What books did pirates read? Experts have made a remarkable discovery about their reading habits after deciphering paper fragments recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.
The find offers a fascinating glimpse into life on board the famous 18th-century pirate’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which ran aground off North Carolina in 1718.
The 16 tiny paper fragments were found in “a mass of wet sludge” that was removed from the chamber of a breech-loading cannon found on the wreck, according to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The largest of the fragments was only the size of a quarter, officials explained in a statement.
Archaeologists have removed a host of artifacts from the wreck since its discovery at Beaufort Inlet in 1996, including jewelry, tools, and a number of cannons. A spokeswoman for NCDNCR told Fox News that 24 out of 30 cannons known to be at the site have been recovered. However, no breech-loading cannon has been found, despite the discovery of the chamber containing the paper fragments.
LiveScience reports that the paper fragments found in the cannon were used as “wadding” that would have sealed gas behind a projectile.
Conservators from the NCDNCR’s Queen Anne’s Revenge Lab worked with specialist paper conservators and scientists from the department’s Division of Archives and Records, as well as the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, to conserve the fragile paper fragments. “As the work progressed another discovery was made — that there was still legible printed text on some of the fragments, although only a few words were visible,” explained NCDNCR, in its statement. “The challenge then became not just to conserve the paper fragments, but also to identify where they were from.”
Months of research revealed that the fragments were from a 1712 first edition of the book “A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711,” by Captain Edward Cooke.
The book is a “voyage narrative,” a genre popular in late 17th and early 18th century literature. Cooke’s work describes his adventures on an expedition made by two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which sailed from Bristol, England, in 1708. The expedition’s leader, Captain Woodes Rogers, also published an account of the journey.
Both Cooke and Rogers describe the rescue of Alexander Selkirk from an island where he had been marooned for four years, which inspired Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 novel “Robinson Crusoe.”
“Although books like these voyage narratives would have been relatively common on ships of the early 18th century, archaeological evidence for them is exceedingly rare, and this find represents a glimpse into the reading habits of a pirate crew,” explained NCDNCR in its statement. “The historical record has several references to books aboard vessels in Blackbeard’s fleet, but provides no specific titles; this find is the first archaeological evidence for their presence on QAR [Queen Anne's Revenge].”
The vessel was a French slave ship when it was captured by Blackbeard in 1717 and renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. The pirate, whose real name was Edward Teach, was killed by Royal Navy forces in November 1718, five months after the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank.
Experts are still working to conserve, record and document the paper fragments. A display about the discovery is planned as part of NCDNCR’s Blackbeard 300th anniversary events this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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