Was Blackbeard the pirate a bookworm?

British pirate Edward Teach, or "Blackbeard"; Archaeologists find book scraps on Blackbeard's ship

Archaeologists find book scraps on Blackbeard's ship.  

Book Scraps Found in a Cannon

Archaeological conservators with the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project have discovered 16 tiny fragments of paper in a mass of wet sludge removed from the chamber of a breach loading cannon. The largest was about the size of a quarter.

“We were so astounded we weren’t exactly sure the material was paper, so we consulted with some paper conservators to verify what we found,” says Kimberly Kenyon, a conservator with the QAR project, which is a division of the North Carolina Cultural Resources Department. “For paper to survive in an archaeological water site is extremely rare.”

What was Blackbeard Reading?

Blackbeard captured a French slave ship called La Concorde in 1717 and renamed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge. This would become the ship that battled the Royal Navy one year later and ran aground off North Carolina’s coast. Blackbeard was killed in that battle.

In 1996, the wreck of the QAR was discovered. But the paper remnants were discovered later, as conservators were cleaning the cannon in 2016. It took more than a year for the pieces to be examined.

Because some of the words were still visible, the challenge became not only to conserve the fragments, but also to identify where they were from. Words such as “south," “fathom” and “Hilo” helped researchers determine that the scraps were from a 1712 first edition of a book by Captain Edward Cooke, “A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711."

Cooke’s book is a voyage narrative of an expedition made by two ships, which sailed from Bristol, England in 1708. Such narratives were popular literature in the late 17th and early 18th century and would have been relatively common on ships of the time period. However, there is little archaeological evidence.

The historical record has several references to books aboard ships in Blackbeard’s fleet, but there are no references to titles and no evidence. Researchers say the unique discovery not only provides archaeological evidence that books were carried on ships, it also sheds light on the history of Blackbeard’s flagship and a glimpse into the reading habits of a pirate crew.

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!