Dead men tell no tales, but there's new evidence that somebody aboard the pirate Blackbeard's flagship harbored books among the booty.
In an unusual find, researchers have discovered shreds of paper bearing legible printing that somehow survived three centuries underwater on the sunken vessel. And after more than a year of research that ranged as far as Scotland, they managed to identify them as fragments of a book about nautical voyages published in the early 1700s.
Conservators for Blackbeard's ship the Queen Anne's Revenge found the 16 fragments of paper wedged inside the chamber for a breech-loading cannon, with the largest piece being the size of a quarter.
The Queen Anne's Revenge had been a French slave ship when Blackbeard captured it in 1717 and renamed it. The vessel ran aground in Beaufort, in what was then the colony of North Carolina, in June 1718. Volunteers with the Royal Navy killed Blackbeard in Ocracoke Inlet that same year.
Tens of thousands of artifacts have been recovered since Florida-based research firm Intersal Inc. located the shipwreck off the North Carolina coast in 1996 but few, if any, are as surprising as pieces of paper. To find paper in a 300-year-old shipwreck in warm waters is "almost unheard of," said Erik Farrell, a conservator at the QAR Conservation Lab in Greenville.
Eventually, the conservators determined that the words "south" and "fathom" were in the text, suggesting a maritime or navigational book. But one word, Hilo, stood out because it was both capitalized and in italics, said Kimberly Kenyon, also a conservator at the lab.
They turned to Johanna Green, a specialist in the history of printed text at the University of Glasgow, who pointed them to the Spanish settlement of Ilo — or Hilo — on the coast of Peru. The fragments eventually were determined to be from a 1712 first edition of a book by Capt. Edward Cooke titled "A Voyage to the South Seas, and Round the World, Peform'd in the years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711."
It's impossible to say who aboard Blackbeard's ship would have been reading the voyage narrative — a form popular in England in the 17th and 18th century — or whether it belonged to a pirate or some terrified captive. But some pirates were known to be literate, Kenyon said.
For example, Stede Bonnett, the "gentleman pirate" who joined Blackbeard in 1717, had his own library. It's not known if he brought his books on the Queen Anne's Revenge.
A history of pirates written in 1724 mentions a journal belonging to Blackbeard that was taken when he was killed. And when Blackbeard captured a ship called the Margaret in December 1717, the list of items taken from the ship included books, Farrell said.
"They were literate men," Kenyon said. "People always assume pirates are ruffians from bad backgrounds, and that wasn't always the case."
The survival of the paper fragments is perhaps even more unusual than their existence aboard the pirate vessel.
The chamber in which they were found was a separate piece of a breech-loading swivel gun that was likely kept on the top deck because it was used as an anti-personnel weapon, Farrell said. Conservators don't have the cannon itself, which likely was salvaged or stolen when the Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground. In cannons of that period, "wadding" material such as cloth or paper would usually be stuffed behind a cannonball. So it's also possible someone just tore up the book without reading it to use it for firepower.
Conservators had removed a wooden plug from the chamber so they could clean it when they discovered the paper fragments stuffed in there, along with pieces of fabric in May 2016, Farrell said. That mass was removed easily enough, but prying the fragments from the fabric was more tedious and time-consuming, he said.
The combination of fabric and the plug likely protected the paper, which normally would have disintegrated in water, Farrell said.
But the ability to read doesn't change the evil character of pirates, who ransacked, raped and killed.
"The fact that they're literate doesn't mean they're not terrible, marauding people," Farrell said. "It just adds some nuance."