- Blackbeard's Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne's Revenge by Mark U. Wilde-Ramsing and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton
Blackbeard's Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne's Revenge is a well-illustrated study of the ship that Edward Thache, the pirate better known as Blackbeard, ran aground off the North Carolina coast in 1718. The skeletal remains of the Queen Anne's Revenge (QAR), along with tens of thousands of artifacts, were ultimately recovered and analyzed by a vast interdisciplinary research team, shedding light on the material world of piracy in the late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Atlantic world. The book is organized into eight chapters, with maps, graphs, tables, and dozens of photographs, many of them of artifacts.
The Queen Anne's Revenge, originally a French privateer and slaver captured near Martinique in 1717 by Thache, soon became a heavily armed pirate ship engaging in a "six-month spree" of pillage and plunder along the coast of North America (p. 3). The shipwreck yielded not only the artifacts of Thache's pirate flagship but also artifacts and snippets of Akan gold jewelry from when the ship sailed under the French flag. Mark U. Wilde-Ramsing and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton use the artifacts to present a compelling teaser of life aboard a pirate ship, finding that "Captain Thache maintained traditional [End Page 663] hierarchal control from his cabin in the stern" (p. 160). The area of the ship that housed the officers, including Thache, yielded fancy dinnerware, coins, gold dust, and tellingly, most of the lead shot recovered from the wreck. Other findings include the extent of wear and repair of the ship's arms and armament, suggesting that the ship's gunsmiths kept busy managing stolen weapons.
Preservation of the ship and its contents was extraordinary, with a wide range of materials recovered, including (to name but a few) ship's timbers and hardware, lamps, navigational equipment, weapons of all kinds, medical tools, ceramics, glass, clothing, and even remnants of cloth sails. Still, the authors argue, only with "full recovery" will the "real treasure" of the ship be finally realized by answering unspecified "broader questions" (p. 164). The authors go on to suggest that the QAR's significance lies "first and foremost" in its contributions to the conservation of materials recovered through underwater archaeology (p. 164). Archaeological conservation, especially for materials from submerged contexts, is no small (or inexpensive) undertaking. The lessons conservators can take from the QAR will no doubt be of value to the future work of shipwreck recovery.
But what of the so-called broader questions? What can the recovered evidence suggest about the economic, social, and cultural significance of piracy? Answers can be partially found in the book's detailed discussions of the artifacts. Missing from the book, however, is a section or chapter synthesizing the findings of these individual discussions, relating them to the documentary evidence, and contextualizing them in the growing body of scholarship on early Atlantic piracy, such as Marcus Rediker's Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004).
There are two stories at play in this book. The first is about Edward Thache, the pirate known as Blackbeard, and the things found aboard his flagship. This story brings a unique body of evidence to bear on the understanding of early modern piracy. The second story—the epic narrative of the discovery, recovery, and analysis of the three-hundred-year-old shipwreck—nearly swamps the first. No doubt this undertaking was a complex project, but its recounting is overdone. For example, the three-page table in the main body of the text that lists every participant, research topic, institutional affiliation, region, and publication date is information better suited to a bibliography.
Nonetheless, the results of the project are published, which is no small achievement, and the material has been...