As It Happens

Blackbeard the bookworm? Why conservators think the pirate may have kept a library aboard his ship

Conservators have found fragments of paper that suggest the notorious 18th-century pirate Captain Edward (Blackbeard) Teach may have kept a library of books on board his ship the Queen Anne's Revenge.
Captain Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, a pirate who plundered the coasts of the West Indies, North Carolina and Virginia. His hair is woven with flaming fuses to increase his fearsome appearance. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Story transcript

Blackbeard was a merciless, murderous 18th-century pirate who claimed he was Lucifer incarnate, and lit his hair on fire before a battle. After which he would curl up in a comfy chair with a mug of the finest grog and devour a good book — or at least that's the latest theory going thanks to a new discovery found in the wreckage of the pirate's flagship.

After months of work, researchers were surprised to find fragments of pages from a book.

"It's something exceptionally rare. It's very interesting to get a look into this sort of thing — of what books were on board," says conservator Erik Farrell. "The fact that we have any of this at all is bordering on miraculous." 
Captain Edward Teach, who was known as Blackbeard the Pirate, died in 1718. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The pirate ran the Queen Anne's Revenge aground off the coast of North Carolina in 1718. It was discovered in 1996, and conservators have been investigating it ever since.

And as Farrell explains to As It Happens host Carol Off, the fragments were found in an unlikely place — the loading chamber of a cannon.

"It's basically what holds the gunpowder," Farrell explains. "Basically a little piece floated out of that."

The corroded iron, wooden plugs and marine growth helped perserve the paper in the gun. After examining the artifacts researchers were able to piece together the various fragments and come up with a theory about what book the pages might have come from. 
The fragments that matched the text from Edward Cooke's account. (North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources)

"One fragment in particular had the word Hilo — H-I-L-O — and that had a space on either side so we knew it was a complete word," Farrell explains. "It was capitalized, italicized, so we knew it was most likely a place name."

Farrell suspects that "Hilo" refers to a port in Peru. Many accounts of voyages to the area were published throughout the late 17th and early 18th centuries. And when Farrell compared the fragments with one account made in 1712 by Edward Cook, he found a match.

"We can't be 100 per cent certain exactly about when it came aboard, exactly who it belonged with," Farrell explains. "Pirates are not necessarily known for their record-keeping but there are several points where we know books either did come aboard or were associated with the fleet." 
A 3,000 pound anchor from what is believed to be the wreck of the pirate Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, is recovered from the ocean in 2011. (Robert Willett/The Associated Press)

Another theory is that Blackbeard and his crew may have been using the book as cannon fodder out of spite. The fragments may also belong to accounts from Captain Woodes Rogers, who eventually tried to stamp out pirates like Blackbeard.

"It might be a private joke. Personally I would like to imagine that's the case," Farrell says. "Equally, though, it may be that someone was sitting there loading breech chambers and there was a book in arm's reach. It may just be expedience — that someone was being lazy."


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