Pirated Glassware that Collectors Want to Own

Blackbeard's Shipwreck Yields Trove of Early 18th Century Artifacts
by Sue Chehrenega

Beginning sometime in the 18th Century, glass makers began adding lead to their mix of ingredients. As that glass-making recipe changed, it allowed for production of an improved product, one that featured an increased level of brilliance. That newer and brighter glassware could then undergo the process known as cutting.

Historians have determined that the art of cutting glass crossed from Europe to North America in 1771. However, until recently, glass collectors did not have much information about the fragile and transparent objects that came onto the North American Continent before arrival of the first piece of cut glass. Now the existing gap in the amount of information on that one subject is about to be filled.

In 1996, a group of treasure hunters traveled along the east coast of North Carolina. About one mile away from Beaufort Inlet, that same group discovered a shipwreck. The recovery of all the items on that shipwreck has taken place under the direction of the State’s Department of Cultural Records.

Today, about fifteen years after its discovery, archaeologists are fairly well convinced that the same wreckage represents the remains of a famous sailing vessel, one that the vessel’s captain referred to as Queen Anne’s Revenge. That captain happened to be Blackbeard the pirate. Now, while Blackbeard removed most of the plunder on his craft after it got marooned in a sandbar, he could not clear that ship of the entire group of glass objects. One archaeologist has estimated that it will take another fifteen years to recover all of the 750,000 artifacts now resting in the shallow waters off the coast of North Carolina.

Collectors have been provided with a couple clues that hint at what wonders will eventually be brought ashore. Among the artifacts found so far, two pieces of glassware deserve special mention. One is a wine glass that has been decorated with both diamonds and embossed crowns. It appears that the men who designed that piece had been asked to create an item that could be used at the 1714 coronation of King George I, the successor to Queen Anne.

Another glassware item that was recovered by the Dept. of Cultural Resources once played an important role at the bedside of an ill patient. When taken out at that location, it was used by a physician or other care giver. It is a French made urethral syringe. It could be used to treat a patient who had developed the characteristic symptoms of a venereal disease. By studying the syringe’s control marks, experts have determined that it was made in Paris sometime between 1707 and 1715.

While collectors realize that Blackbeard’s ship could never have carried any cut glass or any lead crystal still that does not mean that it probably lacks any noteworthy objects. In fact, the very fact that it ran aground in 1718 helps to ensure the presence on that vessel of a special type of metal. It is something called ormolu, and it features a unique type of casting.

Ormolu is another name for gilt bronze. The cast on such a piece is sometimes referred to as mercury or fine gilding. The skilled worker who has carried out the casting and finishing process would work with a solution of nitrate and mercury. Once it had been cast, the metal received a coating of nitrate and mercury. Then it required the final touch. That involved use of an amalgam, one that contained both gold and mercury. That amalgam was used to cover the dried coating solution.

Now the covering material did not instantly provide a piece of metal with the desirable amount of luster. Yet that problem could be corrected by heating the amalgam-covered item. During the heating process, the mercury was burned off, and only the gold remained. While that procedure did an excellent job of producing a shiny piece of metal, it also proved capable of exposing humans to dangerous chemicals. For that reason, manufacturers stopped using it after 1830.

Now how does all of that information about a treatment once used on copper, bronze and brass relate to glassware? Well, in the period before lead had been added to the glass-making recipe a lot of glass items were attached to or placed in a piece of metal. In many cases, it was something that could be classed as ormolu.

For example, many chandeliers had ormolu holders at the end of their long curved arms. Each such holder was used to support a candle. That candle then enjoyed the protection of some lovely glassware. Fortunately, Blackbeard could not remove such glassware items.

Another piece of glass that stayed on the marooned vessel, after Blackbeard had removed all of his provisions and plunder was the one that was used to cover the hands of a clock. That too should be recovered sometime in the next ten to fifteen years, if not sooner. Its recovery has been guaranteed by the actions of a man with the last name of Bennet.

Before Blackbeard commanded Queen Anne’s Revenge, he was in charge of another ship, one called simply Revenge. That was a ship that had been captained by another smuggler, a man named Bennet. Blackbeard was on the vessel he had seized from Bennet when he crossed paths with a French slave ship. Blackbeard met up with that French vessel in November of 1717.

Blackbeard decided to split with Bennet and assume control of his own ship. He took 40 guns off of Bennet’s ship and added them to the 14 guns on the slave ship, a vessel named Concorde. He wanted to give his new ship a name that he had selected. That is why the shipwreck found off the coast of North Carolina is believed to represent the remains of Queen Anne’s Revenge.

While the exact location of that marooned vessel remained a mystery for several centuries, archaeologists did have a general idea as to where it was located. Certain clues concerning its whereabouts had been revealed by Bennet at his trial in 1718. His information has helped to verify the nature of the treasures that divers are in the process of recovering now, and will continue to recover for another ten to fifteen years.

About the Author

Sue Chehrenegar studied biology in college, but she has always loved to read and write about history. Sue wrote one piece of historical fiction. Those who would like to learn more about the story behind that piece, one that was published in the anthology Through the Eyes of Love, can contact Sue at this email address: suecheh@aol.com.

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