Let's just say right up front that the Charles Towne Few aren't real pirates.
"Well, that's your opinion," a whiskery Gary Dow says as he squints one eye, leaning over a spread of old coins on the counter in The Tavern on East Bay Street.
"What's this madness I have going on? I'm an honest and able-bodied seaman," says C.J. Ohlandt from under his bandana, his fingers playing with the marlin spike sheathed at his fancy belt. Mitch Wyman doesn't say anything. He slips like a shadow around the rows of grog bottles until he stands under the display of cutlasses, and has the visitor surrounded.
"We haven't killed you; there's laws against that," Dow says, eyeing the two others. "We haven't stolen anything from you; there's laws against that. If we were pirates and you didn't move away in a second, you might find a dagger in the throat."
See? So, even though 50 or 60 assorted deserters, thieves, blackguards and comely wenches will be rattling sabers and blasting off powder this weekend in a camp of ragged tents and lean-tos on Ansonborough Field across from the Charleston Maritime Center, right there in the civilized midsts of Harbor Fest 2008, well, there's no need for good folk to be alarmed.
Until Saturday morning. It seems that 290 years ago this weekend, the wretched and fearsome Blackbeard set anchor on the bar off Charleston Harbor with four ships and 300 men. He captured nine ships trying to sneak in or out around him. On one of them was Samuel Wragg, a very extortable Charles Towne assemblyman.
Blackbeard wanted fulminated mercury, a medicine so explosive that smashing it to the ground would make it blast. It was the treatment of the day for "gleet," what a more proper gentleman might whisper is syphilis. Blackbeard sent a party of men in a rowboat to lay out his demands. The men likely got as far as The Tavern — the site at 120 East Bay St. has hosted a tavern for nigh on several centuries — and stopped for a pint. Then another. Then another.
It would take a few days for the demands to reach the city fathers, while Blackbeard paced the deck, then moved the ships to the inner harbor to turn their broadside guns on the peninsula.
Saturday, word is more than a few of the Few plan to set out demands of their own, with the cutlass steel shining, to a gang of City Fathers at the Powder Magazine on Cumberland Street, long about 10 a.m. The City Fathers aren't expected to put up with that without a fight.
"I hear Charles Towne prides itself on being a very respectable, cordial city," Dow says, with a little sneer, "But if you dig back in the closet far enough, you'll find a cutlass and an eye patch back there."
Blackbeard, as it turned out, sailed off with two or three medicine chests full of fulminated mercury (he had 300 men, after all), 1,500 pounds of silver and gold, and supplies. On Saturday, the City Fathers have another dance with the devil, the kind of dilemma many a naive young man has awoken to after a night of drinking — finding himself in irons and aboard a creaking ship.
Do you let yourself be impressed aboard one of the fancy tall ships as a deck boy, or trapped in servitude to a evil-eyed captain with a mean lash? Dow lifts his eyebrow and stares down the lone visitor. The others seem to be standing closer.
Well, hey, they seem to be good enough mates. They said they'd show how keelhauling works.