Folding plate of Pirates and Spanish Armada

Book Collecting Road Map: Pirates

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In this post I’ve made a bibliographic treasure map, outlining some of the major books sought on pirate material.

When working with book collectors, we often fall into discussions of road maps: the basic signposts and landmarks used to orient ourselves in a specific category. Call it a short (arg, so short!) annotated bibliography for book collectors. My biggest challenge: to make it through this post without a single pirate pun or pirate accent. (…Careful observers will have noted that I’ve already failed on this count.)

By way of caveat-introduction, our focus is on the sources that form the imaginative basis for the modern American conception of pirates. This “classic” pirate is an image partially based on the historical accounts of the seamen who plundered in the Caribbean and South America from roughly the 1650s to 1725; and partially based on characters, plots, and settings of popular English and American literature on the subject. Like this guy.

Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates
From Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921). Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.


Pirate: Someone who commits theft (and related crimes) on the high seas.
Someone who is officially contracted by a government to plunder on the high seas. So: legal. Sort of. Depends on whom you ask.
The pirates who were active in the Caribbean and South America in the 17th century. This – or rather, a literature and pop culture-infiltrated version of this – is what most people have in their mind’s eye as a pirate.
The pirates who were active in the Mediterranean. The term often refers either to French pirates or to Ottoman pirates on the Barbary Coast.

The Fundamentals

If you only have two collectible books on pirates, make it these.

Folding plate of Pirates and Spanish Armada
Folding plate of Spanish Armada being destroyed by pirates in volume I of Exquemelin (1684). Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.

[Alexander] Exquemelin and Basil Ringrose (second volume); The Bucaniers [sic] of America
London: Printed for William Crooke, 1684, 1685. Six full-page and two double-page engravings of pirates and scenes of piracy, two folding maps and one double-page map, and fourteen full-page engraved maps/plans.

Portrait of pirate Bartolomeu Portugues
Portrait of the pirate Bartolomeu Portugues, in volume I of Exquemelin (1684). Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.

A history of famous pirates, and the central primary source on the subject during its most famous era. Once the surgeon to Captain Henry Morgan, Exquemelin offers first-hand accounts of buccaneering in the West Indies in the late-seventeenth century; his is one of the few works of documentary evidence for their exploits. It formed the mythology around many of the now-infamous pirates (Morgan himself successfully sued the author for defamation). Basil Ringrose’s 1685 continuation brings the history of pirates up to date with the travels of Captain Cook and other voyagers to the South Sea. First published in Dutch in 1678.

Portrait of Captain Morgan 1734
Portrait of Captain Morgan, in a 1734 edition of Johnson’s General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen…[with] a Genuine Account of the Voyages and Plunders of the most Notorious Pyrates. Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.
Captain Charles Johnson [pseud.], A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most Notorious Pyrates
London: Printed for Ch. Rivington, 1724. Three engraved plates.

One of the most important sources for the Golden Age of Piracy, this work is responsible for describing many of the iconic images we associate with pirates, including the amputated limbs, the buried treasure, and the Jolly Roger. Both J.M. Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson drew heavily from it. The work includes biographical sketches of Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, and Captain Avery, as well as biographies of the female pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read. Some scholars believe Daniel Defoe is the author, although that claim has been disputed and is now viewed as doubtful. Later editions with a slightly updated title incorporate material from additional sources on highwaymen and other criminals, and are sometimes extensively or quaintly illustrated.

Portrait of pirate captain Avery
Portrait of pirate captain Avery, in a 1734 edition of Johnson’s General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen …[with] a Genuine Account of the Voyages and Plunders of the most Notorious Pyrates. Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.

The Voyages

Many pirates started as sailors on voyages of exploration, although the two roles weren’t mutually exclusive…

Sir Francis Drake Revived
Sir Francis Drake Revived, [1652]-1653, image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.
Francis Drake, Sir Francis Drake Revived
London: for Nicholas Bourne, [1652]-1653.

Is Drake really a pirate? Not exactly. He was a privateer specially commissioned by Queen Elizabeth to attack Spanish settlements in the New World. It was during the 1577-80 voyage – the first English circumnavigation – that Drake memorably offered a gold chain to the first sailor who spotted a Spanish galleon. The Golden Hind returned to England heavy with plunder. I’ve included him here because this is one of the early voyages that set the pattern for pirates to come, albeit with varying degrees of legality. The edition listed is the first collected edition of Drake’s voyages.

Voyage and Adventures of Captain Bartholomew Sharp
Title page of the Voyages and Adventures of Captain Bartholomew Sharp (1684), image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

[Philip Ayre], The voyages and adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp and others, in the South Sea
London: Printed by B.W. for R.H. and S.T., 1684.

Captain Bartholomew Sharp was a natural leader – a requirement to keep violent and rebellious thieves at sea organized under the same flag. Sharp played the part of the privateer, attacking Spanish ships. One problem with that: at the time, England was not actually at war with Spain. The Spanish demanded Sharp be prosecuted for his crimes when he returned to England. Instead, he handed the English a valuable set of maps stolen from the Spanish and was pardoned.

