The best books on piracy and pirates

Why am I passionate about this?

The origin story for Black Flags, Blue Waters begins with my kids. After I finished my last book, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, I began searching for a new book topic. I asked Lily and Harry, who were then in their teens, what I should write about. When I raised the possibility of pirates, their eyes lit up, both of them saying, “That’s it, you have to write about pirates.” Lily even threw out two possible titles for the book: “Swords, Sails, and Swashbucklers;” and “Argh”— or, perhaps more emphatically, “Arrrgh”— which, I had to tell Lily, much to her chagrin, is a word that probably was never uttered by a Golden Age pirate, and is more likely a creation of movies in which pirates dispense arghs with relish. My children’s strong support is, of course, not the only reason I wrote Black Flags, Blue Waters -- if my publisher hadn't been as enthusiastic about the idea as I was, the book might never have been written. But the fact that my kids were early adopters of the pirate idea, was definitely encouraging.


I wrote...

Book cover of Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates

What is my book about?

Much has been written about the Golden Age of Piracy, and this book adds to that literary lineage, but with a twist. Rather than focusing broadly on this era, Black Flags, Blue Waters zeros in on the history of the pirates who either operated out of America’s English colonies or plundered ships along the American coast. From the early 1680s to 1726, these pirates had an exceedingly close, often tempestuous, and frequently deadly relationship with the colonies. While this arrangement began with a warm and financially lucrative embrace, it eventually ended in a bloody war against pirates punctuated by scores of hangings from Boston to Charleston. Black Flags, Blue Waters explores the fascinating origins and nature of this volatile relationship, and in so doing reveals one of the most gripping stories of the American experience.

Not only is Black Flags, Blue Waters a dramatic read, it is my most popular book, which Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail, called in the Wall Street Journal, “an entertaining romp across the oceans that shows how piracy is an inseparable element of our past.”

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A General History of the Pirates

Eric Jay Dolin Why did I love this book?

First published in 1724, and expanded in subsequent years, A General History is the granddaddy of all pirate books. It focuses mainly on those pirates who sailed the seas between the late 1710s and the mid-1720s, but also reaches as far back as the late 1600s. All the “celebrity” pirates are here, including Henry Avery (or Every), Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Stede Bonnet, and Sam Bellamy. And their stories are told with considerable panache. It is undeniable, however, that Johnson entirely made up a number of things, added literary embellishments, and took liberties with many of the quotes he ascribed to pirates. Nevertheless, much of his history is corroborated by the contemporary documents that he clearly used to construct his mini-biographies of the most famous pirates of the day. And this is the first major book on pirates ever written. Johnson has been widely relied on by pirate historians for centuries, and, judiciously used, he is an indispensable source.

By Captain Charles Johnson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A General History of the Pirates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson was published in 1724. As the primary source of biographies of some of the most notorious pirates it influenced popular conceptions of the lifestyles. Missing legs or eyes, burying treasure and the name of the pirates flag the Jolly Roger was introduced in this touchstone of pirate lore as it has been incorporated into popular culture. A General History of the Pyrates has influencing literature and movies to this day.


Book cover of Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

Eric Jay Dolin Why did I love this book?

First published in 1995, this book helped launch a renewed pirate mania among the public that led to, among other things, the wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Cordingly is a skilled writer who deftly weaves together a great range of themes surrounding the Golden Age of Piracy, including the way in which pirates are perceived in popular culture. He does a great job of exploding common myths about pirates, and offering an unvarnished view of what pirate life was actually like. Although it is not a narrative history that moves chronologically, it is a fun and easy read, and an especially good place to start for those who do not know much about pirate history.

By David Cordingly,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Under the Black Flag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book sets out to discover the truth behind the stereotypical image of the pirate. Examining the rich literary and cultural legacy of piratical icons from Blackbeard to Captain Hook, the author compares the legends with their historical counterparts and comes up with some surprising conclusions. In a wider overview of the piracy myth, he explores its enduring and extraordinary appeal and assesses the reality behind the romance, answering in the process questions such as: why did men become pirates; were there any women pirates; how much money did they make from their plundering and looting; what effect did their…


Book cover of Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates

Eric Jay Dolin Why did I love this book?

