PortCities London

London and the pirates

Captain Johnson's classic history of the pirates
 

Johnson's best-seller

The Active privateer passing Tilbury
View full size imageThe Active privateer passing Tilbury. 
In 1724 a book was published and put on sale at Charles Rivington's bookshop beside St Paul's Cathedral. It was entitled A General History of the Most Notorious Pyrates and it became a best-seller. New editions came out each year.

Written in London by the mysterious Captain Charles Johnson, it was based on the evidence of pirate trials, on newspaper reports and on interviews with sailors who had been captured by pirates.

'A General History of the Most Notorious Pyrates'.
View full size imageJohnson's History of the Most Notorious Pyrates
Pirate biographies

Johnson's book featured biographies of the most well known pirates of the day. The list included:

  • Blackbeard
  • Bartholomew Roberts
  • Black Sam Bellamy
  • Captain Kidd
  • Calico Jack
  • Mary Read
  • Anne Bonny.

It became a prime source of information for subsequent histories of piracy as well as providing inspiration for a future generation of novelists, dramatists and film directors.

Captain Teach commonly call'd Black Beard.
View full size image Captain Teach, commonly known as Blackbeard. © NMM

Literary inspiration

Robert Louis Stevenson said how much he owed to 'the great Captain Johnson's History' when he was writing Treasure Island. J. M. Barry was certainly influenced by it when he was writing Peter Pan.

One of the most well known illustrations from Captain Johnson's history of the pirates is this engraving of the notorious pirate Blackbeard. He was tracked down and killed by Lieutenant Maynard of HMS Pearl in 1718.

Daniel Defoe theory

In the 1930s an American scholar suggested that Captain Johnson was really Daniel Defoe. But research has since knocked down this interesting theory.

Johnson's familiarity with ships and his authentic use of seamen's language suggests that he was probably at sea for several years. However, whether he was a retired naval captain or the captain of a merchant ship, a privateer or even a pirate ship captain remains a mystery.

The Buccaneers of America.
View full size image The Buccaneers of America

The Maritime Museum link

The National Maritime Museum has copies of all the early editions of Johnson's book.

It also has editions of that other prime source of pirate information, The Buccaneers of America, by John Exquemelin.

First published in 1678, this contains a detailed account of the life of Sir Henry Morgan and includes bloodthirsty accounts of the buccaneer raids on Spanish ships and treasure ports.

 





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