Wafer Voyage 1699
Title page of Wafer’s New voyage and description of the isthmus of America (1699), image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

Lionel Wafer, A new voyage and description of the isthmus of America…
London: Printed for James Knapton, 1699. One folding map of Panama and three folding plates.

Wafer was a surgeon who left a trading vessel mid-voyage to join the famous buccaneers Lynch, Cook, and Dampier. It’s a valuable account of the exploits of the buccaneers in and around Panama – including one of the most famous pirate battles of the era, the Brethren of the Coast’s attack on Panama and taking of Santa Maria, led by Captain Morgan.

Wafer New Voyage plate
Wafer’s New voyage and description of the isthmus of America (1699), image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

Captain William Hacke, A collection of original voyages…
London: Printed for James Knapton, 1699. Three folding maps, one folding plan, and two plates (one folding).

This collection is particularly important for its accounts of Ambrose Cowley, bane of the Spanish in the West Indies; and Bartholomew Sharp (mentioned above), who was made captain by his fellow buccaneers and subsequently deposed by them a few years later. The accounts focus mainly on the voyages along the coast of South America.

Rogers frontispiece world map
World map folding frontispiece in Rogers’ Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712). Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.

Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World
London: printed for A. Bell and B. Lintot, 1712. Five engraved folding maps.

A classic first-hand account of buccaneering. Along with William Dampier, Captain Woodes Rogers led a privateering expedition to harry and capture Spanish ships and colonial possessions while England was at war with Spain. In the process they circumnavigated the globe and returned to England as national heroes. It is believed that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was inspired by this work (described below).

Dampier Map
Folding map frontispiece in Dampier’s Collection of Voyages, vol. IV (1729), image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

William Dampier, A collection of voyages. In four volumes
London: Printed for James and John Knapton, 1729. Over sixty charts and plates.

Jonathan A. Hill calls Dampier “probably the most intelligent” of the English sailors who attacked the Spanish throughout the South Sea during the Buccaneering Era. Dampier was a careful record keeper, and returned from each voyage ready to publish an account of his exploits and discoveries. I’ve listed here the “best scholars’ edition” of Dampier’s work – the first collected edition after all his various accounts (1698-1709) had been published.

Captain James Burney, Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean
London: Luke Hansard, 1803-1817. Over forty engraved illustrations.

After the great age of South Sea piracy and exploration, Burney put together the first really comprehensive history on the subject. Burney himself sailed with Captain Cook for the second and third voyages. Part IV (of V) was also printed separately as History of the buccaneers of America in 1816 in anticipation of the significantly higher interest in that particular subject.

Pirates in Fiction

Frontispiece portrait robinson crusoe first edition
Frontispiece portrait in the first edition of Robinson Crusoe (1719), via the Robinson Crusoe Online Bibliography.

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
London: Printed for W. Taylor, 1719.

While this book about a castaway on a desert island isn’t directly about pirates, it was inspired by them. The protagonist was based on Alexander Selkirk, who was famously marooned while sailing with the buccaneer William Dampier in 1704. (Selkirk was in fact left behind after he had demanded to remain on the island during a fight with Dampier. That’s some regrettable petulance.) In 1709, Captain Rogers landed on the same island and Dampier, the new expedition’s pilot, recognized the survivor. The second edition of Rogers’ account was published the year before Robinson Crusoe.

First edition title page of the Corsair
Title page of the first edition of Byron’s The Corsair (1814). Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Lord Byron, The Corsair
London: John Murray, 1814.

Published after enough time had passed to soften the edges of historical crimes, this Regency-era bestseller about a pirate leader named Conrad was perhaps the biggest single turning point in changing the historically-informed conception of pirates as vicious criminals into our modern conception of pirates as romantic outlaws. Island hideaways! Turks! Harems! It sold out its entire 10,000 copy print run in a single day.

Pirates of Penzance
Philadelphia edition of the Pirates of Penzance, image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance
London: Chappell, [1880]

Flint Pirates of Penzance
W. Russell Flint’s Pirates of Penzance, from his illustrated edition of the Savoy Operas (1909). Image via

Perhaps the most beloved of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, this production convinced us that pirates weren’t so much (or at least, not only) murderers, rapists, and slavers – they were also friendly, good-natured chaps. It’s another major turning point in our popular conception of the pirate.

Map from first edition Treasure Island
Stevenson’s map in Treasure Island (1883). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
London: Cassell & Co., 1883.

The twentieth-century image of pirates owes a staggering amount to this adventure book. Treasure maps where “X” marks the spot? Check. Pirates with a missing leg and a pet parrot? Check. When we imagine a pirate, we think of Stevenson’s Long John Silver. “Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” Amusingly, one of the bibliographic points of this book is whether the phrase “dead man’s chest” is capitalized on pages 2 and 7.

