The best Age of Sail books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about the Age of Sail and why they recommend each book.

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Elizabethan Privateering

By Kenneth R. Andrews,

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

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.


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.

Nelson's Navy

By Brian Lavery,

Book cover of Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793 - 1815

This book holds a special place in my bookshelves. Reprinted many times it is a classic reference to the period. Lavery’s description of life at sea is unparalleled, depicting a world far removed from the hardships and cruelty that is often attributed to conditions on the lower deck.


Who am I?

I wanted to go to the sea ever since I can remember. In the hope of having the nonsense knocked out of me, my father sent me at the tender age of fourteen to the ‘Indefatigable’, a tough sea-training school. This only strengthened my resolve for a life at sea, and I joined the Royal Navy at 15. My family emigrated and I transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and saw service around the world.  Although I no longer have an active involvement with the navy, I sail in my imagination through my sea-faring novels.


I wrote...

Balkan Glory: Thomas Kydd 23

By Julian Stockwin,

Book cover of Balkan Glory: Thomas Kydd 23

What is my book about?

1811. The Adriatic, the 'French Lake', is now the most valuable territory Napoleon Bonaparte possesses. Captain Sir Thomas Kydd finds his glorious return to England cut short when the Admiralty summons him to lead a squadron of frigates into these waters to cause havoc and distress to the enemy. Kydd is dubbed 'The Sea Devil' by Bonaparte who personally appoints one of his favourites, Dubourdieu, along with a fleet that greatly outweighs the British, to rid him of this menace. Kydd will face Dubourdieu with impossible odds stacked against him.

Can he shatter Bonaparte's dreams of breaking out of Europe and marching to the gates of India and Asia?

Men of Honour

By Adam Nicolson,

Book cover of Men of Honour

2005 saw the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, and a slew of books about the engagement. The best of the lot was Men of Honour. In it Nicolson broadens his focus away from the mechanics of the battle to explore the psychology of the protagonists and explains the world they grew up in so that the reader understands why they acted in the ways that they did. Good history answers the ‘what happened’ question. Great history lets you understand why.      


Who am I?

I have a passion for ships and the sea which I try and bring to my writing. I was first drawn to the Age of Sail by earlier novelists in the genre who opened my eyes to a fascinating world. I went on to study the 18th-century navy at university, I sail myself whenever I can, and have always loved the sea. When I decided to give up a well-paid job in industry to try my hand as an author, there was only one genre for me.


I wrote...

The Captain's Nephew

By Philip K. Allan,

Book cover of The Captain's Nephew

What is my book about?

1795 - In a world torn apart by revolution and war, Alexander Clay, a young naval officer, dreams of promotion. Self-made, clever, and talented, he is a man ready for this new age. But Clay will need all his wits to bring his ship and crew through a series of adventures stretching from the bleak coast of Flanders to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Ill-conceived expeditions ashore, hunts for privateers in treacherous fog and a desperate chase across the Atlantic are only some of the challenges he faces. How can he win the hand of the beautiful Lydia Browning and what dark secrets have the crew brought with them into the wooden world of his ship?

Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720

By John C. Appleby,

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

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.


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.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

By Marcus Rediker,

Book cover of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700 1750

The common seaman and the pirate in the age of sail are romantic historical figures who occupy a special place in the popular culture, but they remain little known to us.  But their lives are not beyond recovery.  Rediker tours the sailor's North Atlantic, following seamen and their ships along the pulsing routes of trade and into rowdy port towns. He recreates life along the waterfront, where seafaring men from around the world crowded into brothels, alehouses, and city jails. And Rediker explores the natural terror that inevitably shaped the existence of those who plied the forbidding oceans of the globe in small, brittle wooden vessels. The mariners in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea are working men, struggling to overcome the exploitive tendencies of the age in which they lived.


Who am I?

