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A General History of the Pirates

Captain Charles Johnson

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During the Golden Age of Piracy, a writer calling himself “Captain” Charles Johnson introduced London readers to the denizens of a savage world just beyond their shores. These pirates took up residence in readers’ imaginations, where they’ve been a mainstay of popular culture ever since.

Pirate history especially resonates for American readers, as what would become the wild frontier of the American west began in the piratical eastern seaboard of Colonial times. When revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to found a continental republic, it was with a memory of the Pirate Republic founded eighty years earlier in Nassau and its attempt at self-government, ship-board democracy, and defiance of empire. When Grant arrived in Virginia to restore thirteen breakaway states to that republic, he came with a memory of Woodes Rogers’ arrival in the Bahamas to reclaim those islands for the Empire. The legacy of triangular trade, on which these pirates preyed and depended, has continued to play out across the nation’s history.

For its contemporary readers piracy was serious business, and this book describes their exploits with a journalistic spirit. Johnson writes history, but history in the present tense. He editorializes, shares his personal knowledge of seamanship, and offers practical advice both to maritime merchants and to powerful policymakers. He draws stories from interviews with living pirates, draws from public and legal records, and develops historical context, bringing his own social analysis to bear. In some parts, he presents human interest stories as tabloid journalism with “a little the air of a novel,” recounted mostly because they’re interesting.

And they are interesting: the bored gentleman and inept pirate Stede Bonnet as he arrives unarmed to a battle of wits with the experienced, savage, and polygamous Edward Teach; Teach, who said of this crew that “if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was”; the scandalous pirate-thruple of Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and “Calico” Jack Rackham. To the present day, in countless works, across media, Johnson’s pirates and the world they inhabit live on.

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