Peter and Wendy First Edition 1911
First edition of Peter and Wendy (1911), without the dust jacket. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy
London: Hodder & Stoughton, [1911].

Neverland is full of pirates, and the Lost Boys must constantly be on guard against pirate attacks. Captain Hook’s dominating presence (distinguished “by the elegance of his diction, even when he was swearing”) has defined the image of a pirate for modern audiences. The only other pirate figures who compare are Blackbeard (who was real) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver (who was not). This book is the first novel version of the Peter Pan story, which first debuted as a play in 1904. Peter Pan the character appeared even earlier – in The Little White Bird (1902) – as a baby only a week old.

Pyle Book of Pirates
Frontispiece from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921). Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.

Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates
New York & London: Harper & Brothers, 1921. Compiled by Merle Johnson. With 36 full-page tipped in plates (12 color) and more than two dozen vignettes by Howard Pyle.

Pyle's Book of Pirates 2
Plate from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921). Image from Honey & Wax Booksellers.

The one illustrated book that every pirate collection needs. This posthumous collection of Pyle’s work on pirates celebrates the influence of the artist on our popular imagination: “Pirates, Buccaneers, Marooners, those cruel but picturesque sea wolves who once infested the Spanish Main, all live in present-day conception in great degree as drawn by the pen and pencil of Howard Pyle” (Johnson).

Cup of Gold first edition dust jacket
The dust jacket design on the first edition of Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold (1929). Image via Wikipedia Commons.

John Steinbeck, Cup of Gold
New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1929.

Steinbeck’s first novel, a fictional life of Henry Morgan. The first print run faced the difficult timing of Black Tuesday and the subsequent Great Depression. Steinbeck was a bit embarrassed by this early effort, but its scarcity (especially in the original dust jacket) and the reputation of its author make it a highly sought entry on the fictional side of pirate literature.

What I’ve left out

There’s so much more. We’ve left out the French entirely (Charlevoix, Tertre, and Labat to start), even though they played a significant role attacking the Spanish on the high seas during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Moreover, this list focuses primarily on the accounts of major ocean voyages that describe the exploits of the buccaneers (especially Dampier and co.), and on the subsequent fiction that shaped the popular image of pirates by plundering (sorry) these historical sources.

We haven’t even talked about the wealth of other sources one can explore – among them documents of famous pirate trials, naval logs, and colonial government reports, not to mention the legions of apocryphal popular imprints like ballads.

Your Major Bibliographic Sources

This list is by no means comprehensive, but these are the first three works to which I turn. They are the  basic building blocks of the bibliographic library on pirates.

Joseph Sabin, Bibliotheca Americana: A dictionary of books relating to America from its discovery to the present time.
New York: 1868-1936.

National Maritime Museum Catalog of the Library, volume IV. Piracy and Privateering.
Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1972.

The Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages. Edited by Ronald Louis Silveira de Braganza and Charlotte Oakes. Annotations by Jonathan A. Hill.
University of California, San Diego: University Library, 1974.


9 thoughts on “Book Collecting Road Map: Pirates”

  1. I have enjoyed the illustrations, now comes the reading, which I expect to enjoy too. Great article, Nadine.

  2. The thought had never struck me that G&S might have had something to do with pirates becoming seen as friendly, comical fellows (and whom everyone would want to talk like each September 19), but it makes sense. And I can’t help but wonder whether a certain rum company drew advertising inspiration from the “Cup of Gold” dust jacket – it seems like Morgan is about to prop that left leg up on something at any minute!

    Nice call, including “Peter and Wendy” – it would not have occurred to me, but certainly a good choice! Any sci-fi pirates you’d include?

    Fun post, Rebecca!

    1. I should admit that my inclusion of G&S and the J.M. Barrie aren’t from my own brilliant conclusions. In pirate histories, they are two often cited for their impact on our popular imagination. A great book about this, by the way, is Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, by David Cordingly.

      As for sf pirates…hm… that question may get me lost in thought for the weekend.

  3. A wonderful treasure trove of pirate origins and swashbuckling exploits. You’ve covered near everything except Capt’n Jack Sparrow and pirate parrots with peg legs and eye patches. Well Done.

  4. Now that was fun and informative. Being a retired Navy Chief I now have some references to look for. By chance would you know if any of these books are available for download on Kindle? I live in a small town; no book stores within a hour of me.


    1. Most of these are in the public domain, meaning you can download the text itself for free online. That said, you can also support independent bookstores by an online order!

  5. Thank you Rebecca, really like your Articles. Thanks, Tony V

    On Dec 7, 2016 7:03 PM, “Aldine by Rebecca Romney” wrote:

    rebeccaromney posted: “A Bibliographic Treasure Map When working with book collectors, we often fall into discussions of road maps: the basic signposts and landmarks used to orient ourselves in a specific category. In this post I outline some of the major books sought on pirat”

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