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Pirate reading

February 3, 2018

I love reading, whether it’s fact or fiction. In recent years, it’s been mostly fact for me, though, and not even due to a budding career in academia. Instead, it’s pirates (surprise surprise). While my whole pirate project started in 2015 with the purchase of a single book at a used book store in London, I’ve built up a nice little collection in the years since. As many people seem to be interested in knowing more about pirates, I figured I’d showcase some of my favourites on the subject.

Historians’ takes on pirates tend to fall into one of two groups, one being a more conservative approach and the other one a more radical one. To crudely summarize the difference: the conservative approach paints pirates as intriguing subjects, but ultimately views them as mostly criminals and fairly nasty ones at that. The radical interpretation often views pirates from the viewpoint of rebellion and class struggle, considering them as not just criminals, but as challengers to emerging global capitalism. As often is the case with history, we don’t know the truth of the matter, but exploring different viewpoints is definitely worthwhile.

So, in no particular order, five pirate books worth reading. As these are just my favourites, there are obviously many more excellent pieces out there that I just don’t happen to own. As there are fairly limited actual historical records on pirates, all the books mentioned have considerable overlap as they draw on the same resources. However, different readings make comparisons interesting and allow you to form your own view of pirates. The focus of most of these books is on the Golden Age of Pirace, i.e. the early 18th century.

Marcus Rediker: Villains of All Nations : Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Rediker is a prominent figure in the radical school, and this is not only a very good take but a smooth read as well. Villains of All Nations is a prime example of the pirates-as-rebels interpretation.

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

Cordingly’s approach to pirates is much more conservative than Rediker’s. This is, however, a wonderfully comprehensive look at most common pirate myths and pirates in general.

Colin Woodard: The Republic of Pirates

Leaning more towards the radical side, The Republic of Pirates deserves a special mention for its very entertaining writing. The book’s focus is on the Bahamas, so if Black Sails is your thing (and it should be), this is a good look at the history behind it.

Captain Charles Johnson: General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates

The mother of all pirate sources. This is actually a reprint of “Captain Charles Johnson’s” (most likely a pseudonym) entertaining and often sensationalist and embellished contemporary writings on pirates. Pirates were a source of fascination and entertainment to many of their contemporaries, as this book shows. Most pirate historians draw on this as a primary source, although there are almost certainly quite a few bits of 18th century tabloid journalism in there as well. The spelling has been modernized, but the writing is still more than a little archaic at times.

Angus Konstam: Pirates of the Seven Seas

This is the book that started my pirate craze so it deserves its spot. Now, style-wise it might not be the most academic take on the subject, but with its lavish full colour illustrations and information chopped up into clear themes and bite-sized chunks, it’s a very easy first venture into pirate literacy and very suitable for both younger and adult readers. It also details the origins from piracy from ancient times up to modernity.

So there you have it! Three of the five writers mentioned, Rediker, Cordingly and Konstam, have written loads more on the subject. Konstam has done extensive work for Osprey Publishing, so if you’re interested in a wargaming angle, those are definitely worth looking into.

Happy reading, and do share your own favourites in the comments!

9 comments

  1. A couple of books immediately spring to mind, both fictional by George MacDonald Fraser. The first is “The Pyrates” a comic novel from ’83 which he called “”a burlesque fantasy on every swashbuckler I ever read or saw.”. I couldn’t get on with it, probably more to it not being his better known character Flashman. This brings me neatly to “Flashman’s Lady” from ’77 which has a plot which features Malay piracy and adventuring with James Brooke, aka Rajah of Sarawak, aka the White Rajah. GMF is spotless when it comes to his history and this is no exception and a great read.


    • Cheers Phil! There is in my opinion a distinct lack of decent pirate fiction around, should probably give these a look!


  2. I took a college seminar where we solely read books about pirates, both fiction and non-fiction. The class was awesome. One book you might add to your list is the Pirate Hunter which I enjoyed


  3. Thanks for the interesting list! Concerning fiction, there is also Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, a great read and a book that had a big influence on my own pirate project.


    • I quite liked that! Funny how they lifted the title for use in Pirates of the Caribbean, yet almost literally nothing else.


  4. I read “under a black flag” . I found it to be both incredibly informative and incredibly dry at in the same measure.
    But yes, a must read.



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