296 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 32 illus., 6 maps, notes, bibl., index

$29.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2553-0

$15.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-4863-8

Published: Spring 2000

 Add to cart
 View cart

Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast

by Lindley S. Butler

Copyright (c) 2000 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


In our contemporary society characterized by a surfeit of violence, why read about pirates and commerce destroyers? What is heroic about bloodthirsty criminals and naval officers who destroyed the livelihood of fisherfolk and sea captains? Simply put, these tales are thrilling adventure stories about that most ancient of plots--the hunter and his prey. Since our primordial days, human beings have found compelling myths of larger-than-life heroes whose stories give us role models for coping with the vicissitudes of life. These real-life sea tales abound with action, suspense, and tragedy about flesh-and-blood historic characters, at least one of whom, Blackbeard, has been mythologized into a romantic figure of popular culture. These men crossed the stage of history at unstable junctures--the early colonial period and the early nineteenth century, eras when our national character was being shaped, and the Civil War, the great American epic tragedy. The phenomenal and lasting popularity of the science fiction odyssey Star Trek and the Star Wars films suggest a society desperately seeking heroes and a relevant mythology. But history always surpasses fiction as a source for heroism and romance. While the tales in this volume do touch on the dark side, they are mostly about heroic naval officers, dedicated men of principle who gave their best to defend their countries. They all suffered for their service, and one paid the ultimate price. Their countries were flawed, but countries, like all human institutions, reflect the nature of mankind, a mixture of high and low aspirations, of noble and ignoble purpose, and of good and evil behavior.

The eight individuals sketched in this book have a common tie of place: each of them either was a native of North Carolina or else rose to lasting fame or notoriety on her waters. They illustrate the fascinating but barely tapped maritime history of the Old North State, heretofore focused in the popular mind on the unique, splendid land- and seascape of the Outer Banks, its broad strands and its spectacular lighthouses. Not so well known beyond the world of scuba diving is the wealth of historic undersea wrecks that lie in the state's Graveyard of the Atlantic, most vividly illustrated by the 1973 find of the USS Monitor and the 1996 discovery at Beaufort Inlet of a wreck that is probably the 1718 flagship of Blackbeard, the Queen Anne's Revenge, both of which have generated global excitement.

In earlier ages, navigation on the vast oceans comprised a highly technical science--possibly, until modern times, the most complex field of science. Harnessing the subtle interplay of the forces of wind and current by a sail called for expert knowledge and a decisive character. The wise sea captain was the mariner who left port knowing that no matter how much he had experienced or how calm the sea appeared, life-threatening danger constantly lurked close at hand to overwhelm him when he least expected it. By the eighteenth century, the quest for a means of calculating longitude and the corresponding development of an accurate chronometer consumed the best scientific minds for generations. As students of navigation and the changeable sea, naval officers and sea captains were the cutting-edge specialists of their day, and sea warfare was the most technology-driven form of conflict. The most exciting artifacts being recovered from the ongoing excavation of the eighteenth-century Beaufort Inlet wreck are the numerous well-preserved navigation, surveying, scientific, and medical instruments. To many, these are surprising discoveries to find on a pirate ship, but they illustrate the scientific nature of seafaring in that day as in this.

This book spans an era of 150 years, from the early eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1715 ship and sail design and naval armament had not changed significantly since the introduction of cannon in the late Middle Ages. At the time, Europe was engaged in struggles for continental domination that would not end until 1815. A century of almost continuous warfare spawned new ship types and larger and deadlier naval guns. Tactics were dominated by the battle line of multidecked ships-of-the-line, supplemented with raids by small-boat cutting-out expeditions. Over the next fifty years steam power went to sea, generating great practical innovations. Rifled cannon extended the range of sea combat, and exploding shells multiplied damage and death. The counterpoint to the rifled shell was armor plate, which, coupled with the revolving gun turret, changed naval architecture permanently. Blackbeard would have been perfectly capable of commanding the Snap Dragon during the War of 1812, and, conversely, Otway Burns would have been at home on the Queen Anne's Revenge, although he would have preferred the size and speed of Stede Bonnet's Royal James. Each of the Civil War officers, trained on sailing ships, could easily have captained the Queen Anne's Revenge. As skilled as they were, however, all of the pre-1815 mariners would have been lost on the CSS Albemarle or the USS Monitor, though they would have been fascinated and intrigued by the power and military potential intrinsic in these modern vessels.

As practitioners of warfare at sea--from pirate and privateer to naval commerce raider--the men whose stories are told here shared the same methods over time. Only their motives varied. The pirate and privateer had personal gain at stake and chose the passive approach of preserving the prize, as well as life and limb, if possible. The naval commerce raider, in contrast, was free to attack his declared foe's ability to make war by the destruction of his prey, although prize money was still offered by his government as an incentive.

The common theme running through these stories is the nature of sea warfare. In his brilliant television series, The Ascent of Man, first aired in 1973, Jacob Bronowski said of war, "But war, organised war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and cooperative form of theft."* Ocean warfare as practiced by pirates, privateers, and naval raiders was without question "a highly planned and cooperative form of theft" adapted to their particularly challenging environment. The eight mariners presented in the pages that follow were all masters of organized theft at sea. They are connected by place, by the practice of their warrior profession, and by what their lives reveal to us about the origins and nature of sea warfare as a human experience.

*Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), 88.

Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast | Home