Pirate Book Recommendations
Pirates and piracy are very popular subjects of fiction and non-fiction books. As this is a pirate history blog, I'll only be including non-fiction books here.
Before I begin, I need to state that I have not read every pirate and piracy book ever written.
a) there are a lot of them around and new ones released all the time;
b) some of them are very expensive;
c) some of them are embarrassingly terrible;
d) some of them are very expensive AND embarrassingly terrible;
e) lots are out of print; and
f) even I can’t spend 24 hours a day thinking, reading and writing about pirates.
So let's dive in.
The pirate classics
“A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates” by Captain Charles Johnson (1724)
This is the most famous book about piracy ever. It contains a series of biographies of the activities and outcomes of numerous pirates active in the Caribbean. All the famous ones are there: Teach, Roberts, Bonny, Read, et al. There are multiple editions and innumerable re-publications of the content in countless books over three centuries.
At the time it was compiled, most of the pirates in the book were very much present in living memory. Historians now believe its mysterious compiler - as "Captain Charles Johnson" was almost certainly a pseudonym - drew from correspondence, newspaper articles and interviews with captured pirates to create a popular and entertaining narrative.
This gives the book an air of authenticity that has not stood up to historical verification. That said, it’s certainly not entirely fabricated and is required reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the pirates of the Caribbean.
By far the most widely available version is the second edition. A first edition retails about US$170 on rare book sites. It IS different from the second edition and covers fewer pirates. The second edition is available online for free. As it is in the public domain, enterprising self-publishers advertise it for sale on Amazon. So if you’d like a physical book, be aware there is no definitive version and the quality may be questionable.
“The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers” by Charles Ellms (1837)
I have a great affection for this book because it’s a well-rounded ‘introduction to pirates’ book. It also has some great sketches. It covers a range of different eras of piracy very broadly: Danish pirates, Joassamee pirates, Jean Lafitte, a few of the Caribbean pirates, corsairs from Algiers, Benito de Soto, etc.
Ellms was a book binder by trade, not a writer so compiled it from other sources, including Johnson. It’s available for free from Project Gutenberg. There is also a printed version (1993) from the Marine Research Society available for sale on Amazon.
“A History of Piracy” by Phillip Gosse (1934)
This book is where the academic study of piracy began. Gosse had an extensive collection of piracy books to draw from so it’s frustrating how much he got wrong. Yet even though the lack of referencing would in no way pass academic rigor today, Gosse’s affection for his subject matter is very clear all through it. His parents were good friends with Robert Louis Stevenson so that probably had something to do with it.
Gosse was genuinely fascinated by pirates so it’s hard to hate on this book, even though I wrote an entire article on how his Benito de Soto story is 99% false. It’s available for free from Hathi Trust. The printed version is available from Dover Maritime on Amazon.
“Bucaniers of America” by Alexander O Exquemelin (from 1668)
This was the first book to lift the lid on the secret world of Caribbean sea-raiding in the 1660s. It’s the primary source on Henry Morgan, Francois L’Ollonois and Pierre Le Grand and written by a witness to their exploits. It’s surprisingly historically accurate. Even though Morgan sued the English publishers for libel, that was more because he disputed being called a pirate than the actual descriptions of his exploits.
The English version around today is a translation of the Spanish version from the original Flemish. Like Johnson's book, there are now multiple versions available. It is available for free at archive.org. A 1924 version called “Pirates of Panama” is available at Project Gutenberg that strips out all the “boring descriptions”. If you are after a physical book, there are currently 16 self-published editions available on Amazon.
If you can track down the 1972 edition from Folio Society, this is a direct English translation of Exquemelin’s original text. You can see the difference in how the original publishers interpreted Exquemelin’s words through their patriotic allegiances there.
“Under the Black Flag: Exploits of the Most Notorious Pirates” (1925), by Don C Seitz
Seitz was an American journalist and author. The book is in the vein of Ellm’s A Pirate’s Own book in that it draws from other sources but it covers a broader time spectrum than others of the time. Despite starting with the biggest cliché in pirate books (that being “Piracy is the second oldest profession in the world”) Johnson’s Caribbean pirates are joined by more 19th century pirates: Jean Lafitte, Charles Gibbs, and Benito de Soto; and also a few of their predecessors: Henry Every, Thomas Tew and William Kidd.
It’s a good choice if you’re seeking a broader chronology of Atlantic piracy but the usual warnings about historical accuracy apply.
It is available online through the subscription book service Perlego and a 2002 edition is available from Amazon.
“Piracy and politics in the Malay world: a study of British imperialism in nineteenth-century South-east Asia” (1964) by Nicholas Tarling
For South-east Asian colonial history, you can not beat Nicholas Tarling. This book was the first to really examine how European colonials used piracy suppression as a way to expand their economic and colonial ambitions. It’s expensive from Amazon and not available online. However, if you are in a major city with a half-decent university library, there is a fair chance you can find a copy there. If you are interested in the history of piracy in this region, start here.
Pirate biographies (men)
WARNING: Authors of pirate biographies are not impartial on their subjects!
