Papers From Blackbeard Wreckage Lead To 18th-Century Voyage Thriller

Bits of paper recovered from wreckage off the North Carolina coast reveal heart-pounding prose.

Famed English pirate Blackbeard and his crew of seafaring thieves apparently weren’t busy pillaging all the time — sometimes they evidently kicked back to read 18th-century ocean potboilers, scientists have discovered.

Archeological conservators from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources announced last week they’d recovered tiny scraps of paper from the wreckage of Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Scientists carefully teased apart the 300-year-old paper, found in a mass of “sludge” in a cannon recovered from the ship, and discovered writing that led them to a popular tale of the era. Researchers told National Geographic they were able to parse certain words, including “fathom,” “south” and “Hilo,” which suggested a place name.

By comparing the words on the recovered paper with texts that would have been available at the time Blackbeard’s ship sank, researchers linked the papers to A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711, a 1712 first-edition book by Edward Cooke of the Royal Navy.

A cannon from Blackbeard's ship Queen Anne's Revenge is hoisted from the sea off the North Carolina shore in 2011.
A cannon from Blackbeard's ship Queen Anne's Revenge is hoisted from the sea off the North Carolina shore in 2011.

The book described Cooke’s adventures on an expedition by two ships, Duke and Dutchess, which sailed from England in 1708.

Such “voyage narratives” were all the rage back in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to researchers. Cooke and another author, expedition leader Captain Woodes Rogers, told the story of sailor Alexander Selkirk, who had been marooned for four years on an island before his rescue. Selkirk became the model for Daniel Dafoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

Perhaps Blackbeard was responsible for introducing a taste for literature among his men. Blackbeard, né Edward Teach, was one of the most infamous pirates of the time with a reputation for violence.

He plied the waters off the West Indies and America’s eastern seaboard, once blockading Charleston while looting ships. He finally released hostages he had taken in exchange for a chest of medicine.

But Blackbeard may have been more genteel than his infamous tales make him seem. The Daily Mail reported in 2015 that Blackbeard was a war veteran, and a loving family man who used his fortune to help out his siblings.

Queen Anne’s Revenge sank after it ran aground on the North Carolina coast in 1718. Blackbeard was killed six months later in a confrontation with a crew sent by the Virginia governor and led by a Royal Navy lieutenant.