It’s getting close to back to school time here so I thought I’d do an exploration on pirates and literacy. Several people have asked me over the years if pirates were literate. Written materials by pirates are so far between that you could argue they’re non-existent, while other ships had full surviving accounts. Therefore, the answer is the same for them as other sailors: yes and no.
Literacy rose during the 17th and 18th century in England and the North American colonies. This is thanks to the rapid expansion of print on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, the newspaper industry exploded close to the turn of the 18th century. In 1712, 16 weekly newspapers circulated in London alone and by the mid-century the number had increased to 18 with circulations that could reach up to 15,000 purchased copies per month. A quarter the population in England was considered literate at the beginning of the 18th century. Technically, to be considered literate one only had to be able to sign their name, but it was a start.
There had to be some literate sailors on ships in order for them to function properly. Logbooks determining their location, the weather conditions, and any news-worthy items had to be recorded daily. Inventory was meticulously updated. The names, birthplace, ages, and positions of the crew members had to be noted. Usually the most literate members of the crew would be the captain, quarter-master, purser, surgeon, and navigator (if the ship was fortunate enough to have the latter two on board). Since pirates were often previously-employed sailors or otherwise semi-skilled workers, they too had to have literate members on their ship to keep the same records.
However, pirates’ records for whatever reason have not been recovered. Their logs were likely destroyed either by themselves or those who captured them to erase their annals of history.
Another matter that suggests pirates were literate is the fact that sailors needed to find a way to entertain themselves. Literacy was one of the primary forms of entertainment during this time period. On land, there were taverns and coffeehouses in abundance where people would read aloud from newspapers, pamphlets, and books to discuss news at home and abroad and simply to have a good time.
In December 2017, scraps of paper were discovered on the wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge – Blackbeard’s ship of which there has been a significant excavation project over the last several years. After extensive analysis, it was confirmed that the scraps of paper came from Captain Edward Cooke’s 1712 book, A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World, Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711. You can read more about the discovery here. This book could have been used for educational or recreational purposes. Or even both. Literature was one of the primary sources of entertainment during the 18th century. It is not unlikely that pirates also shared this enthusiasm.
So, were pirates literate? Like other sailors, some pirates were literate and some were not. However, they continue to be the more mysterious lot thanks to their lack of their own documents. Perhaps they destroyed them to hide their crimes. Or perhaps they were destroyed by officials so their stories could not be told. We will never know.
Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics, and English Society (Harlow, 2000).
Kevin Williams, Read All About It! A History of the British Newspaper (London, 2010).
Daniel Vickers, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail (New Haven, 2005).