J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 08, 2018

A Book Aboard Blackbeard’s Flagship

Here’s my favorite new archeological discovery, as reported by National Geographic and the Salisbury (N.C.) Post.

The flagship of the pirate Edward Thatch, best known as Blackbeard, ran aground off Beaufort, North Carolina, in 1718. Twelve years ago salvagers found that wreck, and state archeologists have been studying it ever since.

Among the artifacts from that ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was a breech-loading cannon or swivel gun. Inside it conservators found “a wet mass of textile scraps” that “may have served as a gasket for the wooden tampion, a plug that protected the cannon muzzle from the elements.”

Within that sludge were sixteen tiny pieces of paper. It’s rare for paper to survive on shipwrecks, for obvious reasons. The technicians carefully unfolded those papers. Some turned out to have legible words printed on them. So the next step was to identify, if possible, where those scraps had come from.

Back in 2014 I looked at a scrap of paper glued inside a picture frame and identified it as coming from a New York newspaper in 1810. So I have a sense of what such a search is like. But I had a much larger scrap of paper to work with. None of the scraps from the Blackbeard wreck was bigger than a quarter.

After “many months of research,” the researchers found a match. The legible fragments came from the 1712 first edition of Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711.

The leader of Cooke’s expedition was Woodes Rogers, who in 1718 became royal governor of the Bahamas with a mandate to crack down on piracy. Blackbeard and his ships were off North Carolina that summer because they wanted to keep away from the fleet Gov. Rogers was leading from Britain.

Some reports on this discovery describe it as giving insight into what pirates read. A copy of Cook’s Voyage to the South Sea was indeed aboard Blackbeard’s ship, but it’s really hard to read a book when someone’s ripped out several pages and used the scraps for wadding in a cannon.

Clearly some Caribbean mariner or traveler was reading about Woodes Rogers’s big voyage—that makes sense. And Thatch’s crew got a hold of a copy, perhaps for reading, perhaps as loot, perhaps just because they needed paper. But Thatch had that book ripped apart to prepare his guns to stave off Rogers’s patrols.

These surviving fragments and other artifacts from Queen Anne’s Revenge will probably go on display this year in an exhibit tied to the tricentennial of Blackbeard’s demise.

(I’ve been reading about Thatch, Rogers, and the other mariners who contended for superiority and wealth in the 1710s Caribbean in Colin Woodard’s Republic of Pirates. That’s why I’m calling Blackbeard “Thatch” instead of “Teach,” an early misspelling of his name.)

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