Paper Fragment on Shipwreck Reveals Blackbeard’s Crew Enjoyed Reading Pirate Stories
Conservators from North Carolina have discovered paper fragments hidden inside a cannon chamber that was drawn up from the wreck of Queen Anne's Revenge, the flagship of the notorious 18th century pirate Blackbeard. With a stroke of luck, they have discovered which book the fragments came from.
Edward Teach (1680 – 1718), affectionately known to his crew as ‘Blackbeard’, was a notorious English pirate who captained the Queen Anne’s Revenge, operating around the West Indies and the eastern coast of the American colonies. Despite the modern-day picture of the traditional tyrannical pirate, Blackbeard is said to have commanded his vessels with the permission of their crews and there is no known historical account of his ever having murdered those he held captive.
Pirates Enjoyed Reading About Other Pirates
As National Geographic reports, the discovery was announced Thursday during a speech by conservators from the Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Conservation Lab at the annual meeting of the Society of Historical Archaeology held in New Orleans. Experts now suggest that the new find could provide previously unknown information about pirates, such as their love for reading stories about other pirates.
Researchers were examining a metal piece of a breech-loading cannon that was covered in concrete, which had been recovered from the wreck. “When we pulled out a wooden plug that was sealing the cannon chamber, we found some wadding, which looked like ‘a mass of black textile’," Erik Farrell, a conservator with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources' Queen Anne's Revenge Lab, told Live Science.
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Conservators Discover Which Book the Papers Come From
Once the black sludge started cleansing from all the waterlogged material, researchers immediately spotted the evidence, which came in the form of sixteen microscopic paper fragments that were no bigger than a button. “This is not something we typically find on an underwater site," Farrell stated via Live Science. The pages were found to be in poor condition and Farrell contacted other expert conservators, who informed him that he had to dry the paper within 48 hours if he wanted the document fragments to survive.
After the emergency conservation effort, it took almost a year of meticulous research studying the sixteen tiny fragments of paper to finally find the source. Eventually, Kimberly Kenyon, another conservator with the Queen Anne’s Revenge Lab, managed to figure out from which book the pages belonged: a 1712 first edition book by Captain Edward Cooke, A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World. “Everyone crowded into my office and we started matching all the fragments we had," Kenyon told Live Science, and added that he and his colleagues matched seven of the sixteen fragments with parts of the book.
Image of slipcover from book printed in 1712: A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World Perform'd in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711, by Edward Cooke of a trip on two ships, the Duke and Dutchess of Bristol, commanded by Woodes Rogers (public domain)
What the Book Reveals
This type of literature, containing wild stories of adventure and explorers, was quite popular during the 18th century. According to the conservators, the book narrates the real-life experiences of author Edward Cooke aboard the Duchess, one of the two ships commanded by British Captain Woodes Roger –an English sea captain and privateer and, later, the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas – in a privateering voyage from 1708 to 1711 against the Spanish. Interestingly, this was the voyage that saved the life of sailor Alexander Selkirk, who had spent a long time alone on a remote and uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Some historians suggest that this sailor’s tale inspired Daniel Defoe to write the famous fictional story of Robinson Crusoe.
"By the early 18th century, there were several voyages into the South Seas and a lot of voyage narratives written. English public was just eating these stories up about the ‘romanticism’ of the high seas and plundering Spanish holdings," Kenyon characteristically stated as Live Science reports.
How the Book Ended up on Blackbeard's Ship
What the conservators are trying to understand at the moment, is how the book ended up on Blackbeard's ship. One scenario is that the book could have been part of a library of one of the ships that Blackbeard and his crew attacked and looted, such as the merchant sloop Margaret. Surprisingly, Farrell doesn’t consider it impossible that the book may have belonged to one of Blackbeard's 300 crewmembers, "Given the levels of literacy among English sailors at the time, it could belong to any member of the crew there," he said as Live Science reports.
"Capt. Teach alias Black-Beard" colored print, engraved on copper, Oliver Payne 1736 (Public Domain)
However, how the paper fragments ended up inside a cannon chamber is another peculiar question that seeks a definitive answer. “It is ‘speculative and unprovable,’ but nonetheless intriguing to wonder if someone on the crew was deeply unhappy with Woodes Rogers' political and career trajectory,” Farrell stated as Live Science reports, who also added that the book might have been grabbed accidentally during a battle and as a result its pages torn out. So, we now know that some of Blackbeard’s crew members were keen readers, but the rest remains lost at sea.
Top image: A fragment of paper discovered on Blackbeard's flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge, compared with the book it was determined to be from. Credit: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources