CAPTAIN CHARLES JOHNSON. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. New York: Garland Publishing, 1972. Pp. 320. $30.00.Originally published in London: Charles Rivington, 1724.
Originally published in early May of 1724, A General History of the Pyrates (henceforth GHP) is a compilation of British pirate biographies from the early eighteenth-century. Without a doubt, it is the most famous and most widely cited primary source on the topic of the Black Flag pirates, often being described as the “Bible” of English pirate history. Although the authorship of the work has been long disputed and continues to remain a mystery, this fact has not softened the momentum of the text, which remains the cornerstone of almost every secondary source on the history of the English sea rovers. Written in the contemporary genre of criminal biography, GHP details the adventurous yet ignominious lives of approximately 19 Welsh, Scottish, Irish, and English captains and their crews, most of whom had some relationship to Providence island, Bahamas, and sailed upon the High Seas between the years 1717 and 1724. The manuscript is a fluid mixture of chivalrous romance, sensational storytelling, didactic moralism, social criticism, political commentary, and historical observation. For this reason, it is most aptly characterized as multiple books in one, all of which are grippingly composed, precisely argued, and carefully arranged for the benefit of several distinct audiences.
The first volume of GHP is organized with a short author’s preface; an introduction about ancient and medieval Barbary piracy in the Mediterranean; a chapter on Henry Avery and the settlement of the pirates at Madagascar; a chapter on the growth of the pirates at Providence and the arrival of governor Woodes Rogers; and then twelve subsequent chapters of the biographies of individual pirate captains of Anglo descent. The figures profiled in these twelve chapters are John Martel, Stede Bonnet, Edward Teach, Charles Vane, Jack Rackam, Edward England, Howell Davis, Bartholomew Roberts, Richard Worley, George Lowther, Edward Lowe, and John Evans. However, several prominent members of their pirate crews are also detailed at length, including John Yeats, Walter Kennedy, John Fenn, George Bradley, John Massey, and the only known female pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. The book ends with an “Abstract of the Civil Law and Statute Law now in Force, in relation to Piracy.”
Before analyzing the text’s content, it is useful to recapitulate its own history, particularly the ongoing controversy surrounding its mysterious authorship. To quote the brief introduction by William Graves, GHP was originally published “in two editions in the year 1724, a third in 1725, a fourth in 1726, and in over sixty editions by the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century.” At the time of its publishing, the text was widely reviewed in trans-Atlantic periodicals like London’s Weekly Journal and Philadelphia’s American Weekly Mercury. However, by the age of “the pirate historian’s pirate historian,” Philip Gosse, in the 1920s, the reputed author of GHP was still unidentified in the historical record.
The tone of the first edition of GHP is consistent throughout, leaving most critics to agree that it was composed by a single author. However, it is generally believed that the name “Captain Charles Johnson” is a pseudonym, possibly chosen to mock a homonymous and contemporary English playwright. This writer, also named Charles Johnson, published a romantic, glamorizing piece about the English rogue Henry Avery. The piece was called The Successful Pirate and it appeared in the year 1713. The author of GHP expresses direct scorn for this play, particularly the “false Rumours,” “idle Stories,” and “strange Things,” which have contributed to so “great a Noise” about such an ignoble person, “who died penniless.” It is possible that the unknown author of GHP intended to add an air of legitimacy to his own work, in contrast to the play, by prefixing his pseudonym with the word “Captain.”
In 1932, the American bibliographer John Robert Moore first introduced the idea at a meeting of the MLA that GHP was at least partly the work of the famous English writer Daniel Defoe. Seven years later, in 1939, he advanced this claim in his book Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies, stating that Defoe was the undisputed author of the text. Moore based his claims upon purely internal and circumstantial evidence: that Defoe often published under pseudonyms, wrote several additional works on the topic of pirates, and included phrases in those books that closely paralleled phrases in GHP. Moore continued to publish about this theory for decades, following up with Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe in 1960. But his claims about GHP were only one piece of a much larger argument that he was making about “the Defoe canon.” Over the course of his lifetime, Moore attributed literally hundreds of new works to Defoe, being most memorably criticized by Rodney Baine for his discussion of Robert Drury’s Journal.
