Buccaneers aboard the flagship of notorious 18th-century pirate Blackbeard apparently enjoyed a rollicking read, according to an unlikely discovery in a cannon chamber.
A handful of paper scraps recovered from the wreck of Queen Anne's Revenge have been identified as fragments of the 1712 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.
The fragments were embedded in a wet mass of textile scraps removed from a breech-loading cannon chamber during its cleaning and conservation in 2016, according to QAR Lab conservator Erik Farrell. The wad, blackened with gunpowder residue, may have served as a gasket for the wooden tampion, a plug that protected the cannon muzzle from the elements.
Sixteen paper fragments, none larger than a U.S. quarter, were eventually identified, and seven of the fragments had legible text. As conservators gently pried the fragments of paper apart, they noticed that the text on successive layers was running in the same direction, leading them to suspect that they had the remains of several pages from the same book.
"There was one really key word that stood out: 'Hilo.' It was very distinctive and italicized, which might indicate a place name," Kenyon tells National Geographic.
Researchers ruled out accounts of Hilo, Hawaii, which didn't appear in European literature until after James Cook's expedition of 1778, Green pointed out earlier English-language mentions of the Spanish settlement of Ilo on the Peruvian coast.
Cooke's book describes his experiences on an expedition made by two ships, Duke and Dutchess, led by Captain Woodes Rogers. Rogers also published an account of the voyage, and both books describe the rescue of Alexander Selkirk from an island on which he had been marooned for four years. That rescue became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe.
Many buccaneers were literate, and they often pilfered books from their prey. Probably, everybody that wanted to read the story, then the book was reused. Waste not, want not.
At least half of the Queen Anne's Revenge remains on the ocean floor, waiting to be salvaged.