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A General History of the Pirates has long been a classic of seafaring literature and was inspiration to both Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie. Nothing is known about Captain Charles Johnson, and it is thought that the name may be assumed - there are even some who believe he may have been Daniel Defoe. All that can be stated with any certainty is that in 1724 a small octavo volume appeared that became so popular it grew through 4 editions over 2 years and is still famed today. Historians from both sides of ...
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A General History of the Pirates has long been a classic of seafaring literature and was inspiration to both Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie. Nothing is known about Captain Charles Johnson, and it is thought that the name may be assumed - there are even some who believe he may have been Daniel Defoe. All that can be stated with any certainty is that in 1724 a small octavo volume appeared that became so popular it grew through 4 editions over 2 years and is still famed today. Historians from both sides of the Atlantic have attested to the accuracy of the work's content. This is a reprint of the 1927 reissued 4th edition - enhanced by the Arthur L. Hayward's editorial touches.
Copyright © 2002 Charles Johnson
All right reserved.
Captain Johnson's Introduction
As the pirates in the West Indies have been so formidable and numerous, that they have interrupted the trade of Europe into those parts, and our English merchants in particular have suffered more by their depredations than by the united force of France and Spain, in the late war; we do not doubt but the world will be curious to know the original and progress of these desperadoes, who were the terror of the trading part of the world.
But before we enter upon their particular history, it will not be amiss, by way of introduction, to show, by some examples drawn from history, the great mischief and danger which threaten kingdoms and commonwealths, from the increase of these sort of robbers; when either by the troubles of particular times, or the neglect of governments, they are not crushed before they gather strength.
It has been the case heretofore, that when a single pirate has been suffered to range the seas, as not being worth the notice of the government, he has by degrees grown so powerful, as to put them to the expence of a great deal of blood and treasure,before he was suppressed. We shall not examine how it came to pass, that our pirates in the West Indies have continually increased till of late; this is an enquiry which belongs to the legislature, or representatives of the people in parliament, and to them, we shall leave it.
Our business shall be briefly to show, what from beginnings as inconsiderable as these, other nations have suffered.
In the times of Marius and Sylla, Rome was in her greatest strength, yet she was so torn in pieces by the factions of those two great men, that every thing which concerned the public good was altogether neglected, when certain pirates broke out from Cicilia, a country of Asia Minor, situated on the coast of the Mediterranean, between Syria on the east, from whence it is divided by Mount Taurius, and Armenia Minor on the west. This beginning was mean and inconsiderable, having but two or three ships and a few men, with which they cruized about the Greek islands, taking such ships as were very ill armed or weakly defended; however, by the taking of many prizes, they soon increased in wealth and power. The first action of their's which made a noise, was the taking of Julius Caesar, who was as yet a youth, and who being obliged to fly from the cruelties of Sylla, who sought his life, went into Bithinia, and sojourned a while with Nicomedes, king of that country; in his return back by sea, he was met with and taken, by some of these pirates, near the island of Pharmacusa. These pirates had a barbarous custom of tying their prisoners back to back and throwing them into the sea; but, supposing Caesar to be some person of high rank, because of his purple robes, and the number of his attendants, they thought it would be more for their profit to preserve him, in hopes of receiving a great sum for his ransom; therefore they told him he should have his liberty, provided he would pay them 20 talents, which they judged to be a very high demand, in our money, about 3,600 pounds sterling; he smiled, and of his own accord promised them 50 talents; they were both pleased, and surprized at his answer, and consented that several of his attendants should go by his direction and raise the money; and he was left among these ruffians with no more than three attendants. He passed eight-and-thirty days, and seemed so little concerned or afraid, that often when he went to sleep, he used to charge them not to make a noise, threatening, if they disturbed him, to hang them all; he also played at dice with them, and sometimes wrote verses and dialogues, which he used to repeat, and also cause them to repeat, and if they did not praise and admire them, he would call them beasts and barbarians, telling them he would crucify them. They took all these as the sallies of a juvenile humour, and were rather diverted, than displeased at them.
