Captain Charles Johnson
Tuesday, September 17th, 2019
Who was Captain Charles Johnson?
In 1724, the book which has shaped our perception on pirates, with eye-patches, wooden legs and parrots, was released, but one problem is, we do not yet know who wrote it. “A General Histories of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates” is an encyclopaedic account of the lives of some of the most notorious pirates of the “Golden Age” of piracy. Its many different issues and versions have been undeniably influential, with both Robert Louis Stevenson sighting the book as a main source of inspiration for his piracy themed work “Treasure Island”. To our knowledge however, its author, Captain Charles Johnson, didn’t exist in any capacity at the time of writing, neither as a Captain within the Royal Navy or as a common pirate who had labelled themselves a Captain, the author’s name is therefore generally considered a pseudonym.
Who Wrote This Book?
Over the years, historians and literary scholars have tried to pin down who exactly was responsible for this somewhat mythical account of contemporary pirates. Given the content of the book, we know that the author had extensive knowledge on the subjects of piracy and seafaring in general, but also of the specific geography of the West Indies and Caribbean Sea. One writer who some have accredited as the author is Daniel Defoe, a man who was no stranger to using pseudonyms or keeping his identity secret when writing. Those who have posited him as author, do so on the basis of stylistic analysis, reaching the conclusion that there are great similarities between this book and other of his known works of the time in terms of content and writing patterns. Despite this, many historians have dismissed the claim that Defoe was the author, citing that his attribution to the book was based solely on literary analysis, rather than any historical external evidence and that many stylistic parallels found were in fact part of the common writing style in the 18th Century.
Various other people have been suggested as the author including Ronald Quattroche and Nathanial Mist, of which the latter has gained more attention. Mist, a publisher in London, who lived very close to where the first copies of the book were printed, was a former sailor who had become familiar with the West Indies, along with other locations and tactics of pirates during his time at sea. Furthermore, he was a Jacobite, who would later move to France and become a messenger between England and the Stuart Court in Italy, which would explain not only his wish to keep his identity secret but also the not overly negative portrayal of the famous pirates.
Unfortunately, the truth is that we will probably never truly know who wrote the book. This does not, however, stop it being the book that perhaps created the modern perception of pirates.
To hear more on the history of pirates, listen to our podcast!
By Harry Cornford
- An online copy of the book from the East Carolina University Digital Collection is available for viewing
- Marcus Rediker, ‘Villans of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age’
- Colin Woodard, ‘The Republic of Pirates: Being the true and surprising story of the Caribbean pirates and the man who brought them down’
- Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Timeless Allure of Pirates’
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