Since the publication of my first book in 1988, my emphasis has always been on history as “story.” That is, the stories of men and women in past centuries with whom we share a common humanity but who faced challenges very different from our own. My goal is to bring their stories to as wide an audience as possible. Whether they describe Newfoundland fisherman in the 17th-century North Atlantic, expatriate Irish men and women in 18th-century Bordeaux, or colonial New Yorkers defying British authority on the eve of the American Revolution, the common theme is the impact of trade and the sea on the lives of ordinary people.


I wrote...

Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

By Thomas M. Truxes,

Book cover of Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

What is my book about?

Defying Empire reveals the story of the bold New York City merchants who engaged in forbidden trade with the French enemy during the Seven Years’ War — together with the fate of the lone informer who dared challenge them. Ignoring British prohibitions designed to end North America’s wartime trade with the French, New York’s merchant elite conducted a thriving business in the French West Indies, insisting that their behavior was protected by long practice and British commercial law. But the government in London viewed it as treachery, and its subsequent efforts to discipline North American commerce inflamed the colonists. Through fast-moving events and unforgettable characters, historian Thomas M. Truxes brings eighteenth-century New York and the Atlantic world to life.

A Search for Sovereignty

By Lauren Benton,

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

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.


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.

The Wooden World

By N.A.M. Rodger,

Book cover of The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy

This book is always on my desk when I am writing. Nick Rodger is the greatest living authority on the Age of Sail, with an astounding knowledge of his subject from the grand strategy of fleets down to the daily life of individual sailors. The book is a distillation of a lifetime of careful research into a highly-readable, single volume that lets the reader step through a door into a vanished world.


Who am I?

I have a passion for ships and the sea which I try and bring to my writing. I was first drawn to the Age of Sail by earlier novelists in the genre who opened my eyes to a fascinating world. I went on to study the 18th-century navy at university, I sail myself whenever I can, and have always loved the sea. When I decided to give up a well-paid job in industry to try my hand as an author, there was only one genre for me.


I wrote...

The Captain's Nephew

By Philip K. Allan,

Book cover of The Captain's Nephew

What is my book about?

1795 - In a world torn apart by revolution and war, Alexander Clay, a young naval officer, dreams of promotion. Self-made, clever, and talented, he is a man ready for this new age. But Clay will need all his wits to bring his ship and crew through a series of adventures stretching from the bleak coast of Flanders to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Ill-conceived expeditions ashore, hunts for privateers in treacherous fog and a desperate chase across the Atlantic are only some of the challenges he faces. How can he win the hand of the beautiful Lydia Browning and what dark secrets have the crew brought with them into the wooden world of his ship?

Seafaring Women

By David Cordingly,

Book cover of Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives

Cordingly is more famous for his other major pirate work—the ubiquitous “Under the Black Flag,” which is required reading for anyone who wants to learn more about pirates. However, I prefer this book about pirate women, as well as other types of women who went to sea. When I started my research for my first book, I knew virtually nothing about the women of the Royal Navy and this book opened my eyes to their fascinating stories. There’s something for everyone in this book.


Who am I?

I have loved pirates since my first viewing of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan at age 5. My passion for learning about these outlaws led me to discover the hidden stories of women pirates—who have always sailed alongside their male counterparts yet never get the same glory. When I learned about Cheng I Sao, the greatest pirate who ever lived (who was a woman), I was so angry that her story wasn’t more well-known that I wrote a book about it! It has been a joy and an honor to share the stories of pirate women with the world and I have fully embraced my title of “crazy pirate lady.”


I wrote...

Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas

By Laura Sook Duncombe,

Book cover of Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas

What is my book about?

In the first-ever Seven Seas history of the world’s female buccaneers, Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas tells the story of women, both real and legendary, who through the ages sailed alongside—and sometimes in command of—their male counterparts. These women came from all walks of life but had one thing in common: a desire for freedom. History has largely ignored these female swashbucklers, until now. Here are their stories, from ancient Norse princess Alfhild and warrior Rusla to Sayyida al-Hurra of the Barbary corsairs; from Grace O’Malley, who terrorized shipping operations around the British Isles during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I; to Cheng I Sao, who commanded a fleet of four hundred ships off China in the early nineteenth century.