Moore’s argument about GHP proved so convincing that libraries and publishers across the world began re-cataloguing and re-publishing the book under the name of Defoe. In fact, this 1972 reprint by Garland Publishing—made from a facsimile of the original manuscript, volume one, housed in the Beinecke Library of Yale University—dates to this period. The trend persisted for approximately fifty years, when a couple of literary scholars named P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens criticized Moore’s theory in The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (1988). They followed this work with several articles and another book, entitled Defoe De-Attributions: Critique of J.R. Moore’s Checklist (1994). These works argued, ab absurdo, that there was no direct evidence to link GHP with Defoe. They led publishers like Conway Maritime and Lyons Press to reissue the book with the original author of Captain Charles Johnson.
The authorship of GHP is still disputed today. Some scholars and publishers like Richard West and Dover Publications (in their 1999 reissue) have continued to hold on to the dying belief that GHP was written by Defoe, while respected maritime historians and journalists like Marcus Rediker, David Cordingly, and Colin Woodard have all come forth denouncing the claim. Still others have put forth intriguing new ideas. Foremost among these is Arne Bialuschewski, who argues that GHP was more likely written by the English journalist Nathaniel Mist. Unlike Defoe, Mist was a former sailor who traveled abroad and knew the sea intimately, a known acquaintance of the publisher Charles Rivington, and GHP was originally registered under his name in Her Majesty’s Stationary Office. Moreover, the book was heavily reviewed in Mist’s own journal, and his Jacobite allegiance is supported by textual evidence. Regardless, this attribution is just a theory; and, like Moore’s, it rests upon no conclusive evidence.
The pirate biographies of GHP vary in regards to both length and style. By far the longest bio, weighing in at a hefty 100 pages, is that of Bartholomew Roberts and his crew. As he states in the preface, Johnson prolonged this profile for two specific reasons: because Roberts “ravaged the Seas longer than the rest” of the pirates, and in order to avoid “tiresome Repetitions” across the profiles. By contrast, the shortest bios are those of Captains Richard Worley and John Evans, which run to only five pages. In terms of style, the chapters in GHP range from strictly factual, ledger-style accounts of ships and master’s overtaken on the High Seas to romantic and hair-raising yarns of “cruelty unparalleled” and “esquisite tortures.” At the end of the work, Johnson explicitly states that one of his audiences is the general, literary “Publick” of England; and it is safe to assume that these romantic stories are intended mostly for their entertainment.
While GHP is a very unique work, it also belongs to a wider and contemporary genre of criminal biography. Among this category are similar titles like Lives of the Gamesters (1714) by Theophilis Lucas; A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) by Captain Alexander Smith; Lives of The Most Remarkable Criminals Who have been Condemned and Executed for Murder (1735) by Arthur Hayward; and much more. All of the works in this genre followed a rough template. They recounted the daring, sensational, and exciting lives of liminal figures who lived outside the law, and they took the opportunity to moralize about why the reader should avoid that kind of life. The works allowed common readers to live vicariously as criminals while never compromising their “proper” ethics or risking their relatively comfortable and safe lives at home.
Some of the biographies in GHP feature sensational prose and Hollywood-style quotes. The prose includes “hang’d like a dog and sun dry’ed,” “as wet with the blood that had been spilt as if they had been dip’d in Water,” and “the blood ran out of the Scuppers in Streams.” The quotes include Anne Bonny’s famous line, “if he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang’d like a Dog” and Dennis Macarty’s dying declaration, “That Some Friends of his had often Said he should die in his Shoes, but that he would make them Lyars, and so kicked them off.” There are a couple of pirates who are redolent of Alexander Exquemelin’s portrait of Jean-David Nau in The Buccaneers of America: portrayed as inhumane and sadistic. Foremost among these is Lowe, who is called a “bloody monster” and forces one of his captive’s to eat his own two severed ears. Then there is Teach, who is literally compared to the devil incarnate. After the facts of Teach’s life and death are dutifully recounted, Johnson takes a few pages to regale the reader with tales of his most wicked “Extravagancies.”
On this note, it is important to state that GHP is largely responsible for setting down our popular imagery concerning pirates of the early-modern era. For example, although many literary scholars attribute the idea of burying gold to the eighteenth-century Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, it was Charles Johnson who claimed that Teach said, “no body but himself, and the Devil, know where” he “buried his money.” It is important for scholars to remember that popular, romantic conceptions of pirates evolved alongside the history itself, not solely as a later invention of fiction writers. However, while Johnson’s grisly portrayal of Teach is arguably the most colorful in GHP, it is not representative of the entire group. There are many different types of characters profiled in GHP, from the abstemious and well-dressed Bartholomew Roberts, to the “Gentleman” planter of “liberal Education” and “plentiful fortune” Stede Bonnet, to the man John Massey, who willingly orchestrates his own capture and conviction. Indeed, from Bunce who repents on the gallows to Morice who remains loyal to the black ensign to the end, there is literally every type of pirate in GHP.