Sir Francis Drake is an extremely popular subject for pirate biographies for two reasons. Firstly, there is a wealth of sources about him so lots can be written backed by verifiable evidence. Secondly, his exploits are representative of Queen Elizabeth I's reign so he fits neatly into a broader discussion of England's position as a global power in the late 16th century. Here are a selection of the books available about him.
Sir Francis Drake (1890), Julian Corbett (online). The basic story of Drake’s rich and colourful life setting it up through the gentleman/explorer/hero lens that would play out through the 20th century.
Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero (1997), John Cummins ($$$). Critical examination of Drake’s life and the mythology that grew around him.
Sir Francis Drake: The Construction of a Hero, (2009) Bruce Wathen ($$$). Dedicated to examining Drake’s complex identity through the centuries.
Sir Francis Drake: The Queen’s Pirate (1998) Harry Kelsey ($). Controversial take on Drake among readers and academic reviewers. For the Drake enthusiasts only!
Unlike Drake, Every's life is one of mystery with few sources available. However, his status as a successful escapee with an egalitarian reputation for fairness makes him an appealing subject.
Enemy of all Mankind: a True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s first Global Manhunt, (2020) by Steven Johnson ($). Very popular, accessible and well-regarded* examination of Every’s life and times. *Based on press reviews because I haven’t read it yet.
Larger than life Welsh buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan encapsulated everything that is fascinating about the Golden Age of Piracy.
Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer and Governor (1933) W Adolphe Roberts (free). First critical examination of Morgan’s career.
Terror of the Spanish Main: Sir Henry Morgan and his Buccaneers (1999) Albert Marrin ($$) Updated examination of Morgan’s career including the gaps in the history around Morgan.
Poor old Captain Kidd. He never could catch a break. Of all the famous pirates, he has been vilified and vindicated the most.
The Real Captain Kidd: A vindication (1911) Sir Cornelius Neale Dalton (free). The first published account proposing that maybe Kidd was not a pirate after all.
Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (1989), Robert Ritchie ($$) Sympathetic but critical examination of Kidd’s life and death and the miscarriage of justice argument.
The Pirate Hunter, (2003) Richard Zacks ($$) All out dispute that Kidd was a pirate at all.
Edward (Blackbeard) Teach
By all accounts a vicious and cruel man, it is perplexing Blackbeard has festivals and memorabilia honouring him. He turns up in all the classic biographies but has only been the subject of a dedicated biography once.
Blackbeard: America’s most notorious pirate (2007), by Angus Konstam ($$). Good attempt to separate the man from the myth but only recommended if you are unfamiliar with Blackbeard’s full story.
Pirate biographies (women)
As an area of study, women and piracy has really come into its own in the last 30 years. Biographies of women pirates often combine them all in one book because there are just not enough historical sources to write an individual biography on each. As a result, the gaps in narratives are often filled with a feminist and/or gender studies perspective that may or may not be your jam.
For some reason, books about pirate women are significantly cheaper than those about men. So make of that what you will.
Here are some picks from among them:
Bold in her Breeches: Women Pirates across the Ages (1995) Edited by Jo Stanley ($$). This book digs into the existing stories of pirate women and critically examines how their stories have been told. It is upfront about its strong feminist stance but tempers it with a contemporary humour. A personal favourite.
Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720: Partners and Victims of Crime (2015) John C Appleby ($) This book examines the place of women in piracy, including as equals on ships, recipients of plunder on land, and victims of assault. It’s an academic book but don’t be scared: it’s still accessibly written to the interested reader. Also a favourite!
Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810 (1987) Dian H Murray. (Hard to find) Murray is the doyenne of this era of piracy. The book is not dedicated to Ching Shih, but it includes the definitive account of her story in English. If you’ve no luck tracking it down, Murray also contributed her take on Ching Shih to Bold in her Breeches.
Pirate Women: the Princesses, Prostitutes and Privateers who ruled the Seven Seas (2019), Laura Sook Duncombe ($) I haven’t read this but there are some stroooong feelings on Good Reads about it. I understand its positive is that it goes beyond the Big Four: Mary Read, Ann Bonny, Grace O’Malley and Ching Shih. The downside is the reason they are the big four is there is not a lot of evidence of anyone else. So Duncombe fills in the (many) gaps with her personal viewpoints. Up to you on this one.
Books about Piracy in the Caribbean AKA the Golden Age of Piracy
The ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ is a generic term used to cover piracy in the Caribbean from around the 1660s to the mid-1720s. Think of its use more like ‘Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Global War on Terrorism’ rather than a set date era, like ‘Cold War’ or ‘Millennial’.
The Golden Age of Piracy is a very popular topic for writers of fiction, historical fiction and history. These suggestions are from authors with solid credentials in piracy history who are also good writers for a non-academic audience. (A = audiobook).
The Golden Age of Piracy: the rise, fall, and enduring popularity of pirates (2018), edited by David Head ($$$ - Kindle version is very cheap). Covers economic, political, and judicial aspects of piracy written by known experts in the field including Guy Chet, Peter Leeson, and Margarette Lincoln.
Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Piracy in the Golden Age (2005) by Marcus Rediker. This modern classic uses specific pirates and Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry to examine them as social rebels and anarchists.
Pillaging the Empire: Global Piracy on the High Seas, 1500-1750 (2nd edition – 2015) Kris E Lane ($$). This exceptional book examines Caribbean pirate life and culture and places it within the broader historical context.
Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates (2006) David Cordingly ($) (A). This is a very accessible book (perhaps a little light-weight?) on debunking the common myths around Caribbean pirates: walking the plank, buried treasure, all that jazz.
Books by Benerson Little ($$). Little is a very prolific author on the Golden Age of Piracy. If your interest turns to pirate ships and sailing tactics, he is your man. His writing is concise and his research is comprehensive and rock-solid. He does like to throw in a few ‘me hearties’ and ‘a-pirating we go’ though.
Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates (2019) Eric Jay Dolin. I haven’t read this one but it is well reviewed and less pricey than others in the field.
Honourable mention goes to Peter Earle's The Pirate Wars. This book focuses on the efforts to stop Caribbean pirates. Its a great book but I have an issue with the title.
I do not believe that what Earle writes about constitutes a 'war' to stop the pirates. Instead, there was a couple of hardy commanders who, with fortitude and a whole pile of luck, managed to capture or kill the more notorious ones. It turns out I'm not the only one who thinks this.
David Wilson published Suppressing Piracy in the Early Eighteenth Century: Pirates, Merchants and British Imperial Authority in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in 2021 examining this idea in detail.
Books about Piracy outside of the Caribbean
One of the major areas of pirate history outside of the Caribbean is the Barbary corsairs. A favourite topic of ex-American navy guys because of the American Navy’s intervention there, the long history of Christian/Muslim antagonism means they can overdo the patriotic rhetoric. It was a big publishing topic soon after 9/11.
I can suggest:
Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, conquests, and captivity in the 17th century Mediterranean (2010) by Adrian Tinniswood. Tinniswood is an accomplished author/historian and this book is written like a historical novel but with solid research behind it.
The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates (2008) by Des Ekin ($$). The Baltimore in question is in Ireland, not the US. The book tells the story of the north African corsairs' Sack of Baltimore (like Henry Morgan’s sack of Portobello but from the Spanish perspective) in a compelling and accessible way.
The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World (2007) ($) by Frank Lambert. Of all the books about the American intervention against Barbary corsairs, this is the most even-handed and balanced one. Lambert at least took pains to understand the difference between a corsair and a pirate!
Piracy in Ancient Greece and Rome: Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (1999), Phillip de Souza (online)
Persian Gulf piracy against the British in early 19th century: Blood-Red Arab Flag (1997) Charles E Davies ($$$)
Somali pirate hostage memoirs: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; Kidnapped! By Colin Freeman ($), The Desert and the Sea: 977 days captive on the Somali Pirate Coast, Michael Scott Moore (2018)
Southeast Asian piracy: Pirates in Paradise: A Modern History of Southeast Asia’s Maritime Marauders
General History of Piracy Books
Tackling the full history of piracy is a daunting task because the author has to balance the nuances of communicating how piracy has changed over centuries. This is why there are not many of them around. The trick to a good ‘History of Piracy’ book is to treat the first books (those featured in the ‘pirate classics’ section above) with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Full pirate history books often weigh in favour of Caribbean piracy because this is where the most evidence is available in English. Add in a word count restriction from the publisher and it can seem that piracy suddenly ended after 1726. So I’ve only included books published after 2011 as these include entries on Somali and West African piracy to ensure readers know that piracy is an ongoing problem. A word of warning: these books can come with a hefty price tag.
The go-to author is maritime historian Angus Konstam. Try:
The Pirate World: A history of the most notorious sea robbers (2019)
Pirates: The Complete History from 1300 BC to the Present Day (2011)
Konstam’s research is usually solid but if you’ve expertise in a particular area/pirate you can pick it apart. I did this for his section on Benito de Soto – he should know better than to just copy what Phillip Gosse wrote.
Pirates: A History, by Tim Travers (2012)
This book weighs in at 468 pages so it’s no light read. It includes lesser covered areas of piracy such as Viking raiders but it can be heavy going at times. It’s mostly historically accurate (but again, he copies Gosse for Benito de Soto!) and it has the added benefit of being available at a low price on Kindle.
Pirates: A New History, from Vikings to Somali Raiders, by Peter Lehr (2019)
This is a very readable and less heavy-going summary of pirate history. It does a great job with explaining how the motivations for piracy have changed over time and connects modern pirates to their historic predecessors. It does have some groan-inducing pirate clichés in it though so be prepared!
Treasure Island (1883)
There are lots and lots of beautiful non-fiction books about pirates for children. Yet the quintessential book for children remains Treasure Island. It is entirely fictional but it is based on some historically accurate aspects of pirates and piracy. I wrote a whole post about it, including my idea that Treasure Island is basically an "old-timers on one last mission" book, not the coming-of-age story Robert Louis Stevenson thought he was writing.