By John Hirtle, Beach News Staff
Beach News, Thursday, September 1, 2005
[The following article is courtesy of Beach News]
Beach News File Photo by John Hirtle * www.ElseWhenStudio.com
When one speaks of tall ships sailing the ocean blue often the next image which comes to mind is that of pirates who prowled the seven seas. Despite the adventure and romance often associated with these rogues in popular culture, only a handful ever made it to the chilly waters off of New Hampshire. Indeed, most pirates in these waters started off as privateers, a sort of licensed pirate who could legally hunt down and seize enemy (in this case non-British) ships without fear of being executed as pirates. Alas, a few of these privateers crossed the line and became pirates, menacing all who sailed the seas, former friend and foe alike.
Perhaps twenty in all roved the waters off the Seacoast's scenic beaches in the 1600's and 1700's, including the infamous Captain William Kidd, and Captain Edward Teach, better known as the notorious Blackbeard. But for the most part, the pirate fleets of old stayed far to the south, closer to the rich prizes on the Spanish Main, the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean.
For better or worse, the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast became associated with these pirates. Today, a religious retreat and marine laboratory dominate the islands with a few privately owned homes, but before the American Revolution, the islands were renown for their frontier-like rowdiness, which one could consider as a stain on the pure-white Puritan towns which dominated the region. While no islander was ever found guilty of piracy, you can bet that they did not mind the company of those rogues too much.
Three pirates are known to have landed at the islands: Blackbeard, Scott and Quelch. A fourth, Captain Kidd is attributed to have landed there in a tale spun by the Islands' reknown poet Celia Thaxter, as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oscar Laighton, which links a scoundrel of a Shoaler, Philip Babb, to the privateer turned pirate. Alas, the tales of Babb finding Kidd's treasure, being part of the pirate crew, or that his ghost stalks the islands are exactly that- grand stories told by the masters. The notorious Babb passed away in 1671, peacefully in his sleep on the islands. Captain William Kidd on the other hand did not receive his commission as a privateer until 1696, and met his end at the gallows in 1702.
Of the three real pirates, Blackbeard captures one's imagination. A monster of a man in his prime, he would put slow-burning matches in his trademark beard to create a halo of smoke about his person as he attacked and boarded his victims. Many legends surround him and his career, among them being his honeymoon to the islands with his last (and perhaps fifteenth) bride. The honeymoon seems to have taken place in 1720 on Smuttynose, but it was cut short as a fleet of British warships was sighted, and Blackbeard sailed away, never to return, leaving his bride behind. The British would eventually catch up with Blackbeard and decapitate him in a bloody battle. According to Island tradition, Blackbeard's bride died in 1735, and her ghost wanders the island saying to those who see her "He will come again.", a turn of phrase adopted by the Pelicans (the Christian youths who help run the religious conferences) on Star Island who bade farewell to visitors leaving the island, intoning "You will come again."
Captain Scott was an associate of Blackbeard's and most likely handled the business end of things during the Honeymoon, for during their visit it is said a treasure was buried out on the islands, and a lass (perhaps Blackbeard's own wife) was sworn to keep it safe until his return. Captain John Quelch was certainly not as colorful as Blackbeard. Commissioned as a privateer in Boston as part of the crew on the brig Charles, he soon assumed command when the ship's captain died. Persuaded by his crew that piracy was more profitable than privateering, he turned pirate and was rather successful at it before being captured and executed in 1704. Like Blackbeard and Scott, he chose the Isles of Shoales as a safe spot to hide his ill-gotten wealth.
What of the buried treasures, you may ask? Little has been found amongst the rocky landscape of these wind-swept islands, much less reported by the now departed freedom-loving inhabitants of the islands. The sole story of treasure comes from Smuttynose, the island that Blackbeard honeymooned on. There, around 1820 a Captain Samuel Haley found four silver bars under a flat rock. As a leading citizen on the island, he chose to invest the treasure in building the Haley Breakwater, which connects Smuttynose to the smaller Malaga, to provide shelter for vessels coming to call at the island. Those ships are long gone, and his breakwater now provides shelter for a small sandy beach on the uninhabited island.
As for the rest of the ill-gotten treasures, they lay buried in reality or in imagination amidst the desolate landscape of these windswept islands.