Early Modern Times – (well-read?) pirates of the Caribbean

Early Modern Times - (well-read?) pirates of the Caribbean

Dear readers,

This issue of Early Modern Times features an ‘explosive’ piece from guest blogger Master Sarah Toye (MA in History), EMSP alumna, former President of the Early Modern Studies Society, Senior Teaching Assistant in the EMSP course The Pirate & Piracy, and Pirate Historian. Enjoy! –Simon Kow, EMSP Director

Dr. Kow is preoccupied with the Early Modern Studies Society’s Sixth Annual Conference of the Early Modern, so in what could be considered a Kow-d’état, I will be stepping in as a guest contributor on the blog this week. I solemnly swear that I shall strive to maintain the standard of pun-ship to which readers have become accustomed.

Earlier this month, underwater archaeologists working on one of the most famous pirate shipwrecks of all time, Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, discovered 16 scraps of paper from a text they identified as Edward Cooke’s popular travel journal, “A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711”. Travel narratives such as this were extremely popular during this period, when Europeans were venturing further and further abroad and those at home were eager to hear their often outlandish and fictionalised tales of foreign lands. This particular text tells of Captain Edward Cooke, second-in-command to Captain Woodes Rogers, as they sailed to the Pacific (called the South Seas because from Europe you had to sail south around Cape Horn to get there) privateering against the Spanish.

Woodes Rogers, or ‘Woody’ as I affectionately call him, is one of my problematic-historical-boyfriends. He was the first Governor of what we now call the Bahamas, scourge of Caribbean piracy and architect of the 1718 proclamation that offered pardons without question to any pirate, which eventually led to the decline of the Golden Age of piracy in the Caribbean. Woody also published his travel journal from this same voyage, which I have read and very much recommend, because although he was very uptight he had an excellent and dry sense of humour (ironic for a career seafarer) and survived being shot in the face, which left him with a permanent Billy Joel-esque snarl. It was also on this voyage that Woody found and rescued Alexander Selkirk, whose experiences would go on to inspire Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. There was a lot of drama when this happened because the guy who marooned Selkirk in the first place, William Dampier, was serving as Woody’s pilot! Awkward.

Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, was nicknamed Blackbeard because he had a huge bushy black beard, in which he would put lit fuses during battle, giving him the appearance of having fire and smoke literally pouring out of his face. A frightening sight, as one can imagine. Despite his demonic appearance, Blackbeard died in battle off the coast of North Carolina on November 22, 1718 against the British Naval Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who brought back Blackbeard’s head on a spit (pictured above) – one can’t help but wonder if Blackbeard could have been victorious if he hadn’t ‘lost his head’ in battle.

It is a pretty big deal to find scraps of paper on a shipwreck since they disintegrate so quickly, especially on one that sank almost exactly 300 years ago. There are a lot of questions around day-to-day life aboard a pirate ship since there are no firsthand accounts from actual pirates, forcing historians instead to rely on trial records, newspaper accounts and literary retellings. Do the presence of these scraps of paper suggest literacy among pirates? An interest in studying other seafarers’ experiences? It is possible. However, since the scraps were found inside the barrel of a cannon, it seemed the pirates were ripping up books and shoving them inside their cannons to use as stuffing before loading the shot. That, I think, says a lot about how most pirates viewed literature: ‘canon’-fodder.

Sarah Toye

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