If your idea of a typical 18th century pirate is Captain Jack Sparrow, a fictional Disney pirate who’s a cross between Rolling Stone Keith Richards and cartoon character Pepe Le Pew, you may want to throw into the mix an English scholar, a literary critic or at least a member of a floating book club. That’s the new picture of the notorious pirate Blackbeard after researchers found scraps of paper stuffed inside a cannon on his flagship that were from a book of adventure stories. What would Jack Sparrow read?
The discovery was announced last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Historical Archaeology by conservators from the Queen Anne’s Revenge Conservation Lab in North Carolina. Queen Anne’s Revenge was the name pirate Edward Teach gave to a French merchant vessel he captured in the Bahamas in 1717, shortly before he gave himself a new and apropos name – Blackbeard. The pirate terrorized the east coast of North America for less than a year before running the ship aground and abandoning it at Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Blackbeard himself went to that great sand bar in the sky in a few months later and Queen Anne’s Revenge remained undiscovered until 1996.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR) Conservation Lab, located on East Carolina University’s West Research Campus in Greenville, is where many of the thousands of artifacts, including cannons, from the ship are taken to be cleaned and preserved. In 2016, a breech-loading cannon was discovered to contain a wad (an archeological term for a ball of wet stuff) of textile scraps that may have been stuffed in it to protect the muzzle. Inside the ‘wad’ were 16 tiny pieces of paper, some with legible text. The papers were stuck together in a manner that suggested they were pages of a book.
In an interview with National Geographic, QAR Lab conservator Kimberly Kenyon revealed that the researchers found the recognizable words “south” and fathom,” and an italicized word, “Hilo.” All of this data was forwarded to Johanna Green, a specialist in the history of printed text at the University of Glasgow. After searching books from that period, Green determined that “Hilo” referred not to the place on the island of Hawaii (which didn’t show up in books until later) but to the Spanish settlement of Ilo on the coast of Peru. With that little bit of information, the scraps were identified as coming from pages 177, 178, and 183-188 of the 1712 first edition of Captain Edward Cooke’s “A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711.”
In case you haven’t read it, this is one of two books that describe the rescue of Alexander Selkirk from an island on which he had been marooned for four years – a tale that inspired Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe.
While there’s no proof yet that this copy belonged to and was read by Blackbeard, it supports the idea that pirates were literate. They had to read navigational charts, they wrote diaries (Blackbeard was rumored to have kept one) and they were known to pillage books, even when there was plenty of jewels and gold doubloons. Kenyon expects that more artifacts of this kind will be found, since 100,000 haven’t been analyzed and half the ship is still underwater.
What would Jack Sparrow read? My guess is tattoos and rum bottle labels.