A General History of the Pyrates  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates is a 1724 book published in Britain, containing biographies of contemporary pirates. Influential in shaping popular conceptions of pirates, it is the prime source for the biographies of many well known pirates. Its author uses the name Captain Charles Johnson, generally considered a pseudonym.


The author has remained unknown in spite of numerous attempts by historians to discover his or her identity. Many scholars have suggested that the author could have been either Daniel Defoe or the publisher Nathaniel Mist (or somebody working for him).

In his book, The Republic of Pirates, Colin Woodard states:

Recently, Arne Bialuschewski of the University of Kiel in Germany has identified a far more likely candidate: Nathaniel Mist, a former sailor, journalist, and publisher of the Weekly Journal. The book's first publisher of record, Charles Rivington, had printed many books for Mist, who lived just a few yards from his office. More importantly, the General History was registered at Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Mist's name. As a former seaman who had sailed the West Indies, Mist, of all London's writer-publishers, was uniquely qualified to have penned the book...Mist was also a committed Jacobite...which could explain the General History's not entirely unsympathetic account of the maritime outlaws.

There was at the time a successful playwright named Charles Johnson who included among his numerous works a play based on the life of the pirate "Captain" Avery which had the title of The Successful Pirate. This opened at Drury Lane in 1713. The account of this pirate at the beginning of The General History of the Pyrates suggests that the use of that writer's name with the title "Captain" in the first edition may have been a satirical attack against his play.


A General History introduced many features which later became common in pirate literature, such as pirates with missing legs or eyes, the myth of pirates burying treasure, and the name of the pirates flag the Jolly Roger. The author specifically cites two pirates as having named their flag Jolly Roger; Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts in June, 1721, and English pirate Francis Spriggs in December 1723. In giving an almost mythical status to the more colourful characters, such as the infamous English pirates Blackbeard and Calico Jack, the book provided the standard account of the lives of many people still famous in the 21st century, and influenced pirate literature of Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M.Barrie.

The book was released in two volumes. The first mostly deals with early 18th-century pirates, while volume II records the exploits of their predecessors a few decades earlier. In the first volume "Johnson" sticks fairly close to the available sources, though he embellishes the stories somewhat. He stretches the truth farther in the second volume, and includes the biographies of three subjects who may be entirely fictional. The book has been hugely influential in shaping popular notions of piracy, and in 1925 the pirate historian Philip Gosse wrote;
"Not a long while ago it was the custom to smile indulgently at Johnson's History as being a mixture of fact and fancy, but from time to time old documents have been rescued from some dusty nook of oblivion which have proved his good faith. Many of the incidents looked upon as imaginary are found all to be absolutely accurate in date and circumstance".

While the majority of facts in Johnson's History have proven to be accurate, it is likely that he used considerable licence in his accounts of pirate conversations.

The buccaneers profiled in Volume I are Henry Every, Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Calico Jack Rackham, Israel Hands, Edward England, Charles Vane, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Howell Davis, Bartholomew ("Black Bart") Roberts, Thomas Anstis, Richard Worley, George Lowther, Edward Lowe, John Evans, James Martel, Francis Spriggs, John Gow, and Roche Braziliano. Volume II features Thomas Tew, William Kidd, John Bowen, John Halsey, Thomas Howard, Samuel Burgess, Nathaniel North, Christopher Condent, Samuel Bellamy, and William Fly, as well as biographies of the probably fictional captains James Misson, Lewis, and Cornelius.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "A General History of the Pyrates" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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