Captain Charles Johnson remains an enigma to latter day historians. There is no definitive evidence revealing his actual identity and who he was as a man, nor for that his true profession. Yet Johnson is the mysterious name behind the publication of the world’s first biographical ‘Who’s Who?’ of notorious pirates in the 18th century. Johnson’s best selling volume detailing the lives of infamous pirates is the source material of a new book ‘A General History of the Lives, Murders and Adventures of the Most Notorious Pirates’ (British Library Press) introduced by historian Sam Willis, which faithfully re-publishes Johnson’s original book of sea faring bandits, many of whom were eventually captured and executed.
‘Who’s Who’ of Pirates
Published in 1734, Johnson’s ‘A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers’ also included in its title ‘a genuine account of the voyages and plunders of the most notorious pyrates’ and is regarded, along with an earlier 1724 volume as the most culturally influential books of the time that have contributed to our entrenched ideas and perceptions about pirates of yore.
The first volume in 1724 was written after a marked increase in attacks on government and merchant ships and was a publishing success capturing the imagination of its readers as well as being responsible for fomenting mythical perceptions of piracy in the 18th century, and the kind of sea-faring villains associated with daring-do tales on the high seas during the Georgian era. Between four and six-hundred pirates were captured and executed between 1716-26, but by 1730 such incidents were all over. Johnson, therefore, acts more as an archivist of events gone by when his 1734 volume was published.
Pirates in Popular Culture
Without Johnson’s colourful volumes it is unlikely the timeless adventures of Peter Pan or the picaresque world of Treasure Island and other ‘boys own stories’ would have existed, or indeed a continuing global culture of books, plays, TV shows, movies and Pantomimes, inspired by the likes of famous pirates Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. How much of Johnson’s detailed descriptions of ‘notorious’ pirates was actual fact, as opposed to fiction and myth, is debatable, but many historians believe that his character biographies were subject to liberal doses of artistic licence. Whoever Johnson was, be he a merchant officer or author, he knew how to deliver a captivating read.
Famed for its vigorous prose and uncanny understanding of the pirates’ way of life, Johnson’s volumes became the forerunners of the real-life criminal biography genre and inspired the likes of Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’ and Fielding’s ‘Jonathan Wild’ and Hollywood’s Captain Jack Sparrow. The question remains, how much did the blood-thirsty escapades of infamous pirates including William Avery, Bartholomew Roberts and female pirates Mary Reed and Anne Bonny owe to Johnson’s sensational book which immortalised these fearsome characters in the collective imagination of the public for generations?
The Most Wanted List
Johnson’s 1734 book, as re-published in the new British Library Press publication, lists twenty action-packed biographies, detailing the blood-thirsty escapades of the likes of Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and ‘Calico Jack’. Originally published in folio size complete with fine copper engravings, this new edition not only includes the very best of the original decorative features but also presents a series of related illustrations, adverts, playbills and portraits from the British Library. In the following examples of notorious pirates, transcriptions from Johnson’s book include his original spelling of names and words as written in 1734.
Captain Henry Avery (1659-1699/1714)
Johnson’s detail for minutiae paints a uniquely intimate and immediate picture of the pirates’ activities, whether they are accurately recorded or a combination of hearsay, myth and conjecture. Henry Avery (known officially as Henry Every) was an English pirate, dubbed the ‘The King of Pirates’ by his contemporaries, and who used various aliases during his operation throughout Atlantic and Indian oceans. Describing Captain Avery’s first maritime excursions on a ship called the Duke, Johnson’s use of colloquial prose gives the reader a feeling that they are observing events as they happen.
‘Avery was first mate; and being a fellow of more cunning than courage, he insinuated himself into the good will of several of the boldest fellows on board the two ships, having founded their inclinations before he open’d himself’
The chapter about Avery’s exploits spares little detail about the brutality that the pirates suffered and also inflicted on others. Johnson describes how when some pirates became involved with ethnic tribes, often treating them as slaves, as well as marrying women from the communities, an atmosphere of rivalry and jealousy could result in violence against each other and their colonised victims.
