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.
Pirate: Someone who commits theft (and related crimes) on the high seas.
Privateer: Someone who is officially contracted by a government to plunder on the high seas. So: legal. Sort of. Depends on whom you ask.
Buccaneer: 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.
Corsair: The pirates who were active in the Mediterranean. The term often refers either to French pirates or to Ottoman pirates on the Barbary Coast.
If you only have two collectible books on pirates, make it these.
[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.
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.
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.
Many pirates started as sailors on voyages of exploration, although the two roles weren’t mutually exclusive…
Francis Drake, Sir Francis Drake Revived
London: for Nicholas Bourne, -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.
[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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance
London: Chappell, 
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.
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.
J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy
London: Hodder & Stoughton, .
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.
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.
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).
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.