As a rule, Johnson does not offer much information about the lives of the pirates before they decided to “pursue the Account.” In terms of backstory, he is generally satisfied with a combination of where they were born, whether they were privateers in the late war, and whether they were “bred up to the Sea” from their youth. This tendency makes sense, considering that reliable information about a pirate’s origins was very hard to come by, and Johnson claims to have devoted himself to writing only what he could prove with evidence. The main exceptions to this rule are the lives of the two female and cross-dressing pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, which Johnson readily admits are a “little Extravagant” and have the “Air of a Novel.” Much of the former’s life actually concerns her actions in the King’s army on the continent before going to sea; most of the latter’s life concerns her unusual conception and upbringing; and both stories stray from the typical list of prizes taken.
As Johnson states about his credibility in the third person, “those Facts which he himself was not an Eye-Witness of, he had from the authentick Relations of the Persons concerned in taking the Pyrates, as well as from the Mouths of the Pyrates themselves, after they were taken.” Furthermore, he describes his work as “Truth” and apologizes for his usage of the term “History” only on the basis of the work’s subject matter—which is “but the Actions of a Parcel of Robbers”—and not its accuracy. Johnson is also forthcoming about the limits of his knowledge; he concludes a couple of the biographies with statements like, “what became of them, I know not,” and he admits when pirates like Rackam drop off the grip for an entire year. In one case, Johnson chooses to leave the name of a still-living pirate unspoken, as if the publication of his name would jeopardize his livelihood. In reference to the crew of England, Johnson implies that the story is unfinished: “What Courses these Fellows may take next, is uncertain.”
Johnson has a scholar’s tendency to interpose his text with primary sources that can speak to the circumstances of an event more directly than himself. In this sense, the GHP is not only an important primary source on the lives of the English pirates in the Golden Age generation, but it is also a compilation of primary documents. Johnson includes complete versions and excerpts of documents like the Proclamation against Teach by Alexander Spotswood; the piratical Articles of Roberts and Lowther; the Resolution and Preamble of the New York Council’s “Freedom” concerning Peter Solgard; the alleged sea journal of Teach; the Indictments and Chief Justice’s Speech against Bonnet and his crew; the list of Royal Navy ships taken by the Spanish and stationed in the English colonies; a Receipt intended for the underwriters of a pillaged ship; the depositions, affidavits, testimonies, and lists of condemned, acquitted, deported, and pardoned pirates; the petition of Thomas How; a copy of an indenture contract, the various proceedings of the Vice Admiralty courts; the letters of the House of Lords, and more.
The primary sources included in GHP suggest several facts about its author. First, the writer was either a member of the English government himself, or else he was an individual with very intimate political connections. Towards the end of the text, Johnson uses the first person to refer to “my Lord Carteret,” who served as the Secretary of State for the Southern Department (including the American colonies) between the years 1721 and 1724, when the book was being composed. If Johnson worked for Carteret, then he would have had access to correspondence and memoranda concerning foreign policy in the Americas. Woodard has also argued that Johnson derived much of his historical source information from interviews with Woodes Rogers, who was laid up in London between 1721 and 1728 after his first term of governorship ended. Either way, one fact is quite obvious: no one could have produced this much primary source material on piracy without access to private records and insider opinion.
Despite the fact that scholars have been unable to definitively identify the writer of A General History in the documentary record, there are several other facts that can be gleaned from the text about who he probably was and why he wrote. First and foremost, the work suggests that Johnson was both literate and formally educated. The author references the ancient histories of the Roman Plutarch on at least three occasions, and he seems to be familiar with the Westminster educations that a few of his subjects supposedly received. Second, the author seems to have a working knowledge of sailing, particularly in regards to latitude, tackle, mooring, and steering. Third, the author has strong nationalist ties to England. The most obvious fact to support this claim is that there are no non-British pirates featured in GHP. One or two non-Anglo pirates, like Oliver “La Boufe” Levasseur are mentioned in passing, but Johnson is not interested in detailing their stories. The second most obvious piece of evidence to support this claim is the political objectives and critiques set out in the preface of the work.