‘It must be observed, that these sudden great men had used their power like tyrants; for they grew wanton in cruelty, and nothing was more common, than, upon the slightest displeasure, to cause one of their dependants to be tied to a tree and shot thro’ the hear: let the crime be what it would, whether little or great, this was always the punishment’
Although Avery’s career as a pirate only lasted two years he has become a legendary figure due to escaping from the authorities with his loot which after plundering a vessel on its way to Mecca, seizing the equivalent in today’s currency of £91.9m in precious metals and jewels. Such events captured the imagination of the public and inspired other sailors to take up a life of crime as pirates. This audacious plunder damaged relations between England and the Mughals in India and put a £1000 bounty on Avery’s head. True to his legendary status Avery avoided capture and disappeared, most likely having changed his name and living the last years of his life on a tropical island.
Captain Teach – Alias Blackbeard (1680-1718)
Known as Edward Teach, the most infamous of English pirates operated around the West Indies and North American colonies and derived his nickname Blackbeard due to his thick black beard and frightening appearance, where he is alleged to have tied lit fuses under his hat to create a more demonic appearance.
Johnson’s writings covering Blackbeard’s activities pull few punches when it comes to revealing his capability for cruelty. ‘Teach (Blackbeard) goes into the tender sloop (warship with a single gun deck) with 40 hands, and leaves the Revenge (ship) there. After this, he took 17 others, and marooned them upon a small sandy island, about a league from the Main where there was neither bird, beast, or herb, for their subsistence, and where they must have perished if Major Bonnet had not, two days after, taken then off’
Despite Johnson’s revelations about Blackbeard’s alleged cruelty it is commonly known that the pirate from Bristol, spurned the use of violence, relying instead on his fearsome appearance, like a theatrical trick to put the fear of god in his enemies. The chapter about Blackbeard also surprises with little known facts about the infamous pirate, particularly about his sexual peccadilloes.
‘Before he sail’d upon his adventures, he married a young creature of about sixteen years of age, the governor performing the ceremony for, as it is a custom to marry here by a priest, so it is there by a magistrate. And this, I have been inform’d, made Teach’s fourteenth wife, about a dozen of whom might be still living. His behaviour in this state was something extraordinary: for whilst his sloop lay in Okerecock Inlet, and he was a-shore at a plantation, where his wife liv’d, after he had lain with her all night, it was his custom to invite five or six of his brutal companions a-shore, and he would force her to prostitute herself to them all, one after another, before his face’.
Two of his audacious acts of piracy include his blockading the port of Charles Town, South Carolina ransoming the town’s inhabitants and also capturing a French slave ship, and after upgrading her with 40 guns renaming her Queen Anne’s Revenge. Blackbeard was killed during a ferocious battle in 1718 after soldiers had been sent to capture him. Somewhat ironically he had previously been granted a royal pardon but found the allure of the life of a pirate on the high seas too much of a temptation.
Mary Read (1685-1721) & Anne Bonny (1697-1721)
By Johnson’s own admittance back in 1734 he states in his volume that the lives and adventures of the two infamous ‘women pyrates’ reads like something from a ‘novel or romance’ in what had to be at the time a unique scenario where two females fought alongside and against other pirates and merchant sailors for booty. Interestingly Johnson finds the women’s sex and the criminal sea-faring vocation they found themselves in as the main reason for mentioning them in his book, rather than any acknowledgment of their status amongst fellow pirates. Johnson concedes that due to the amount of witnesses, and in particular those who were present at the women’s trials, the stories of Read and Bonny’s banditry and ship plundering cannot be contested.
