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Mon, 18 Aug 2003

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

— SjG @ 4:04 pm

Captain Charles Johnson, 1724, republished by Conway Maritime Press, 1998, nonfiction.

This book, published in several editions in the early eighteenth century, is a fairly straightforward accounting of the lives of some of the biggest names in what is called the “Golden Age of Piracy.” It includes a number of the familiar names, such as Captain Kidd and Captain Teach (Blackbeard), as well as some of whom I had never heard. The book has been republished as a portion of the edition of 1724, leaving out many of the histories, but including a preface and a discussion of who this Captain Johnson actually was (it was long believed that this was a nom de plume for Daniel Defoe). Others have noted that this particular edition mixes and matches various editions of the book, and are quite critical of the editor; as I haven’t read any other versions, I’m unable to comment on this.
While probably shocking in its day, today’s reader may find the book almost dry. The English language has undergone some evolution since the time of the writing, and some readers may find Johnson’s text stilted or challenging. He also is very concerned with accuracy, even when it gets in the way of a ripping good yarn — Johnson chronicles litanies of ships looted (by type, and by captain) in a Deuteronomy-style list. There is a great deal of description of the mundane aspects of sailing ships (whether for trade or piracy), such as the frequent need to careen the ships and clean the hulls, as well as provisioning them for further journeys. Johnson also frequently reproduces (in their entirety) letters or documents that may have appeared in court cases or were sent by pirates that duplicate his description of events, or the final speeches of pirates who were hanged, or proclamations that affected their exploits, or lists of names identifying who was convicted and who acquitted.
The prurient details hinted at by the lurid title are rarely detailed, although in certain histories (such as that of Captain Low), there is a fair amount of murder, brutality, and mayhem provided in shocking portrayals. Johnson also dwells on the cases of Mary Read and Anne Bonny with a particular glee, as the idea of women pirates probably was about as controversial as you could get in the 1700s.
Where I found the book most interesting was in the descriptions of places, social mores, and world events. In several places, Johnson describes (or quotes others’ descriptions) of islands or places, and the patterns of life in those places. We also get a view of the American colonies, half a century before the American Revolution, not to mention views of far flung places like India and Madagascar. Having traveled in India, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary commentary on Aurangzeb (“the Grand Mughal”).

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