Captain William Kidd is one of the most fascinating characters in modern history. Ritchie, an academic historian by training, produced a highly readable book that places Kidd within his era, describing in often fascinating detail the events and people of the time and how they affected Kidd’s life and the course of piracy. This is a book that focuses on the late 1600s and very early 1700s, and, therefore, does not cover the 1710s and 1720s, when the real pirates of the Caribbean terrorized the Atlantic. After reading the book, you can decide if Kidd was a pirate or just a misunderstood privateer who got railroaded by the English government.

By Robert C. Ritchie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The legends that die hardest are those of the romantic outlaw, and those of swashbuckling pirates are surely among the most durable. Swift ships, snug inns, treasures buried by torchlight, palm-fringed beaches, fabulous riches, and, most of all, freedom from the mean life of the laboring man are the stuff of this tradition reinforced by many a novel and film.

It is disconcerting to think of such dashing scoundrels as slaves to economic forces, but so they were-as Robert Ritchie demonstrates in this lively history of piracy. He focuses on the shadowy figure of William Kidd, whose career in the…


Book cover of The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down

Eric Jay Dolin Why did I love this book?

Woodard’s book is perfect for those who want to dive deep into the world of the pirates of the Caribbean, such as Blackbeard, Charles Vane, and Sam Bellamy. Woodard captures that part pirate history that most people think of when they think about pirates—consider it as the non-fiction equivalent of Captain Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl. His engaging prose and colorful stories bring alive the characters and events that to a large extent created our culture’s shared conception of what pirates were and how they lived and died. And Woodard’s tale of how Woodes Rogers brought the Caribbean pirates world crashing down provides a perfect coda for the era and the book. Although Woodard and I reach different conclusions about the motivations and, sometimes, the actions of pirates, The Republic of Pirates is still a ripping good read.

By Colin Woodard,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Republic of Pirates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An entrancing tale of piracy colored with gold, treachery and double-dealing (Portland Press Herald), Pulitzer Prize-finalist Colin Woodward's The Republic of Pirates is the historical biography of the exploits of infamous Caribbean buccaneers.

In the early eighteenth century, the Pirate Republic was home to some of the great pirate captains, including Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, "Black Sam" Bellamy, and Charles Vane. Along with their fellow pirates — former sailors, indentured servants, and runaway slaves — this "Flying Gang" established a crude but distinctive democracy in the Bahamas, carving out their own zone of freedom in which servants were free, blacks could…


Book cover of Pirates on the Chesapeake: Being a True History of Pirates, Picaroons, and Raiders on Chesapeake Bay, 1610-1807

Eric Jay Dolin Why did I love this book?

While this book focuses on piracy in the Chesapeake Bay region, its coverage is much broader than that. Shomette highlights many of the most important themes running through the history of piracy, and he does an excellent job giving the reader the broader context of what was happening in society at large and how that influenced and was influenced by piracy. Shomette’s extensive reliance on primary sources and his use of quotes by the historical figures he profiles, greatly enlivens the text and gives it the stamp of authenticity. And since this book drills down deep into the pirate history of one region, there are many stories here that will be new to those who have only read much broader histories on piracy.

By Donald G. Shomette,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pirates on the Chesapeake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A dazzling array of swashbuckling pirates, picaroons, and sea rovers are pitted against the often feckless representatives of an outpost government authority in the Chesapeake Bay region. It is an exciting and dramatic two hundred-year history that begins grimly with the "starving time" in the Virginia colony in 1609, and ends with the peaceful resolution of the Othello affair with the French in 1807. In between lies a full panoply of violent and bizarre buccaneering incidents that one is hard pressed to imagine from the vantage point of the twenty-first century. Documented by impressive research in articles of the Netherlands,…


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Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

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Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

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