Recommend Books on Pirate History

One of the frequent questions asked online in general public discussions of pirate history is “What books do you recommend on pirate history?”  Below is a list of books on the subject with brief descriptions of their content and qualities.  Each of the titles reviewed here features a link to for convenience.

Introductory and General Topic Books

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Piratesby David Cordingly

In the 1990s, David Cordingly’s work on historical pirates helped revive public interest in pirate history. His book, Under the Black Flag, presents much of the work presented in those efforts in an accessible style for mainstream readers. Cordingly presents a variety of topics on pirate history, including myths concerning pirates, Hollywood’s relationship to pirate history, general aspects of pirate life, and quick surveys of several pirates in history, including Henry Morgan and Captain Kidd. While the errors in his text and strange organization of his topics can be hindering at times, it is still a serviceable general introduction to pirate history.  Specifically, this book will greatly assist anyone who never read about pirate history and has only encountered them in the way Hollywood presents piracy.  The first chapter is particularly effective in dispelling many of the myths and Hollywood stereotypes that conflict with the historical record. For academic historians, Under the Black Flag is also a valuable piece since it is significant for those studying the historiography of pirate history.

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Downby Colin Woodard

The Bahamas during the early eighteenth century became a central place for the events of the Golden Age of Piracy.  The Republic of Pirates presents the history of the pirates in the Bahamas with an excellent writing and narrative style which appeals to the general reading public.  The book begins with Henry Every’s career, including his visit to the Bahamas in 1695, and concludes with a quick summary of pirate activity in the Bahamas and general Atlantic world from 1720-1732.  The famous pirates of the Caribbean, including Benjamin Hornigold, Henry Jennings, Samuel Bellamy and Paulsgrave Williams, Edward Thatch (otherwise known as Blackbeard), and Charles Vane are all well covered. Intermixed with these famous pirates is the history of Woodes Rogers’s maritime career and expelling of pirates from the Bahamas.  In the process of the narrative, readers receive contextual information about other events and society in the Atlantic world relevant to the history of the pirates. Woodard, a journalist by profession, demonstrates a remarkable amount of effort in his research, as seen in his endnotes.  While said notes show a number of good period sources, there are still notable mistakes in his narrative typical of a number of writers and historians concerning piracy published before 2005.  While Woodard does not present any new arguments of its own and utilizes an endnote system that academics will find somewhat frustrating, Republic of Pirates is good for introducing general audiences to their first history text on the period of piracy most popular with public readers for almost three centuries.

Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean: The Adventurous Life of Captain Woodes Rogers,* by David Cordingly

Fifteen years after his other famous book on pirates, Cordingly published a history of one the most famous and significant figures in the Golden Age of Piracy, Woodes Rogers.  Instead of surveying general pirate life, history, and myths; Cordingly uses the story of Woodes Rogers (privateer, entrepreneur, and governor of the Bahamas who spearheaded a campaign against piracy) to explore the histories of William Dampier, Alexander Selkirk, Edward Thatch (otherwise known as Blackbeard), and several other pirates that operated out of the Bahamas during the 1710s and 1720s.  This text offers an easy to follow chronological narrative, an improvement over his previously publication from the 1990s.  His endnotes are also more traditional and easier to follow when compared to Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard, a book published prior to Pirate Hunter that covers much of the same history Cordingly does in this work.  Though the book does not offer any drastically new perspectives or arguments concerning the history of Rogers or pirates, it is highly recommended to anyone wishing to read a more recent text on pirate history with academic notes.

This book originally sold in the United Kingdom under the title “Spanish Gold Captain Woodes Rogers and the Pirates of the Caribbean”.