Johnson makes several nationalistic arguments in the preface to GHP. He claims that the English should follow the example of the Dutch and establish a “National Fishery” in order to “find Employment for the great Numbers of Seamen turn’d adrift at the Conclusion of a War.” He upbraids the English for allowing the Dutch to harvest from “our own coast” and then “sell to us our own Fish.” In short, he sees the “Multitudes of Seamen” unemployed and living in poverty as the primary reason for the precipitous rise in piracy following the War of Spanish Succession. This supply of ready employment has led merchants to exploit laborers with low wages and poor victuals, what the pirates called “thin commons.” Moreover, Johnson interprets the government-sponsored war privateers as “a Nursery for Pirates against a Peace.” Finally, Johnson criticizes the Royal Navy for failing to “guard sufficiently the Coast of Africa” and the merchant shipping lanes, which he explains are the predictable hunting grounds of the pirates.
Johnson’s knowledge of the Golden Age pirates is not limited to their biographies; it also includes the greater historical context in which they have emerged and now continue to flourish. Johnson demonstrates his knowledge of the sinking of the 1715 Spanish plate fleet in the “Gulf of Florida” and the expulsion of the “Logwood Cutters, in the Bay of Campeachy, and bay of Honduras.” He is knowledgeable of the French and Spanish “Guarda de costa” and the recent history of the Bahaman islands, which has been plundered several times. He is aware and critical of collusion between colonial administrators—namely Eden and Knight of North Carolina—and pirates on their coasts. He also gives credit where he believes it is due, explaining why governors like Spotswood, Rogers, and Trott deserve praise for their roles in extricating the pirates.
The preface of GHP suggests that another one of Johnson’s intended audiences was government officials who could influence national politics. But, as a third audience, Johnson was also writing to English sailors and captains who were at-risk of becoming pirates themselves. He warns several times about the evils of piracy “not knowing whose hands this book may happen to fall into.” After Kennedy is executed on St. Stephen’s-Green, in Dublin, Johnson also moralizes, “Thus we see what a disastrous Fate, ever attends the Wicked, and how rarely they escape the Punishment due to their Crimes, who abandon themselves to such a profligate Life, as to rob, spoil, and prey upon Mankind.” This lecturing against the “Brethren in Iniquity” often takes on a decidedly religious tone. Johnson expounds upon the “sins” of the pirates and their “past misspent” lives; and he claims that the “Hand of providence was concerned in their destruction.” The religious view of Johnson is further demonstrated in his mention of the Calabar “negroes,” who live “without the Light of the Gospel.”
One of the most educational portions of GHP is the section describing the pirate trials of Robert’s crew at Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast in West Africa. Here Johnson explains the difficulties of navigating vice admiralty procedure in the colonial courts, especially those that are run by chartered enterprises like the Royal African Company and not by professional judges with an understanding of the maritime law. Johnson states that pirates could be found guilty upon any of three charges: 1) “being a “Voluntier” amongst [the pirates] at first,” 2) “being a Voluntier at the taking or robbing of any ship,” 3) “voluntarily accepting a share in the booty of those that did.” Judges used the testimony of fellow pirates and captains in the Royal Navy to prove at least one of these claims for each of the “singly” tried pirates.
Reviewers have often remarked on Johnson’s sympathy for the pirates in GHP; however, this sentiment should not be exaggerated. Johnson has general sympathy for unemployed sailors, victims who are mutilated by pirates, and “poor fellows” who are convicted shortly after joining the crew. But he also characterizes the pirates as the “Enemies of Mankind” and mocks their “Frivolous Excuses of Constraint and Force” at their trials. He also makes it clear that the pirates did some pretty horrible things. For example, Captains Martel and Roberts burned their ships in harbor with many shackled “negroes” trapped inside; another pirate captain sold his native wife in Sierra Leone for some rum punch; and the pirates burned a village of Calabar “negroes” to the ground because they refused to trade with them.
In general, Johnson’s biopics in GHP portray the pirates in a pretty sad and unfortunate light. As he writes of Roberts, they are ever “steering their course toward Execution Dock.” The case of Vane is an exemplary one. After refusing the “Act of Grace” by Rogers, he wrecks upon a deserted island, begs for help from a passing ship, gets imprisoned, and then gets hanged at Gallows Point, in Jamaica. Other pirates are brutally killed in melee or else left to rot in prison. Interestingly, Johnson picks a few very precise moments to criticize other forces at play in the English Atlantic world. One of these is the South-Sea Company and its Directors. Johnson states that “whatever robberies [the pirates] had committed, they might be pretty sure they were not the greatest villains then living in the world.” Johnson also criticizes the Bristol gem merchants, the registrars of Civil Law in the colonies, and the unfortunate reality that the Royal Africa Company is forced to adjudicate pirate trials where it has an obvious, vested interest.