Villains of All Nations

By Marcus Rediker,

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

This is my nonfiction pick for this list, and one of my favorite books on any historical period, ever. This was a foundational text for my own trilogy set in the golden age of piracy, and at least half of it is underlined and filled with my excited notes. This book takes on the period through what Rediker calls “history from below” exploring the lives of pirates, sailors, enslaved people, and those fighting against empires and the damaging effects of colonization in the 18th century. It stands against the depiction of pirates as lazy thieves, and instead paints a picture of social and economic rebellion. The pirates weren’t perfect, but they were building something of their own in juxtaposition to the rampant abuses of the era. 


Who am I?

I am a librarian and a writer with a passion for history and challenging the narrative, because sometimes, the things the history books tell us aren’t the whole story. After all, history belongs to the victor, doesn’t it? Finding and writing stories that explore historical lives beyond royals and the wealthy is what I love, and I’m always looking for more books that do this. I started reading historical fiction as a child, delving into things like the Dear America and American Girl series, that told the stories of everyday people in these grand moments of history, and reading those books inspired me to write my own.


I wrote...

Sailing by Orion's Star

By Katie Crabb,

Book cover of Sailing by Orion's Star

What is my book about?

East India Company sailor Nicholas Jerome has no patience for pirates, determined to leave his father's thieving past behind. After a convict and an enslaved woman escape his grasp with the aid of an aristocrat’s mysterious wife, he faces one last chance to save his career. Finding an unexpected home with a new crew, he gains a chosen younger brother in René Delacroix, the son of his wealthy captain and the grandson of Jamaica’s cruel governor.

But there’s a storm brewing in the Delacroix household. For René and his best friend Frantz, the Robin Hood tales about legendary pirate Ajani Danso and his famed female quartermaster are a lifeline amidst the governor’s abuse. Danso robs greedy merchants, frees slaves, and shelters queer sailors, inspiring the downtrodden across the New World.

Master & Commander

By Patrick O'Brian,

Book cover of Master & Commander

Patrick O’Brien writes tall ship adventures with a blythe spirit, expertly portraying life at sea. Captain Jack Aubrey runs a happy ship, as opposed, say, to Captain Bligh. But rigors remain, and the distance between captain and crew is maintained to preserve social structure. The whole twenty-volume series is compelling for any seafarer, and Master & Commander is best known. The movie was good, except for Russell Crowe, who mumbled his lines.


Who am I?

I’ve written fiction for 60 years, scratching the adventure itch for exotic places, high seas, or converging oddities. I have wandered and taken note. The authors I love have influenced my worldview and my writing. I am a reef conservation activist with five volumes of reef photos and political narratives covering reefs worldwide. And I am an Executive Producer of The Dark Hobby, an award-winning feature film exposing the aquarium trade for its devastating impact on reefs worldwide. I live in Maui with my wife Anita, Cookie the dog, Yoyo, Tootsie, Rocky, Buck, Inez and Coco the cats, and Elizabeth the chicken.


I wrote...

Solomon Kursh

By Robert Wintner,

Book cover of Solomon Kursh

What is my book about?

A promising youth of the 60s veers to LSD and cosmic light. Stepping from university to cult life and pastel jammies, he chants and dances. Passersby laugh, and he laughs back, niched in bliss. Natural intelligence takes him to operational management, as labor and meditation define purpose for years, until...  Harsh truth drops like a turd in the punch bowl, a small one, but still. Would you like a cup?

He’d challenged the elders of his childhood. What did you do, when you had the chance? The question comes back, calling for strange absolution and justice served. Despairing a bleak future and potential wasted, he meditates on a bong like 1969 and phones a friend. The story resolves on endurance and revelation.

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