The best books on pirates in the age of sail

Who am I?

I’m a writer-researcher based at the University of East Anglia. My work is driven by a love of travel and the sea, and an interest in how people move between cultures and ideas across time. I’ve written widely on early modern travel writing and maritime culture, plays about cultural encounter including first contact, and the intersections between ideas about gender, race, colonial and/or imperial identities, and power. At heart, I’m a cultural historian interested in how people and writing can say one thing but mean another.

I wrote...

The Culture of Piracy, 1580-1630: English Literature and Seaborne Crime

By Claire Jowitt,

Book cover of The Culture of Piracy, 1580-1630: English Literature and Seaborne Crime

What is my book about?

Listening to what she terms 'unruly pirate voices' in early modern English literature, this study offers a compelling analysis of the cultural meanings of 'piracy'. By examining the often-marginal figure of the pirate (and the sometimes hard-to-distinguish authorized sea-raider – termed ‘privateer’ from the seventeenth century – who plundered with license), Jowitt shows how flexibly these figures served to comment on English nationalism, international relations, and contemporary politics.

Jowitt discusses depictions of pirates in public drama, broadsheets and ballads, prose romance, travel writing, and poetry from the fifty-year period stretching across the reigns of three English monarchs: Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I. Despite its transgressive nature, early modern piracy also comes to be one of the key mechanisms which served to connect peoples and regions.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Why did I love this book?

One of the most stimulating and polemical books ever written on pirates, Villains shows their social energy. In his account of pirates in the early eighteenth century, Rediker reveals the importance of history from below, which is often marginalized by traditional historical writing to focus on the experiences of the higher social orders. In fact, a ‘rhetoric of demonization’ about ‘peoples’ history’ often runs through writings by the elite classes.

Villains addresses key questions about piracy: who pirates were and where they came from? Why did people become pirates and what were their beliefs? How were pirates organized? How did pirates behave to other people and how they were described by others, and, finally, how were they suppressed? Arguably Villains is the most influential book on pirates ever written, transforming them into a serious academic subject. It is a must-read.

By Marcus Rediker,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Villains of All Nations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pirates have long been stock figures in popular culture, from Treasure Island to the more recent antics of Jack Sparrow. Villains of all Nations unearths the thrilling historical truth behind such fictional characters and rediscovers their radical democratic challenge to the established powers of the day.

Book cover of Elizabethan Privateering: English Privateering During the Spanish War, 1585 1603

Why did I love this book?

This study is a model of how to use meticulous archival research – here in the records of the High Court of Admiralty – to make a powerful argument with far-reaching implications: that many of Elizabethan England’s principal merchants and highest-ranking members of the court, including the queen, invested in and profited from extra-legal activities, and that England’s capitalist system was based on theft from European rivals. Andrews’ achievement is to explain clearly the ways the court operated and what its records – depositions and testimonies, complaints and interrogations, and summaries of activities – can tell us. Using information about who was licensed as a privateer and when, how plunder was distributed, and the international disputes caused by the depredations of privateers and pirates, Andrews book exemplifies how economic and naval history can be brought into productive dialogue.

By Kenneth R. Andrews,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Elizabethan Privateering as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Privateering was a form of legal private warfare at sea in which individuals who possessed suitable ships took the opportunity offered by a war to plunder enemy commerce. In this study of privateering during the Elizabethan war with Spain, which was originally published in 1966, Dr Andrews shows that it was closely connected with trade, in particular having a stimulating effect on oceanic commerce and that it was at the time the main form of English maritime warfare. Dr Andrews begins with an account of how privateering became legal and how it was organised. He then examines the various types…

Book cover of A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900

Why did I love this book?

This book uses seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century piracy as one of its case studies to make innovative arguments about global history. Through a discussion of piracy, Benton seeks to transform our understanding of the significance of oceanic space. Though empires might assert control over territories and their inhabitants, in fact, their jurisdiction, or sovereignty, was uneven – thinner in some places than others, and only realized in fits and starts.

For Benton, the spatial figure of the corridor as a conduit for law and jurisdiction is vital to understanding the geography and movement of early modern imperial power. Inconsistencies in the application of prize law, the regulation of privateering, and the prosecution of piracy graphically show the unevenness of sovereignty at sea and the ways by which all types of mariner attempted to mark out jurisdictional corridors as they traversed the world's waters.

By Lauren Benton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Search for Sovereignty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Search for Sovereignty approaches world history by examining the relation of law and geography in European empires between 1400 and 1900. Lauren Benton argues that Europeans imagined imperial space as networks of corridors and enclaves, and that they constructed sovereignty in ways that merged ideas about geography and law. Conflicts over treason, piracy, convict transportation, martial law, and crime created irregular spaces of law, while also attaching legal meanings to familiar geographic categories such as rivers, oceans, islands, and mountains. The resulting legal and spatial anomalies influenced debates about imperial constitutions and international law both in the colonies and…

Book cover of Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720: Partners and Victims of Crime

Why did I love this book?

Studies of early modern piracy often either focus on one or two exceptional women – Elizabeth I, Gráinne Ní Mháille, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read – or neglect women altogether. This book challenges assumptions about early modern women’s contribution to and involvement with piracy, exploring how female lives intersected with it in numerous and nuanced ways. Female family members often acted as receivers and dealers of stolen goods: their involvement shows agency in relation to piracy, though female victimization was also common. In fact, partnerships with women were part of the wider patterns of support pirates received from seafaring communities; familial relationships often triggered female involvement since economic integration and domestic connections were linked in the maritime world. Appleby suggests that due to the changing nature of piracy, female agency diminished by the end of the seventeenth century.

By John C. Appleby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Piracy was one of the most gendered criminal activities during the early modern period. As a form of maritime enterprise and organized criminality, it attracted thousands of male recruits whose venturing acquired a global dimension as piratical activity spread across the oceans and seas of the world. At the same time, piracy affected the lives of women in varied ways. Adopting a fresh approach to the subject, this study explores the relationships and contacts between women and pirates during a prolonged period of intense and shifting enterprise. Drawing on a wide body of evidence and based on English and Anglo-American…

A General History of the Pirates

By Captain Charles Johnson,

Book cover of A General History of the Pirates

Why did I love this book?

The book where it all started in terms of popular and romanticized ideas about pirates, ‘Captain Johnson’ (a pseudonym) relates the sensational stories of the lives and deaths of a number of famous pirates: Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Anne Bonny, Henry Every, John Gow, Calico Jack Rackham, and Mary Read, to name but a few. With considerably embellished biographies, even creating completely fictional pirate lives at times, the book is stuffed full of outrageous acts and colourful characters, and it has been an international bestseller ever since. Indeed, the tall tales and pirate myths it created have fueled and inspired the imaginations of writers since its publication, including Robert Louis Stephenson in Treasure Island (1883) and J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan (1904). The General History has indeed launched a thousand further pirate ships.

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.

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Interested in piracy, the Age of Sail, and Blackbeard?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about piracy, the Age of Sail, and Blackbeard.

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