Marxist historians like Rediker have long used GHP to make specific arguments about the Black Flag rovers as a progressive, anarchist, democratic, and multicultural brotherhood of social bandits, creating their own laws on the edge of society and dispensing rough justice to the real enemies of the Atlantic world: early-modern capitalists. I would like to conclude this review by discussing the merits and faults of this particular view in regards to my own reading of GHP.
To begin, Johnson makes it abundantly clear that the pirates were indeed a brotherhood, community, or “Commonwealth.” He confirms the belief that, for those who were included, the group was a democratic, freeing, and egalitarian enterprise. Pirates “knocked down the cabins” of the vessels that they captured and “made the ship flush fore and aft.” They signed mutual articles and declared public oaths to fight to the death and accept no quarter, even going so far as to vow to blow up their ships in the case of imminent defeat. They also had medical plans to compensate wounded members of their crew; they prohibited stealing amongst one another and fighting in the common space; and they shared their booty evenly. Next, there is evidence that many of their actions were motivated by revenge for “bad usage” from captains in the navy and the merchant marine, or violence committed against other pirates, particularly in New England. Finally, it does seem true that the Flying Gang was partly multicultural, especially when it came to integrating people of African descent with the crew; however, these pirates had nothing on the diversity of the seventeenth-century buccaneers.
Each of the instances that Rediker cites in order to back up his interpretation of the Black Flag pirates are true, but they are also selective and all leaning in one direction. While it is right to argue that pirates had political and economic motivations for dispensing justice, Johnson makes it quite clear that they were also motivated by avarice and theft. Their decisions to plunder the 1715 plate fleet or the Gambia Castle, for example, were informed by their estimates about how much gold was to found in those places. To agree with Lane’s conclusion in Pillaging the Empire, the root of pirate desire was the simple belief that one could and should steal whatever they wanted from whomever they came across. While this does not necessarily make them any different from slave traders and company directors—who stole in their own ways—neither does it make them better. Like the buccaneers of Exquemelin’s narrative, several pirates in GHP use people “very roughly in order to make them discover their money.”
Second, the bravery and love of death that the pirates clearly had must be tempered with their eagerness to accept the pardon (400 to 500 when Rogers arrived in the Bahamas), their unwillingness to actually go through with blowing up their ships, and the fact that not all of them turned away from God in their last moments. Many pirates prayed and repented on the gallows, as least if the GHP can be believed. Third, just because the Black Flag pirates accepted persons of African descent among their crews does not mean that they were necessarily any less racist than the actors of mainstream, English society. A few of the horrible things that the pirates did to natives on the West African coast have already been mentioned, and Johnson both implies and directly states that English pirates like Yeats traded in black slaves. In reality, historians should not settle for a simple answer in regards to this complex question. Pirate captains probably used black individuals for many purposes, including manual labor (to man the pumps and trim the sails, for example), as cargo, and as pirate equals.
Last, there are more than a few pieces of evidence in GHP to suggest that the egalitarian ideals of the Flying Gang had specific limitations. Historians must grapple with Johnson’s claim that Teach allowed his crewmen to rape his wife. They must also wrestle with the messy concept that Low’s crew massacred Spanish pirates, that Robert’s people terrorized the Portuguese, and that Rackam’s men robbed local fishermen of their nets and tackle near Harbour Island. While many disgruntled sailors or expelled logwood cutters were happy to go on the account, other inhabitants of the Atlantic world had very good reasons to fear coming into contact with English pirates. Most importantly, scholars must ask a very basic question: “if the pirates of the Golden Age were indeed so multicultural, why are almost all of them of English descent?” Where are the African, French, and Spanish pirate captains? While it is true that Johnson was not interested in writing about these non-British figures, it might also be true that the Black Flag pirates were more culturally homogenous than previously thought.
GHP is a must-read primary source for all students of early-modern piracy. Although Captain Charles Johnson is still unknown, the evidence suggests that he was a literate, formally educated, middle-to-older aged English male with maritime experience, political connections, nationalistic affiliations, radical sentiments, moral leanings, and religious sympathies. His book was not only a compilation of romantic adventure yarns; it was also a blunt political appeal concerning the direction of the English state, a meticulously documented history, and a moralistic admonishment to all those who might consider following in the infamous footsteps of the rovers. Sometimes these intentions conflicted, but that is part of what makes reading GHP so interesting. The book was designed to be a bestseller, consumed by lay readers, government officials, and seafarers alike. Today, it is remembered as the anchor of English pirate historiography. It is the text that all scholars begin their studies with, and it is the text that they regularly return to, seeing something different each time.