Book Review:

A General History
of the Pyrates

Author: Daniel Defoe
Length: 800 Pages
Publisher: Dover Publications
Language: English
ISBN: 0486404889
Rating: Four and a half stars! Four and a Half Stars!

Originally published with the title "A general history of the robberies and murders of the most notorious pyrates" and under the pen name of "Captain Charles Johnson", this book is nothing short of true Pirate treasure. 

The debate of who authored the General History of Pirates was settled when literary scholar John Robert Moore suggested that Captain Charles Johnson, like Andrew Moreton, Kara Selym or Captain Roberts, was merely another mask for the famous author Daniel Defoe, the same author who penned the masterful story of Robinson Crusoe. 

Depending on the era in which your copy is reprinted from, the contents will be identical, but the author may be either Johnson or Defoe but do not let this confuse you, as it WILL be the same book!

The General History of Pyrates is often considered amongst Pirate aficionados to be the veritable "Bible" when it comes to pirate research, but many researchers have come to question the accuracy of some of the accounts within it.

This is an open debate with no end in sight. Currently the evidence suggests, Moore, the man who first presented the argument ignored evidence which refuted his thesis. Defenders of Moore, claim otherwise. What is known is there are no records of a Captain Charles Johnson ever existing. Most assume the name to have be a pen-name.

In 1712, a playwright named Charles Johnson enjoyed modest success with a work titled The Successful Pirate. The play was based on the exploits of Captain Avery. Some scholars suggest this playwright was Captain Charles Johnson. As part of the evidence they propose the work A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the most famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street Robbers etc. also written by Captain Charles Johnson. The work appeared in 1734, three years after Defoe's death. Defoe defenders claim it could be a posthumous work.

Other sources suggest the pen name may have been created by the original publisher, Nathaniel Mist. Mist would have used the pen name to lend authority to the work and protect himself from Government attacks; due to his known Jacobite sympathies and strong opposition to the Whig Government of Robert Walpole.

To add to confusion to the authorship, Defoe worked for Mist up until 1724, The year the General History of Pyrates was published. This is sometimes used as evidence as Defoe being the author. However, Defoe was a supporter of Robert Walpole. He was actually spying on Mist, for the Walpole government, when he worked for the publisher. He was trying to find evidence to put Mist out of business. According to Defoe, he and Mist would often fight, sometimes leading to physical violence. It was after one of these fights that Defoe quit working for Mist. Later, mist would inform other publishers of Defoe's spying efforts, causing Defoe great difficulty in getting published.

Besides Defoe, Mist also had several other writers working for him who wrote anonymously. It is quite possible that one of these other authors is the mystery Charles Johnson.

Despite the controversy of who the author is, The General History of Pyrates is a collection of so-called true pirate lore. The book has been scrutinized over the years and many of the first hand accounts have been proven to be quite factual. In many instances, court records exist that provide extensive cross examination of the accounts in the General History of Pyrates. However, some biographies contain little or no supporting evidence. Volume one is often considered the most factual portion of the book, as it gives the accounts of contemporary pirates (1700s). Volume two on the other hand, is considered less reliable and gives the accounts of earlier pirates dating from the 1600s. At least three biographies in Volume two are thought to be fiction, The most famous of these three possible fictitious accounts is the story of Captain Mission.

Regardless of its short-comings and the controversy of authorship, the General History of Pyrates it is one of the most important (and most quoted) 18th century accounts of piracy. No Pirate Library could ever be considered complete without a copy!

Distinguished Service Professor John Robert Moore (1890-1973), was a professor at Indiana University and from the early 1930's was known internationally as specialist on Daniel Defoe. Of his scholarly books and monographs, four dealt with Defoe; of his 150-odd articles (ten of these in PMLA) more than 55 dealt with Defoe. His best known books are Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 1958) and A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe (I.U. Press, 1960). It was Professor Moore who established the Defoe canon, beginning in 1950 with his discovery that the widely-read General History of the Pirates, attributed to a Captain Charles Johnson, was actually the work of Defoe. During the following decades, he added nearly 150 new titles to standard Defoe bibliographies and rejected as spurious some 30 titles included in such works. More information on Moore is available at the Indiana University Archives.

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