Somewhat surprisingly Johnson’s account of Mary Read’s young mother’s second pregnancy (giving birth to Read) after her husband had died at sea or disappeared, is devoid of the kind of sexist shame-calling associated with the Victorian era. Johnson even demonstrates an understanding of Read’s mother’s plight having had a baby girl to a man she wasn’t married to and burdened with two children without a male bread winner to help support the family. In what could be read as a bizarre plot in a gender-twisting bodice-ripper, Johnson himself provides no insight into why Mary Read’s mother decided to pass off her female child as male, which subsequently saw Mary at 13 years of age entering the sea service as a boy, and later as a foot soldier carrying arms and ‘behaving so well’ and convincingly as a man, that she won the esteem of her fellow officers disguised as a man and known as Mark Read. Having fallen in love with another soldier, Johnson’s biography subtly addresses the subject of sex and how Mary finally revealed her true identity to the soldier she was besotted with.
‘But love is ingenious, and as they lay in the same tent, and were constantly together, she found a way of letting him discover her sex, without appearing that it was done with design. He was much surprised at what he found out, and not a little pleased; taking it for granted, that he should have a mistress solely to himself – so that he thought of nothing but gratifying his passions with very little ceremony’
Petticoats & Pistols
Read and her soldier lover consummated their relationship with the intention of marrying when the military campaign was over. Thus a surreal scene that wouldn’t shame a Ken Russell movie where Mary Read’s marriage – as one soldier to another, saw an invited guest list of fellow officers offering wedding presents to her as she had been their fellow soldier. Having left the military service and set up an ‘eating-house’ called the Three Horse-Shoes, popular with soldiers, the story takes a turn into Hollywood territory as Read, finding herself impoverished after her husband’s unexpected death, takes up male apparel and joins a regiment in Holland until matters force her towards the journey she has become famous for, boarding a ship for the West-Indies. After the ship is taken by English pirates, Mary Read found herself kept by them, eventually taking up the dangerous and violent career of a pirate herself, although according to Johnson’s biography ‘only upon compulsion, intending to quit it’
Anne Bonny – Pirate in the making
Anne Bonny, born at a town near Cork in Ireland had a very different start in life to Read, although like her fellow female pirate compatriot, was also illegitimate; a product of a secret relationship between her married attorney father and a house maid. Like Mary Read, Bonny was disguised as a boy by her father, at the time separated from his wife, as a ruse to deflect attention that he had taken a young girl into his household. Years later he took Bonny’s mother, the maid, and his daughter to North Carolina in America. Bonny’s reputation for having a fierce temper entertained several stories of her hot-headedness, particularly one where she allegedly beat a man who sexually molested her.
Love and ‘Calico Jack’
Bonny’s decision to marry a young seaman without her father’s consent led to her leaving for the island of Providence with her insolvent husband. In the Caribbean colony established in 1630 by English Puritans, the adventurous Bonny became acquainted with one Captain John Rackam, commonly known as ‘Calico Jack’, an English pirate operating in the Bahamas. Becoming lovers, both Rackham and Bonny eloped to which her legendary career as a breeches wearing pirate who accompanied Calico Jack on various plundering campaigns.
At Read’s trial along with fellow female pirate Anne Bonny, evidence against her from testimonies of those who sailed with her during pirate attacks disclosed that she was ‘more resolute, or ready to board or undertake anything that was hazardous’ describing how she would guard the deck and shoot with her pistols. An additional salacious ingredient to the incredible story of Mary Read’s life as a gun-toting sea bandit, is that her fellow female swashbuckling pirate Anny Bonny, mistook her for a handsome man, and due to her sexual fascination with Read caused her own lover, Captain Rackam, to become ferociously jealous and threaten to cut Bonny’s ‘new lover’s throat’, forcing Bonny to reveal to him Read’s secret.
What follows in Johnson’s colourful chapter about Read’s life as cross-dressing woman-to-man as pirate, is a delicately detailed account of her becoming the lover of a young male abductee on board the ship which results in Read challenging and killing a pirate who threatens her lover.
