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Following close upon the heels of my last post, here’s an excuse to riff a bit more on the use of click-bait, plus correct some recent misunderstandings about pirates and the books they might or might not have read, plus speculate on what they might have done with them, and why–and also learn a little bit about breech-loading swivel guns.
The inspiration for this post is, again, an exaggerated article title, in this case from the Associated Press via The Washington Post, but the material has been published in quite a few various media. The article itself is pretty straight forward. It’s the misconceptions the click-bait-ish title creates that I have some disagreement with, particularly when combined with superficial reading or analysis:
In short, archaeologists investigating the likely wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, commanded by Edward Teach or Thatch, aka Blackbeard, discovered pages from a book, identified as A Voyage to the South Seas, and Round the World, Peform’d in the years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711 by Captain Edward Cooke, stuffed in the chamber from a breech-loading swivel gun. From this some possible conclusions have been drawn, and I’ve drawn a few in addition.
It will help to understand how a breech-loading swivel worked. Generally referred to as a paterero (with variant spellings), from the Spanish pedrero, or rock-shooting swivel gun (formerly they were often loaded with stone shot or bags of flint shards), it was occasionally also referred to as a chamber, given that it was loaded via removable chambers rather than have charges rammed down the barrel from the muzzle.
Patereros were often of wrought iron, as in the photographs farther down, but could also be of “brass” (actually bronze, see the photo just below), which was much more expensive. Typically there were two chambers per gun (one in the gun, one to swap it with when fired), but this could vary. Given that the chamber volume was often larger than the required charge of powder, a wad or a wooden tompion of sorts, or both, was stuffed over the powder charge in order to keep it place, effectively tamping it down so that the burning powder (technically gunpowder deflagrates, it doesn’t burn fast enough to explode) had maximum effect, not to mention didn’t spill out.
The gunner first placed his shot, usually with an oakum wad in front and behind, into the barrel from the breech, then placed the chamber into the breech and hammered an iron or brass wedge in place behind it to keep the chamber in place and especially to prevent it from blowing back when the charge was fired. Patereros are noted in period writings, and also observed in modern practice (see image below), as having a lot of blow-back of embers and smoke into the gunner’s face, given the poor seal between the chamber and the gun itself.
A legible book fragment found in a swivel gun breech is in fact a fascinating find, like finding a bit of true pirate treasure, and full credit and congratulations go to the archaeologists who made and researched the discovery.
However, it’s important to note the following about the facts in this instance of pirates, books, and Blackbeard’s ship:
1. While the wreck is most likely that of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, this has not yet been proven beyond all doubt. Associated scholars and researchers have accepted it as the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship based on its characteristics and the fact that it probably could be no other. However, nothing recovered from the ship proves it belonged to Blackbeard and his crew. Notably, pronouncing it as Blackbeard’s ship gives it a cachet useful in fundraising and attracting tourists. In other words, it’s possible that the fragment had nothing to do with pirates. However, I think it likely that the ship was Blackbeard’s and thus the fragment therefore probably did have something to do with pirates.
2. Still, even if it is Blackbeard’s ship, we have no way of knowing who stuffed the chamber with pages from a book. Possibly it could have been the French gunner or one of his mates who did so before Blackbeard and his crew captured the ship, having no use for a book in English. Or the chamber could have been captured from another vessel and brought aboard just as it was eventually found at the bottom of the sea.
However, I think these are lesser possibilities. Chances are, even a lazy pirate gunner would probably have cleaned and inspected a captured swivel gun and its chambers at some point. Although it’s commonly believed that pirates captured most merchantmen after a fight, this was not the reality: nearly all merchantmen in the early eighteenth century surrendered to pirates without a fight. And that’s what pirates wanted.
So, while it’s possible, even very much so, that the swivel gun chamber was never fired in anger by a pirate, I think it still likely that a pirate gunner at least inspected and maintained it, lazy though the early eighteenth century pirates typically were, except in the case of maintaining their personal arms (which was, I suspect, probably as much of a fetish behavior as a practical one, given how seldom they actually used them in action).
3. If it were Blackbeard’s gunner or one of the gunner’s mates (note that aboard ships a cannon is called a gun) who stuffed the chamber with pages torn from a book, what does this tell us about pirate reading habits in general?
