First book remains found in Blackbeard’s ship

Conservators at the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab in Greenville, North Carolina, have discovered something they never expected to find on a shipwreck: paper, wadded up into a plug and stuffed down the barrel of a breech-loaded cannon, one that would have been fired by men under the command of infamous English pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. The Queen Anne’s Revenge was the flagship of his fleet. It ran aground in the treacherous waters of the Inner Banks of North Carolina in 1718 and was discovered in 1997.

The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources (NCDCR) conservation team have been cleaning, conserving and documenting artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck site off the coast of Beaufort Inlet since 2006, and committed to full recovery of all the archaeological materials in 2014. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of objects, 280,000 of them recovered before the decision was made to leave no Blackbeardiana behind. It was during the course of this ambitious project that the paper was found in the cannon.

These fragments survived 300 years on the coastal seabed of North Carolina because they were protected by being balled up tight in a confined space. The wadding and cannon coffin kept them from dissolving into nothingness. In that context, the waterlogging was the key to its preservation rather than a means of destruction.

That’s not to say that the paper was in tip-top shape and could be read like a Kindle. The QAR Lab’s artifact conservators teamed up with paper conservation experts, art conservators and scientists to do examine the mass. Upon closer examination, conservators found that the plug of sodden paper were all that was left of a book, tiny fragments of pages at the most the size of a quarter. Still, there was faint text still legible on some of the fragments.

With such small snippets to work with, researchers had to spend months investigating the source of the pages. They were finally able to identify it as the 1712 first edition of A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World by Captain Edward Cooke.

As the prolix full title indicates, the book documents Captain Cooke’s voyages undertaken in 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711. It’s a journal of routes, weather patterns, notable events, an atlas with current maps of coastlines, details on native flora and fauna and histories of the countries and their residents. The notable events have something of a recurring theme: the taking of “prizes,” meaning the overt and unrepentant assaults on Spanish treasure galleons along the Manilla route. Cooke talks about it constantly, which ships they took, when and where. It’s really something of pirate’s manual to despoiling Spanish shipping, truth be told, complete with essential navigation details of relatively fresh date. I can see why Blackbeard’s crew would be into it. The feeling would not have been mutual.

Cooke’s book was a “voyage narrative” describing his adventures on an expedition made by two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which sailed from Bristol, England in 1708. The expedition leader was Captain Woodes Rogers, who also published an account of the expedition, and who was later sent in 1718 as Royal Governor to rid the Bahamas of pirates.

Voyage narratives were popular literature in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, inspiring new voyages both real and fictional. Both Cooke’s and Rogers’ works describe the rescue of Alexander Selkirk from an island on which he had been marooned for four years. Selkirk’s story became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 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.

This unique find from the wreckage of Queen Anne’s Revenge provides archaeological evidence for books carried on ships in the early 18th century, and adds to our knowledge of the history of Blackbeard’s flagship and those who sailed her. 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.

8 thoughts on “First book remains found in Blackbeard’s ship

  1. Arrr ! :skull: – Those pages, notably, seem to be among the last ones used to defend themselves. Moreover, a famous ‘Filibuster’ or ‘Buccaneer’ was actually an author himself:

    A. O. Exquemelin (Esquemeling/Oexmelin; born around 1645) wrote “De Americaensche Zee-Rovers” (The Buccaneers of America), published in 1678 (translated into German, Nuremberg 1679).

    In Tortuga, he enlisted with the band of Henry Morgan, probably as a barber-surgeon, and remained with them until 1674 [Third Anglo-Dutch War?]. Shortly afterwards, he settled in Amsterdam where he qualified professionally as a surgeon, appearing on the 1679 register of the Dutch Surgeons’ Guild.

    However, his name appears on the muster-roll as a surgeon in the attack on Cartagena in 1697 :skull:

  2. Tearing up books to use the pages as wadding doesn’t suggest much of a literary bent for pirates, does it? Most likely a ready source of cheap paper for such purposes.

  3. Ummm… that would be “North Carolina’s Outer Banks”, Livius. The Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in about 25 feet of water a few hundred yards offshore of Atlantic Beach, NC. on the southernmost island of the Banks towards the mouth of Beaufort Inlet. How do I know this? I used to got to the S&S Motel and Fishing Pier on vacation as a youngster. When the weather was calm and the water was clear you could see the hulk from the end of the pier.

    I don’t think they got definite proof it was Oueen Anne’s Revenge until the middle of the first decade of this century? It had been locally known of and dived on as such for years. Not only was it a prime spot for treasure hunters, it was prime spot for recreational fishermen out there bobbing up and down in their boats.

    The old S&S pier got blown away by a hurricane a few years back, but many of you who live in the States and watch the Weather Channel have seen it. The Weather Channel used to station their crews at the motel and do their southern Outer Banks hurricane coverage from the S&S’s beachfront parking lot. The Queen Anne’s Revenge lay on the bottom a few hundred yards out.

    There’s a nice museum in Beaufort that features what has been found out there along with area’s long seafaring heritage. Be sure to look up as soon as you walk in the door if you don’t want to miss a mock-up of the Bearded One’s head dangling in an iron cage about 15 feet up.

  4. In regards to the “inner banks or outer banks” discussion: The term “inner banks” was an attempt at rebranding by the local real estate industry. Apparently too many potential customers were being scared away by news coverage of hurricane flooding on the Outer Banks. Or maybe it was the thought of global warming? In any case, business picked up after the new name started catching on.

    Innie or Outie anyone?

  5. LOL! Thanks Mike! If you get up to Goldsboro tell the good folks at Wilber’s BBQ,Bruce says,”Hey!”

    The city fathers of Atlantic Beach must have got the “Inner Banks” idea when the casino project where the amusement park in the loop by the beach fell through?

    That entire island used to call itself “The Crystal Coast, The Jewel of The Southern Outer Banks!” for decades. The next thing you know they’ll be denying “The Shrimpburger”.

    Have they banned young Marines from nearby Camp LeJeune from raising nine kinds of Hell out there on leave yet? That’ll be the next move.

  6. Charts, maps and navigation equipment were regularly saved from captured ships during the
    Great Age of Piracy.

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