An 18th-century cockroach named Peri, discovered in the accounts book of a French slave-trading vessel, has become a surprise addition to the National Archives after the book was opened for the first time in more than two centuries.
The insect’s journey began onboard the slave-trading vessel that sailed from La Rochelle in 1743 for the Guinea coast. The crew later boarded a different vessel in modern-day Haiti bound for France, taking the accounts book with them. But that ship was seized by British privateers during the war of the Austrian succession and sent into Plymouth.
The mummified insect was discovered by Oliver Finnegan, a National Archives specialist in prize papers, which are documents including undelivered letters, logbooks, ships papers and bills confiscated from 35,000 ships during 14 wars between 1652 and 1817 that would be presented to the high court of the admiralty as proof of the legal seizure of a vessel.
“I opened the book and saw this huge bug. It was kind of a skin-crawling moment because of its unexpectedness. It’s bigger than it looks in the pictures,” said Finnegan, who was examining the papers before a big digitisation project. “These ships papers probably haven’t been opened or looked at since the mid-18th century.”
Through consultation with entomologists, he determined the creature was an example of an American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), also known as a ship’s cockroach, native to Africa and transplanted via the slave trade to the Americas and not commonly found in the UK.
From examining the documents, it seemed clear it had probably boarded the first ship in west Africa, then was transferred in the book to the second vessel. “I had never seen anything like it before,” said Finnegan.
“Our first concern was do we have cockroaches?” said Natalie Brown, senior conservation manager at the National Archives. “But we know we don’t have American cockroaches common to England, so it was very very unlikely to be modern day.”
Attempts to age it through radio-carbon dating failed as the technique is not accurate enough for that period. “But using historical knowledge we are able to say it seems pretty old,” said Brown.
“When it got shut in the book it created a microclimate that was perfect for preservation,” she added. Which is how they could determine its sex. “And it’s male. And we’ve named him Peri. When we opened it, we exposed it to the elements, so that’s why there was such a race to get it analysed and placed in nice housing to protect it.”
Peri, now pinned and mounted in a box with a Perspex lid, will have his own reference number, and will be kept in a drawer available to order up for anyone wishing to inspect him further in a special room at the National Archives. “I am not sure how much uptake he will have,” said Finnegan.