The best books on pirates in the age of sail

The Books I Picked & Why

Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

By Marcus Rediker

Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Why 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.


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Elizabethan Privateering: English Privateering During the Spanish War, 1585 1603

By Kenneth R. Andrews

Elizabethan Privateering: English Privateering During the Spanish War, 1585 1603

Why 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.


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

By Lauren Benton

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

Why 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.


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

By John C. Appleby

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

Why 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.


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

By Captain Charles Johnson

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

Why 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.


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