The best books on piracy and pirates

The Books I Picked & Why

A General History of the Pyrates: Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates

By Daniel Defoe, Captain Charles Johnson

A General History of the Pyrates: Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates

Why 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.


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

By David Cordingly

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

Why 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.


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Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates

By Robert C. Ritchie

Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates

Why 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.


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

By Colin Woodard

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

Why 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.


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

By Donald G. Shomette

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

Why 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.


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