Capt. Charles Johnson’s “General History of the Pyrates” (1724)

In 1724 a book appeared entitled A General and True History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724) which was written by a “Captain” Charles Johnson. The name of Charles Johnson is likely a pseudonym for a writer whose name is now lost to us. Early twentieth century critics such as J. R. Moore argued that he was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym, but recent research by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens has cast doubt upon this.[1]

Johnson was writing during the golden age of sea pirates, and he is probably the same man who authored an earlier play entitled The Successful Pyrate (1713). The History of the Pyrates was Johnson’s first work to deal with criminals and he would go on to author The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).

As with all of Johnson’s works, although it is called a ‘history’, he invented quite a few of the ‘facts’ in his narrative as authors during the eighteenth century rarely cared for historical authenticity, although his preface does reveal a competent knowledge of sea laws during the early eighteenth century.[2]

johnson-title
Title Page: Capt. Charles Johnson’s History of the Pyrates (1724) (c) EECO.

The purpose of writing the work was, Johnson tells us, first and foremost to provide moral instruction to readers:

We have given a few instances, in the course of this history, of the inducements men have to engage themselves headlong into a life of so much peril to themselves and so destructive to the navigation of the trading world.[3]

But Johnson says that the work will also be of practical value to the captains serving in the Royal Navy; through reading Johnson’s book he assures his readers that the captains of the Royal Navy will be able to learn the wicked ways of the pirates.[4]

Of course, the “moralism” of Johnson’s kind was more akin to today’s Daily Mail, having no compunction in denouncing sex and violence while actually taking great pleasure in showing it. Take the example of Mary Read (discussed in greater detail below) falling in love with another pirate:

When [Read] found she had a friendship for her as a man, she […] carelessly [showed] her breasts, which were very white. The young fellow, who was made of flesh and blood, had his curiosity raised by this sight […] Now begins the scene of love…[5]

Unsurprisingly, it was not unusual for criminal biography and trial reports in the eighteenth century to serve a dual purpose: news and erotica.[6]

The narratives of well-known pirates appear in Johnson’s book. There is Captain Teach alias Blackbeard:

A courageous brute, who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause.[7]

Other criminals include the famous Captain Kidd, but perhaps Johnson’s most interesting narratives are those of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two female pirates (see header image).

Read’s father died when she was young, leaving both Read and her mother in a state of poverty. The only family remaining that the two could count upon was Read’s grandmother on her father’s side. However, Read’s mother, knowing that she would obtain greater monetary assistance from the grandmother if she said that she had a son, made Read dress as a boy. Thinking that she had a grandson to be taken care of, the grandmother agreed to send a crown per week for the ‘son’s’ maintenance.

Read’s had always assumed that she was a boy throughout her youth, and only learned that she was a girl during her adolescence, and this contributed to her:

Growing bold and strong, and having also a roving mind.[8]

This ‘disposition’ led her to enlist (now she was a ‘man’) on a man-of-war, and subsequently serving as a cadet in Flanders. She was a very good soldier, earning the esteem of her superior officers, until one fateful day when she meets a man and develops feelings for him:

But her comrade, who was a Fleming, happening to be a handsome young fellow she falls in love with him, and from that time grew a little more negligent in her duty, so that, it seems, Mars and Venus could not be served at the same time.[9]

She eventually reveals her true sex to the Fleming, and they soon marry and quit the army. Unfortunately her happiness was not to last, for the Fleming dies, and thus grieving without a penny to her name she becomes a man again and takes service upon another ship. The ship is then taken by pirates and Read followed the ‘trade’ of piracy for some months.

A Royal Proclamation was then sent out to all parts of the West Indies offering a pardon to the pirates, but while the captain of the pirates and some of his ‘officers’ take advantage of the pardon, Read and several of them did not. She subsequently falls under the command of the pirate Captain Rackham and his lover Anne. Anne became infatuated with the young ‘man’ Read, and sensing this, Read revealed to Anne the truth about her sex.

Read remained a pirate throughout her life, engaging in many interesting adventures (doubtless all plagiarised in some form or another from earlier books). Eventually Rackham’s crew is captured by the English navy off the coast of Jamaica and she is brought before the court. She acquired another lover during her days with Rackham’s crew, and “pleads her belly”, obtaining a stay of execution. She might have lived longer had she not, sadly, been seized with a violent fever and died in gaol.

blackbeard
Capt. Blackbeard, from Johnson’s History of the Pyrates (1724) (c) ECCO.

Johnson’s attitude towards his pirates vacillates between admiration and condemnation. Speaking of Philip Roche, a notorious pirate of Irish origin, he says that:

He was a brisk, genteel fellow of 30 years of age at the time of his death; one whose black and savage nature did no ways answer the comeliness of his person, his life being almost one continued scene of villainy before he was discovered to have committed the horrid murders we are now speaking of.[10]

But Johnson also recognises the bravery of these men and women who took to the seas. He even argues that at certain times the nation needs its pirates. Speaking of Captain Martel and his crew, he says:

I come now to the pirates that have rose since the Peace of Utrecht [1713]. In war time there is no room for any, because all those of a roving, adventurous disposition find employment in privateers [state-commissioned pirate vessels], so there is no opportunity for pirates. Like our mobs in London, when they come to any great height, our superiors order out the trainbands, and once they are raised, the others are suppressed of course.[11]

And introducing readers to far off, exotic places and settings cannot have failed to romanticise the life of a pirate for contemporary readers. The sensationalism and romance of Johnson’s work probably accounts for its popularity, for the work went through numerous editions. By the nineteenth century, the Pyrates was usually incorporated into Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen. Although many parts were obviously made up, Johnson’s Pyrates remains an important source for historians studying contemporary reactions to piracy during its so-called ‘golden age’.


References

HEADER IMAGE: (c) Eighteenth-Century Collections Online

[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994).
[2] Charles Johnson, A General and True History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates ed. by Arthur Heyward (London, 1724; repr. London: Routledge, 1927), p.vii.
[3] Johnson, Pyrates, p.vii.
[4] Johnson, Pyrates, p.vii.
[5] Johnson, Pyrates, p.134.
[6] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[7] Johnson, Pyrates, p.55.
[8] Johnson, Pyrates, p.131.
[9] Johnson, Pyrates, p.131.
[10] Johnon, Pyrates, p.334.
[11] Johnson, Pyrates, p.37.

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