Daily Life of Piratesby David Marley

In terms of his work related to pirate history, David Marley’s generally produces reference-style publications for the greater public.  Though self-labeled as book a juvenile audiences, Marley’s Daily Life of Pirates is a functional reference book on pirate history for general audience readers looking for information on topics related to pirates in a one-volume work.  The text does not present a chronological narrative, but goes through various topics without using the alphabetical encyclopedia format used in his 2-volume Pirates of the Americas publication Marley published prior to the Daily Life of Pirates.  The occasional errors are somewhat balanced by the number of topics Marley attempts to cover.  This is a serviceable product to have for a reference in larger collections of books on pirates or within a library’s reference section (which was the more likely audience for this publication).

Specific Topic and Academic Books

Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Piratesby Neil Rennie

For a well-informed and diverse understanding of pirate history, an examination of its historiography and the public memory of said history is crucial.  Neil Rennie’s Treasure Neverland takes readers into the history of pirates in media, mostly from the perspective of literary history.  Rennie presents and analyzes both the documented version of events relating to pirates and the means by which they became romantic icons.  The text covers works from the early English publications preceding the career of Henry Every to recent historians, writers, and Hollywood influences.  In his effort to understand why the current image of pirate history exists, Rennie also highlights the errors made by historians, such as the poor interpretation of the history of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.  It is an essential text for scholarly historians to have on their shelf since Rennie’s text stands as the first book length academic work concerning the public memory and historiography of historical piracy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730by Benerson Little

Plenty of books on pirates describe the careers of these seventeenth to early eighteenth-century maritime robbers, the way they lived, and their significance to history.  Not many of these works spend many pages analyzing the way in which pirates actually went about operating at sea.  Benerson Little’s Sea Rover’s Practice appears to be the first well researched full length book to accomplish this task.  Numerous chapters covers a variety angles to help readers better understand the way pirates accomplished their various raids and captures during the Golden Age of Piracy.  Little covers weapons, ships, pursuit methods, battle tactics, and more, with endnotes to many period sources included throughout.  This work examines both the buccaneers of the seventeenth century and the pirates of the early eighteenth century.  While circumstances and contexts changed over the century that this book analyzes, the pirates of this era appeared to have shared enough tactics to warrant coverage of such a broad period.  Overall, an intriguing read that covers a topic in pirate history that receives limited attention, let alone a book-length work.

The Pirate Warsby Peter Earle

In this more distinct approach to pirate history, Peter Earle examines piracy through the various European powers and their struggle to cope with or control their marauders throughout the world.  The book is not limited to the more traditional definitions of the Golden Age of Piracy from 1690 to 1725 or even 1630 to 1725, but rather starts in the Elizabethan era and ends in the early nineteenth century.  While the classic areas raided by European-descended pirate crews are covered, European waters and the Mediterranean also receive attention in this work.  Overall, Earle offers a good general overview of activities during various periods of piracy (including those that previously received less attention), and does it in a readable manner that offers something different from the many other currently available overview books on historical piracy.

Captain Kidd and the War against the Piratesby Robert Ritchie

For the Golden Age of Piracy, Captain Kidd is among the most famous pirates of the era.  There are many publications concerning his career, but the most academic and critical of Kidd’s career is Robert Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates.  A number of the other works concerning Kidd’s notorious career often paint the pirate in a more positive light.  Some attempt to demonstrate Kidd’s innocence.  Ritchie examines the greater historical context surrounding the history of Kidd and presents a well-structured and resource-heavy argument that Kidd was not a completely innocent bystander to say the least.  Kidd’s raid into the Red Sea happened to fall in the middle of a struggle to establish a strong trade network between England and India and another struggle between the Tories and Whig parties in English politics.  Besides presenting an excellent history of Kidd’s piratical career, Ritche’s work is also one of the few academic works to address pirate history in the Indian Ocean during the 1690s.

Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Ageby Marcus Rediker

download (8) In studies of pirate history in the past thirty years, historians often (but not always) fall into one of two camps when interpreting the motives behind the actions of pirates, either radical or non-radical.  From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Rediker earned the reputation as being the lead figure for those advocating for the radical pirate interpretation.  In Villains of All Nations, Rediker presents pirates as organized maritime wage laborers rebelling against the capitalist Atlantic world system.  While the merits of this radical argument can be, and still are, discussed at significant length by various experts and historians, the book contains much more than piratical motivations.  Rediker examines the background of pirates statistically, providing information on common ages, previous occupations, origins, and more.  He also tracks shared members among crews, the forming (or splitting) of crews, and crews that sailed in consort.  In doing this, Rediker reveals a close community of pirates existed during the early eighteenth century.  Villains of All Nations is worth the look for the sake of understanding a different interpretation of pirate history and for the valuable information provided in the process.

Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720: Partners and Victims of Crimeby John Appleby

The interest in women pirates dates back to the times these pirates actively sailed centuries ago.  Unfortunately, writers, movie producers, and even historians have romanticized these women severely, often mixing fiction with fact.  In the book Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720, John Appleby accomplishes two goals. First, he presents pirates in general into their historical contexts to women.  He shows that some women worked with and benefited from the activities of pirates, including the wives some of the male pirates.  Other women, especially in the later part of this study, found themselves victims of pirate activity.  Appleby’s second accomplishment is to bring the historical record back to the few women that acted as pirates, helping reduce the shadow romanticism placed over these figures for many years.  For the later period, especially the early eighteenth century, the text demonstrates the male dominance of maritime piracy in that era, that women pirates were extremely exceptional, and the documented cases of women involved with pirates were limited and short.  Appleby’s presentation of women and pirate history is the most academic study of this subject to date and contributes significantly to understanding historical piracy away from the mythology of piracy.

Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic Worldby Kevin McDonald

The role of pirates within the economy of North America, besides its disruption of it, receives limited discussion in publications concerning historical piracy.  Kevin McDonald presents an examination of the relationship pirates who operated from Madagascar, merchants from English colonies (primarily New York), and the local population of Madagascar who worked with both the previous two groups, especially in the 1690s.  McDonald finds that pirates worked with merchants from North America.  The pirates also worked with local tribes in Madagascar to obtain cheap slaves that the previously mentioned merchants desired.  Instead of the pirate crews that spurned capitalism and the traditional society that they left behind when they went pirating, the pirates at Madagascar demonstrate a group of men who still saw themselves as part of that society they left.  They worked with the merchants for their personal gain.  They expected to return with their profits and to live with families again, using bribery when necessary so authorities would ignore their past crimes.  This survey of the Madagascar pirates shows piracy in a different light than seen previously.  It is also an excellent work of academic history and examines a part of pirate history with limited studies.

King of the Pirates: The Swashbuckling Life of Henry Everyby E. T. Fox

While Henry Every is a significant pirate in the history of piracy, the notorious pirates seldom receives much attention independent of other histories that feature multiple pirates.  In the past century, it appears that there is only one publication solely about Every’s career.  Fortunately, this one publication is an excellent academic work produced by pirate historian E.T. Fox.  This text, using many period sources, presents a thoroughly researched history for the career of the man who intrigued the interest and imaginations of many for centuries to come.

The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate: Within Every Legend Lies a Grain of Truth (Fourth Edition)by Kevin Duffus

Blackbeard, also known as Edward Thatch or Teach, is the most recognizable name in pirate history.  He is also enveloped in many myths that historians still struggle to overcome to this day.  Almost every year results in one or more new books on the notorious figure, but practically all of them engage in repeating many of the same factual errors and using the same unverified sources that other writers used in the previous decades and centuries.  Of all these works, the one making the most progress towards separating the legends and bad scholarship from the historical record is Kevin Duffus.  This North Carolina historian, writer, film maker, and journalist spent many years researching the history of this legendary pirate icon, finding sources and perspectives other historians did not discover or use previously.  The results of this continuous investigation (which he regularly publishes updates through new editions of his book and thus shares his new findings with the public) is a picture of Blackbeard that is different from the typical narrative of the pirate.  Duffus throws into questions many aspects of Blackbeard’s history.  While some parts of his research still require one or two sources to bring his findings beyond circumstantial evidence, the information presented in The Last Days of Black Beard at least suggests that his conclusions are not a mere series of strange coincidences.

