Bedtime Stories for Pirates: Blackbeard’s Reading Habits Revealed

Friday April 27, 2018 Written by Sam Wilson

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Researchers traced the fragments to a 1712 travel journal by British captain Edward Cooke. Courtesy North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Think of infamous 18th-century pirate Blackbeard, and what springs to mind? Plunder, pillage, hi-jinx on the high seas, sure, but kicking back with a good book? Not so much. At least, not until recently, when archaeological conservators in North Carolina made a discovery that casts an unexpectedly literary light on Blackbeard’s fearsome reputation: 16 tiny fragments of paper aboard the wreckage of his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

And not just any old paper. After months of painstaking work to restore it from its sludgy state (it was found stuffed inside the chamber of one of the ship’s cannons), the researchers were able to determine, from the few legible words remaining, that the paper had been torn from Captain Edward Cooke’s 1712 volume, A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711.

A pirate’s gotta be prepared, after all, and Cooke’s hefty travelogue was probably the closest thing they had to Lonely Planet guidebooks back then.

Blackbeard – christened Edward Teach – ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground off the North Carolina coast in 1718, but the shipwreck wasn’t discovered until 1996. Since then, conservators at the QAR lab, run by North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, have been slowly recovering, cataloguing and preserving everything they can from the notorious pirate’s vessel. (Anyone else think this sounds like a dream job?)

But this find is especially big news. It’s practically unheard of for paper to survive a shipwreck for any length of time, let alone 300 years. Furthermore, while historical records refer to books being carried on early-18th-century pirate ships, there had been no concrete proof until now.

Surprised that pirates were even literate in 1700s? Don’t be. According to historian and (yes) piratologist Simon Layton, many pirates could read, although being “a motley crew; undoubtedly some were better read than others.”

So why were pages of Cooke’s book stuffed inside a cannon? Turns out pirates often used paper to hold the powder charge in place, thereby enabling them to fire the weapon. One can only hope Blackbeard had finished reading the book before dispatching it to its fiery fate…