared Blackbeard gone, the island was settled and today attracts 50,000 visitors a year to its B&Bs, curio shops and leisure craft rentals.
But if you believe the local ghost stories, Ocracoke's most famous resident never quite departed.
IF YOU GO
* Air Canada operates direct flights to Raleigh-Durham, NC from Toronto.
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