Like Bonny, Read was spared execution by hanging but tragically died in prison from fever. Johnson’s summing up of her extraordinary life demonstrates a progressive understanding of the hardships faced by citizens of the time in a climate of poverty and injustice and leaves the reader with a rather noble opinion of a female pirate, who, despite her dubious choices had capacity for love and extraordinary courage when protecting those she loved.
Bonny herself, spared of execution, due to pregnancy, was allowed to visit her incarcerated lover Rackam on the day of his execution. Johnson’s final passage in his chapter of Bonny’s life may have taken a degree of artistic licence with her alleged last words to her lover, telling him that ‘..had he fought like a man, he need not have been hung’d like a dog’, leave the reader in little doubt about the ruthlessness of a woman, wh became notorious through life’s extreme circumstances rather than by design.
Captain William Kidd (1655-1701)
William Kidd, a Scottish sailor turned pirate, began his criminal sea faring adventures as the infamous Captain Kidd after he had taken part in a mutiny aboard a French-English pirate ship and sailed it to the British colony of Nevis in the Caribbean. Kidd’s legendary exploits include a story about him burying treasure on Gardiner’s Island near New York, which probably acted as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic pirate story ‘Treasure Island’, as well as the mythological association of buried treasure with pirates in popular culture.
Pirate to Agent
Despite Kidd’s ruthless plundering of ships and having a reputation for brutality against his crew members, he was ensconced in dealings with corrupt colonial officials, who took bribes to allow illegal trading of pirate loot. Pressurised by the crown and funded by members of the Whig political party to attack and put out of action fellow pirate ships, Kidd’s role as ‘pirate double agent’, to apprehend by coercion or force the most wanted pirates, marked his moment in folklore.
‘Captain Kid was recommended by the Lord Bellamont, then governor of Barbadoes, as well as by several other persons, to the government here, as a person very fit to be entrusted with the command of a government ship, and to be employed in cruising upon the pyrates, as knowing those seas perfectly well and being acquainted with all their lurking places’
Johnson’s account of Kidd’s actions to apprehend either pirate ships of foreign vessels describes his ability to act savagely, after he boarded a Moorish ship captained by an Englishman.
‘He also used the men very cruelly, causing them to be hoisted up by the arms, and dubb’d with a naked cutlass, to force them to discover whether they had money on board, and where it lay; but as they had neither gold nor silver on board, he got nothing by his cruelty; however, he took from them a bale of pepper, and a bale of coffee, and so let them go.’
Despite Kidd’s unique position of having been commissioned by King William III, to arrest wanted pirates, his downfall occurred after he first plundered an Indian ship carrying East Indian merchandise and captained by an Englishman, who had the protection of the French crown. Johnson describes in his volume a later incident that was to condemn Kidd at his trial, when after he refused to let his crew attack a Dutch ship, he fell into an argument with one of his men, a gunner named Moor, and accidentally killed him.
‘Moor told Kidd that he had ruin’d them all, upon which, Kidd, calling him dog, took up a bucket and struck him with it, which breaking his skull, he died the next day’
Finding himself accused of murder and declared guilty of ‘notorious piracies’, Captain Kidd was pursued by naval commanders. Shortly after burying some of his loot on Gardiner’s Island, hoping to retrieve it later, Kidd was lured into Boston with false promises of clemency where he was arrested on 6 July 1699 and imprisoned. Sent back to England for trial and found guilty, Captain Kidd’s execution has itself become part of folklore due to the unusual nature of it, where the prisoner found himself hung twice! On 23 May, 1701, at Execution Dock, Wapping in London by the Thames, the first attempt by the hangman was thwarted by the rope snapping. Some in the crowd called out for Kidd to be pardoned, seeing the incident as a sign from God. But the unfortunate 47-year-old captain was quickly hanged again within minutes and his body made a public spectacle to forewarn others of similar crimes, as Kidd’s lifeless body swayed from a gibbet for three years at Tilbury Point over the Thames.