A bit of background. Some seamen, therefore some pirates, were illiterate. But the various officers responsible for navigation, gunnery, and so forth were all readers and to a fairly substantial degree, mathematically-inclined. They had to be. And any seamen hoping to advance from mate to master had to know how to read. Books were common aboard ships, and published accounts of voyages were common in seagoing libraries for the simple reason that they provided “intelligence” about places that might be visited. Remember, there was no Internet, there was no easy access to accurate (and just as often today, inaccurate) information.
In fact, some late seventeenth century buccaneers were published writers, describing their travels and adventures, often quite factually, occasionally with some apparent exaggeration: for example, Alexandre Exquemelin, William Dampier, Bartholomew Sharp, Basil Ringrose, William Dick, and Lionel Wafer.
What the pages of a book–and we’re assuming the book was not used because it had been damaged beyond all use, but was in readable condition–used in a swivel gun (technically, a paterero) chamber might tell us about pirate reading habits is that…
SOME PIRATES HAD NO RESPECT FOR BOOKS.
But we already know this. Often, when ransacking a captured vessel, early eighteenth century pirates would trash everything aboard, randomly and ruthlessly. At times this included books.
In the words of Captain William Snelgrave, master of a slaver captured by pirates on the Guinea Coast in 1719: “Moreover two large Chests that had Books in them were empty; and I was afterwards informed, they had been all thrown overboard; for one of the Pirates, upon opening them, swore, “there was Jaw-work enough (as he called it) to serve a Nation, and proposed they might be cast into the Sea; for he feared, there might be some Books amongst them, that might breed Mischief enough; and prevent some of their Comrades from going on in their Voyage to Hell, whither they were all bound. Upon which the Books were all flung out of the Cabin-windows into the River.” (William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea [London: James, John, and Paul Knapton, 1734].)
Piratical Fahrenheit 451 by any other name! The destruction of books for social or political purpose!
And the same with the pages in the swivel chamber, burned to hell, so to speak, when the gun would have eventually been fired.
And why wouldn’t these pirates want their brethren to read? In part, because many had been physically or psychologically abused into joining the crew. Unlike the late seventeenth century buccaneers, who never forced men to join (slaves and the occasional Spanish pilot excepted) and who let men leave the crew when the pleased (as long as they paid for their victuals), the early eighteenth century pirates operated more like gangs, intimidating seamen into joining and forcing them to stay for the duration. Other pirates, including some of those who had joined without coercion, may have been souring on the idea of piracy and were likely candidates for desertion. Reading material might have reminded them of what they had left behind, or of consequences, or both.
Chances are, the book used in the chamber was taken from a prize, as with Snelgrave’s library above. It’s possible that it may have been damaged during plundering then put to use as trash paper in a chamber. Or, it may first have been read by a pirate or by a few. Or, I think more likely, by none at all. But we have no way of knowing.
However, there is another intriguing possibility. Following the example Snelgrave gave of pirates and books, it’s quite possible that Blackbeard’s crew, if indeed the gun belonged to them, might not have cared much for the book from which the fragment came. It was written by the captain of the Duchess privateer, whose consort, the Duke, was commanded by Woodes Rogers, who would later go on to become Governor of New Providence–and chase pirates, Blackbeard included, from the island.
In sum, the point of all this is that the article title is a little bit misleading. And unfortunately, many readers these days seem to me to read the title, glance at the first paragraph, and that’s it. And this isn’t enough! Especially when too many readers don’t even read much past the title before “sharing” it. It’s vital that titles reflect the text as accurately as possible, and that the text avoid playing to expectations rather than serving the truth.
Even if we read the entire article, at best the facts about the book fragment can tell us nothing more than what we already knew: that published voyage journals were common reading, for a reason, among seafarers, and that some pirates had no respect for books. Anything beyond this, however intelligent, is speculation.
This is not to put a damper on the excitement of finding readable text from pages stuffed in a swivel chamber that has sat under the sea for three centuries. But we need to stick as much as possible to facts, not fancy, particularly in this age of misinformation amplified by modern technology. Even is a subject as colorful, popular, and full of misconceptions as piracy. Or rather, especially so.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 18, 2018.