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Rare Scraps of Paper Unearthed in the Sludge of Famed Pirate Ship

The 300-year-old fragments found in Blackbeard’s flagship show someone on board was likely literate and interested in sea stories

(North Carolina Department of Culture and Natural Resources)
smithsonian.com

Three-hundred-year-old scraps of paper that somehow survived centuries aboard the wreck of Blackbeard’s flagship are offering new insight into what pirates read during their down time, according to conservationists at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, researchers found 16 tiny scraps of paper embedded in sludge pulled from a cannon recovered from the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship vessel re-discovered in Beaufort Inlet in 1996.

Dvorsky notes that researchers who primarily work on marine artifacts rarely if ever encounter paper, so they contacted conservators to find out what to do next. They were told to dry the paper over the next 48 hours or it wouldn’t survive. 

According to a press release, the largest scrap from the exciting find is only about the size of a quarter. That made identifying the literature somewhat of a challenge. However, Megan Gannon at LiveScience writes that the team was successful in transcribing the words "South of San," "(f)athom" and "Hilo," which they believed referred to the name of a city in Peru. For a year, the researchers scoured the library, looking for books that referenced Hilo. Finally, in August, Kimberly Kenyon found a match in 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. “Everyone crowded into my office and we started matching all the fragments we had,” Kenyon says in an interview with Gannon. 

As it turned out, the book recounts the voyages of two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which set off on an expedition in 1708. Ironically, the expedition leader Captain Woodes Rogers was later sent to the Bahamas as Royal Governor in 1718 with the mandate of getting rid of pirates. The book also recounts the rescue of Alexander Selkirk, a man who had been marooned on an island for four years and who was the inspiration for the 1719 book, Robinson Crusoe.

Dvorsky reports that narratives of voyages were popular reading material at the time. While no one can say if Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, read the book himself, it’s likely someone on his crew did, either for fun or to gather ideas for places to pillage or insights into pirate-hunters of the Royal Navy.

Kristin Romey at National Geographic writes that historically speaking, some members of a pirate crew needed to be literate. That’s because, to plunder the high seas, they needed to read navigational charts. There are also accounts of pirates stealing books from ships and there’s even some evidence that Blackbeard kept a long-missing diary. 

Kenyon tells Gannon that finding the book might also be a political statement. It’s likely that pages were torn from the book and used as wadding in the cannon. Someone could have randomly grabbed the book during the heat of battle. It’s also possible that Blackbeard and Rogers knew of one another or tangled with each other. The same year Rogers arrived in the Bahamas, Blackbeard departed the area, heading to North Carolina. “We’re starting to formulate ideas about whether these two men knew each other,” Kenyon says. “Were they connected somehow? Did Woodes Rogers’ arrival spark Blackbeard's imminent departure? Was this act of tearing up a book of his a statement of some sort?”

It’s probably impossible to know for sure. Romey reports the conservators are currently working with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Division of Archives and Records and experts at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation to preserve the fragments.  They hope they will go on display sometime later this year as part of celebrations commemorating the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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