Cockroach of Middle East origin found in 18th century UK document

The insect was found buried within a book of a ship’s accounts

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By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Wed 15 Jun 2022, 3:55 PM

London: Specialists at Britain’s National Archives – the official archive and publisher of the UK government – have discovered a type of cockroach that originated from Africa and the Middle East between the pages of an 18th-century volume seized during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

The cockroach was found buried within a book of ship’s accounts from a French slave-trading vessel, which sailed from La Rochelle in 1743 for the Guinea Coast. The crew later boarded a different vessel bound for France, which was seized by the British and sent into Plymouth.

The papers are now part of the archive’s Prize Papers collection, after they were presented to the High Court of Admiralty as proof of the legal seizure of the vessel.

Many of the documents in this collection have remained virtually untouched for centuries, which may have provided the ideal conditions for the preservation of the specimen, the National Archives said on Wednesday.

Conservators have identified the cockroach as an example of Perinplaneta americana (American Cockroach). Known as the ‘Ships’ Cockroach’, the specimen originated from Africa and the Middle East and later spread to the Americas through commercial shipping.

As this species is not commonly found in the UK, it is possible that the specimen is a rare and well-preserved example of the migration of species caused by the slave trade, it said.

Oliver Finnegan, Prize Papers Record Specialist at the National Archives, said: “When I first found this account book (and the cockroach), it was still part of an eighteenth-century file, so it had almost certainly not been opened since 1745 and has remained in London ever since, where Perinplaneta americana are rare”.

“The fact that this ship sailed from the Guinea Coast, where such vessels commonly got infested with this species of cockroach, also supports this origin story”, he added.

The conservators explored scientific analysis such as radiocarbon dating to establish the age of the cockroach; however, the presumed date of the specimen falls within a period known to be problematic for this form of analysis.

With advice from specialists at the Natural History Museum, the cockroach has been mounted using entomology pins in a bespoke archival box for safe preservation, it added.


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