Mark Wilde-Ramsing, Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton. Blackbeard's Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne's Revenge. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 224 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-4052-5.
Reviewed by Jess Cragg (UWF Historic Trust, University of West Florida)
Published on H-War (January, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne’s Revenge, by Mark U. Wilde-Ramsing and Linda F. Carnes-McNaughton, interprets years of scientific and academic study into an easily accessible, visually pleasing overview of the cultural remains left behind by one of history’s most notorious pirates. Wilde-Ramsing and Carnes-McNaughton present an intriguing in-depth analysis of the material culture of Queen Anne’s Revenge (QAR), Blackbeard’s flagship used during six months of his reign along the Eastern Seaboard in the early eighteenth century. Drawing on their firsthand experience, along with interviews from others involved in locating the QAR’s final resting place, the authors produced a beautiful work covering a range of topics relating to the trials and tribulations of working on Blackbeard’s ship.
The book begins with the description of the ship’s wreck site and a solid overview of the pirate himself, thankfully steering away from fanciful embellishments that books about pirates so often contain. Following the introduction, the work dives into explanations of archaeological processes, how sites are discovered, excavated, and recorded, as well as a description of how QAR specifically revealed herself. Through highlights of diagnostic artifacts via enjoyable pop-outs, such as a section on the bell recovered in 1996, after the first few chapters readers have a thorough understanding of the site and its history.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is its ability to walk that fine line between purely academic and popular history. Vignettes like “Pirate Archaeology and the Archaeology of Pirates” (p. 68) help place the wreck into historical context, which is especially useful for those unfamiliar with the era. The authors’ decision to include special sections on underrepresented populations, such as “Sugar and Slavery” (p. 22), is particularly refreshing. Even sections that contain hypotheticals (p. 89) are interesting ways to capture audience attention. The authors appropriately recognize the variances of historical record by carefully avoiding the dreaded pitfalls of making definitive statements about a subject that has garnered great debate among scholars—a triumphant feat given the site as a whole has faced years of critical remarks regarding its legitimacy and even the historical reasoning behind its creation (did Blackbeard ground it intentionally? Was it an accident? Is it even his flagship?). The book provides several theories, and applies intentional weight to solidify which premise the authors believe but does not discount the potential for new evidence to prove otherwise. Furthermore, its lengthy index and notes provide a firm foundation for each argument presented within the book.
Still, a critical eye can spot a few instances that might detract from the overall pleasurable experience of this read. There are parts that come across as quite dense for general-interest readers and would benefit from further explanation through either a subsection or additional vignette. For example, in the “Archaeological Investigations” chapter, extensive diction space is spent on recounting ten years’ worth of excavations using standard industry terminology such as photogrammetry, stratified sampling, and various site maps. While useful for archaeologists, it may come across as overwhelming to lay readers who are looking to enhance their understanding of how the site has been recorded.
If reading the work piecemeal, the information presented section by section gives a comprehensive study of the QAR site. However, when reading through the book in its entirety, it feels in some instances like a book written by committee. Repetitive information creeps in, particularly regarding the location or artifacts. Pages 34-35, 40-45, 48, and 158 all provide detailed descriptions of Beaufort Inlet, giving the reader at first a sense of déjà vu followed by a strong desire to skip through to find new information to digest.
The use of artifacts to illustrate the significance of the wreck site within its larger cultural context is a useful tool, though its hyperfocus on “showstoppers” gives unequal attention to the pieces that provide a better understanding of maritime culture on the whole. Items like the diagnostic ship’s bell and large intact glassware take up the bulk of descriptions. While not inherently a negative mark on the book, personal experience working in the museum displaying the majority of these items speaks to the power even tiny flecks of gold dust can have to captivate an audience. Visitors are continuously fascinated by the elements that are not utilitarian but rather speak to the grand adventures of a pirate’s life.
Ultimately, for those looking to have a visually stunning coffee table book that can be flipped through at leisure and admired for its combination of beautiful artwork and interesting stories, Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize is the perfect complement to any maritime enthusiast’s repertoire. Others wanting a deep dive into how submerged archaeology functions as a discipline and looking for an analysis of years of careful scientific research will delight in the information Wilde-Ramsing and Carnes-McNaughton present. This book is certainly worth adding to the shelves of casual readers and scholars alike.
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Jess Cragg. Review of Wilde-Ramsing, Mark; Carnes-McNaughton, Linda F., Blackbeard's Sunken Prize: The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne's Revenge.
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