The Bell That Tolled for Blackbeard

A quartermaster aboard the USS Kitty Hawk chimes the ship's bell

One of the most mysterious of the artifacts recovered from Blackbeard’s shipwreck, Queen Anne’s Revenge, is a little bronze bell thought to be Spanish in origins. It bears the inscription ANO DE 1705, and engravings IHS MARIA, which translates as “Jesus and the Virgin Mary.” 

Blackbeard, the self-proclaimed “brother of the devil himself,” was seen by victims and his brethern pirates alike as evil incarnate. That seems to make it especially ironic that one of the first items recovered at his shipwreck has ties to the sacred. Hundreds of artifacts, including the bell, will be in the exciting new exhibit opening June 11 at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort. This will be the largest assemblage of artifacts from Queen Anne’s Revenge ever seen.

The bell was discovered in the mid-section of the wreck. It is not thought to be the ship’s bell because of the location where found and its size. The ship’s bell was generally in the front of the ship to be showcased, and to be well positioned to warn approaching ships in fog or the crew in times of distress. Often a smaller bell hung near the rear of the vessel where it was better situated for shipboard operations, including watch changes, meal times, prayers and danger.

A ship at sea in the 1700s divided the day into six periods of four hours each to assure that shipboard work required 24/7 was properly done. A crew, also called “watch,” was assigned to each time period. Blackbeard’s crew steered the vessel, tended the rigging, maintained the cannons and performed other tasks, including whatever Captain Blackbeard ordered. Navies around the world still use bells as a means of regulating shipboard activity.

The first reference to “ships belles” occurred in the 1500s in England. By the next century, bells were represented in historic documents, paintings and ships’ models. The use of bells was easily transferred from land to sea. Bells were transported as cargo aboard ancient Phoenician  Greek and Roman ships. 

Early in the fourth century, Constantine adopted the Christian faith and bells became a symbol of Christianity. Throughout Europe, bells came to be used in parishes and communities, and might regulate the life of entire villages. They announced daily activities, tolled for weddings and funerals, and for alarms of threats the community.

Was this bell part of pirate plunder, recovered from some raid of another ship or village? Was it taken from a parish church? Had it been part of the fabric of some small town life? Did it signal to the mates at the approach to land, or an approaching storm? Did this bell summon Blackbeard to dinner? Had it ever summoned the “brother of the devil himself” to prayer?

The clear tone from more than 300 years ago, the same bell that likely tolled for Blackbeard himself, has been recorded and can be heard today. The bell tolls now for thee.

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