Monday, November 4, 2013

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates

and Also Their Policies, Discipline and Government, From Their First Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence 

By Captain Charles Johnson

In 1724 the publisher Charles Rivington of London brought forth a book which would profoundly influence the popular notion of pirates. It is still in print almost 300 years later. Much about the book remains shrouded in mystery. Indeed, we are not even sure who wrote it.

And yet it remains THE book, the original volume that shaped the word’s notion of pirates. Dozens of versions are available today. You can have hardback, paperback, facsimile edition, or you can browse the Google edition or upload it to your Nook or Kindle. East Carolina University offers a page-through digital copy of a first edition.

The story of the book probably begins about ten years before it was actually written. In 1712, British author Charles Johnson had an play produced at Drury Lane titled The Successful Pyrate. It celebrated the story of an outlaw, Henry Avery, and people of the time were shocked. Though modern folk are very familiar with anti-heroes and the glamorization of criminals, in the eighteenth century the notion of making a pirate the central character of a play was outrageous.

Though the original play was not successful, the amount of talk and scandal surrounding it encouraged others to write and produce work celebrating the lives of pirates, highwaymen, and even notorious prostitutes.

The General History of Pyrates (as it is commonly known) seems clearly to be a response to this fad, and the pseudonym chosen by the author, Captain Charles Johnson, seems to link directly to the original failed play.

Captain Johnson was clearly not a real person. He existed only as the author of the book.  Scholars have wondered about the real identity of the author for many years. It became popular to assume that Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Caruso, had written the book. Indeed, many current editions carry his name. Defoe, like the author of The General History, was very familiar with ships and sailing, the time periods were correct, and it seemed logical to assign the work to a known author.

But other people were not so happy with this. Why, for instance, should Defoe choose a pseudonym for this book alone? Arne Bialuschewski of the University of Kiel in Germany has recently suggested Nathaniel Mist, a former sailor, journalist, and publisher of the Weekly Journal, as a more likely candidate. Charles Rivington (publisher of the History), had printed books for Mist, who lived near his office. Further, the General History was registered at Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Mist's name. As a former seaman who had sailed the West Indies, Mist, of all London's writer-publishers, was uniquely qualified to have penned the History.

I enjoyed reading the book, but it must be taken in context. The General History is a work of its time. It is chatty and wandering, occasionally speaking directly to the reader in a you're-not-going-to-believe-this tone. At one point it wanders away to suggest a get-rich-quick scheme for English captains who may want to smuggle slaves into Brazil.

Printed in two volumes, the book is divided into chapters giving autobiographies of various pirates, and has been credited with making characters such as Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham and Bartholomew Roberts into legends.

Love of the subject matter shines through on every line. The author may say, repeatedly, how reprehensible pirates were, recite the damage they did, and call for their eradication. But he also recited in loving detail all the gossip about pirates.

Among its tales of famous and successful pirates, the book contains the story of a pirate ship which ran aground near the coast of South America. While waiting for the rising tides of the season to lift them off, the pirates found themselves running short on provisions, and sent a party off in their only longboat to obtain supplies. Only after the boat had rowed away did the pirates realize that without it they had no way to get to shore and get water. The entire crew nearly died before their comrades returned. Tales like this don’t make it to modern story books.

Another section recounts a series of increasingly threatening letters between an English privateer and a Spanish town. The English demand surrender and threaten to attack and burn the city. The Spanish brag that they can hold out forever, and threaten to torture every attacker that they capture. What makes the exchange hilarious to the modern eye is that the English captain signs each of his letters “Your humble and obedient servant” and the Spaniard signs his “I kiss your hand.” Plainly, these were typical closures of the time, as innocuous to the writers as “Yours truly” is to us. 300 years later, the effect is quite different.

For many people the books were fact. After all, whoever “Johnson” was, he lived during the Golden Age of Piracy, and had access to real pirates, and the friends of real pirates, when he wrote his book. But many of the stories have been proven false. The reasons are probably as follows: Human memory only goes so far. To a pirate, a good story is far more important than the truth. And when you’re buying a man drinks so he’ll recite stories of his youth as a pirate, he’s likely to keep talking as long as the rum holds out.

For this reason, The General History tells of how Anne Bonny, sailing with her lover, Calico Jack Rackham, took interest in a handsome young man on a ship they had captured. According to The History, Anne was alone with the fellow when Jack stormed in, shouting in jealous rage. It was at that point that Mary Reed revealed her true gender, and agreed to join Jack and Anne.

Historical documents say that Anne and Mary became friends on the island of Nassau, long before Anne went to sea. But the former story is more compelling, so that’s the one that was written down.  Editions of The General History were usually heavily advertised as containing the stories of the two cross-dressing women. Dutch editions of the book went so far as to commission a racy new picture of the two women, their shirts open to reveal their breasts. It also moved this illustration right up front near the title page. With this change, Dutch editions flew off the shelves.

Though not completely accurate, The General History set the stage for pirate tales, and has been the inspiration for authors from JM Barrie and Robert Lewis Stevenson to the creators of Pirates of the Caribbean.  

Books have always been an important way for pirate lovers to celebrate their passion for the freedom of the open sea. If you enjoy this blog, and would like to support it while getting your own ‘pirate fix’, please click this link to enjoy the adventures of my own fictional pirate captain, Scarlet MacGrath, in The Pirate Empire series.


  1. FYI: Daniel Defoe didn't write Treasure Island. That was Robert Louis Stevenson--and note that Louis is spelled Louis, not Lewis.

    1. You are correct and I've fixed it. I knew that, but apparently was having a brain fart at the time of writing. Thank you for correcting me.