Modern Reprints of Period Sources

For studying pirate history, accessing period documents is extremely crucial.  Going to the various archives and transcribing relevant documents is not an option for many people.  Neither does everyone have access to the same online databases that academics use to gain sources for their studies.  Outside of the databases and archives, there are some published collections of period sources relating to pirate history.  Two of them are now available free online due to copyright laws placing them in the public domain.  Both the entire series of the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series and John Jameson’s Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents are available online through multiple sites.  There are three other publications worthy of note that all feature significant period sources:

A General History of the Pyrates – by Charles Johnson, edited by Manuel Schonhorn

The two-volume work, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, is the most well-known and well-used source from the early eighteenth century concerning the pirates of the 1690 to 1726 period.  This work, used as a primary source for about two centuries after its publication between 1724 and 1728, is the origin of many of the myths and standard narratives concerning the Golden Age of Piracy.  It was not until the past few generations of pirate historians that some began analyzing and questioning the validity of this source.  Johnson’s work falls into a strange status in terms of secondary and primary sources.  Johnson was not a witness, but a historian collecting the story of these pirates consulting a variety of sources, and likely some first-hand witnesses to the events.  In addition, Johnson, probably the pseudonym for newspaper owner Nathaniel Mist and not Daniel Defoe, engaged in “factual fiction,” or mixing fact and fiction together in writings for a number of reasons, including the production of an appealing story.  Manuel Schonhorn was one of the earliest scholars to analyze this text.  In 1972, he published an edited an edition of A General History that includes every portion of the first volume’s four editions and the second volume, all in the same English used in the period, and with thorough endnotes for context or notes of period sources Charles Johnson used to write his book.  Even though the source itself has issues regarding accuracy, it is still a significant publication.  Any historian of piracy should own a copy for complete coverage of the historiography of piracy and for the few accurate portions that exist in the text.  While there are many other reprints of this book, none of them are as complete as the edition Schonhorn edited and has been regularly available in paperback since 1999.

British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation 1660-1730, edited by Joel Baer

Until recent years, getting access to publications printed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not an easy task.  Thanks to online databases and efforts made by programs free to the public such as the internet archives and Google books, more of these printed sources become available to more people every year.  In 2007, when these collections did not have as many sources online as they do today, Joel Baer, a historian whose work with pirate history dates back to 1970, published a four-volume collection of printed primary sources relating to piracy.  The majority of the documents pertain to the period of 1680-1726.  This publication includes many trial accounts of pirates, the confessions of pirates before execution, sermons concerning piracy, newspaper accounts, and other types of printed sources from the era.  The trial accounts in particular are extremely valuable, since they frequently contain high amounts of information concerning the activities of pirates.  Not all of these trials are that readily available even today, and sometimes are still more accessible through Baer’s collection.  The cost of this set is high, limiting it to libraries and the most enthusiastic of collectors.  It is worth taking the time either to visit a library with this collection or to employ interlibrary loan when possible to obtain it.

Pirates in Their Own Words, edited by E. T. Fox

While printed sources are valuable and hard to obtain, archival hand-written sources are more difficult to obtain for those who cannot visit archives or order copies of documents from them.  This is what makes E. T. Fox’s published collection of sources so valuable.  The selection of sources presented by Fox’s book covers the period of 1690 to 1728 and presents many intriguing pieces of information and insights into the lives and actions of pirates.  There is a strong representation of documents from pirates serving in the 1690s, likely a byproduct of Dr. Fox’s work on the pirate Henry Every’s history in a previous publication.  With collections of transcribed documents only coming to publication on rare occasions, not to mention this sources better price availability to the public, Pirates in their Own Words is a priceless publication to possess for any enthusiast or historian of piracy.