At length his attendants returned with his ransom, which he paid, and was discharged; he sailed for the Port of Miletum, where, as soon as he was arrived, he used all his art and industry in fitting out a squadron of ships, which he equipped and armed at his own charges; and sailing in quest of the pirates, he surprized them as they lay at anchor among the islands, and took those who had taken him before, with some others; the money he found upon them he made prize of; to reimburse his charges, and he carried the men to Pergamus, or Troy, and there secured them in prison. In the mean time, he applied himself to Junius, then governor of Asia, to whom it belonged to judge and determine of the punishment of these men; but Junius finding there was no money to be had, answered Caesar, that he would think at his leisure, what was to be done with those prisoners; Caesar took his leave of him, returned back to Pergamus, and commanded that the prisoners should be brought out and executed, according to law in that case provided; which is taken notice of, in a chapter at the end of this book, concerning the laws in cases of piracy. And thus he gave them that punishment in earnest, which he had often threatened them with in jest.
Caesar went straight to Rome, where, being engaged in the designs of his own private ambition, as were almost all the leading men in Rome, the pirates who were left, had time to increase to a prodigious strength; for while the civil wars lasted, the seas were left unguarded, so that Plutarch tells us, that they erected diverse arsenals full of all manner of warlike stores, made commodious harbours, set up watchtowers and beacons all along the coasts of Cilicia; that they had a mighty fleet, well equipped and furnished, with galleys of oars, manned, not only with men of desperate courage, but also with expert pilots and mariners; they had their ships of force, and light pinnaces for cruizing and making discoveries, in all no less than a thousand sail; so gloriously set out, that they were as much to be envied for their gallant show, as feared for their force; having the stern and quarters all gilded with gold and their oars plated with silver, as well as purple sails; as if their greatest delight had been to glory in their iniquity. Nor were they content with committing piracies and insolencies by sea, they committed as great depredations by land, or rather made conquests; for they took and sacked no less than four hundred cities, laid several others under contributions, plundered the temples of the gods, and enriched themselves with the offerings deposited in them; they often landed bodies of men, who not only plundered the villages along the sea coast, but ransacked the fine houses of the noblemen along the Tiber. A body of them once took Sextillius and Bellinus, two Roman praetors, in their purple robes, going from Rome to their governments, and carried them away with all their sergeants, officers and vergers; they also took the daughter of Antonius a consular person, and one who had obtained the honour of a triumph, as she was going to the country house of her father.
But what was most barbarous, was a custom they had when they took any ship, of enquiring of the person on board, concerning their names and country; if any of them said he was a Roman, they fell down upon their knees, as if in a fright at the greatness of that name, and begged pardon for what they had done, and imploring his mercy, they used to perform the offices of servants about his person, and when they found they had deceived him into a belief of their being sincere, they hung out the ladder of the ship, and coming with a show of courtesy, told him, he had his liberty, desiring him to walk out of the ship, and this in the middle of the sea, and when they observed him in surprize, as was natural, they used to throw him overboard with mighty shouts of laughter; so wanton they were in their cruelty.
Thus, while Rome was mistress of the world, she suffered insults and affronts, almost at her gates, from these powerful robbers; but what for a while made faction cease, and roused the genius of that people, never used to suffer wrongs from a fair enemy, was an excessive scarcity of provisions in Rome, occasioned by all the ships loaden with corn and provisions from Sicily, Corsica, and other places, being intercepted and taken by these pirates, insomuch that they were almost reduced to a famine. Upon this, Pompey the Great was immediately appointed General to manage this war; five hundred ships were immediately fitted out, he had fourteen senators, men of experience in the war, for his vice-admirals; and so considerable an enemy, were these ruffians become, that no less than an army of 100,000 foot, and 5,000 horse was appointed to invade them by land; but it happened very luckily for Rome, that Pompey sailed out before the pirate had intelligence of a design against them, so that their ships were scattered all over the Mediterranean, like bees gone out from a hive, some one way, some another, to bring home their lading; Pompey divided his fleet into thirteen squadrons, to whom he appointed their several stations, so that great numbers of the pirates fell into their hands, ship by ship, without any loss; forty days he passed in scouring the Mediterranean, some of the fleet cruizing along the coast of Africa, some about the islands, and some upon the Italian coasts, so that often those pirates who were flying from one squadron, fell in with another; however, some of them escaped, and these making directly to Cilicia, and acquainting their confederates on shore with what had happened, they appointed a rendezvous of all the ships that had escaped at the Port of Coracesium, in the same country. Pompey finding the Mediterranean quite clear, appointed a meeting of all his fleet at the haven of Brundusium, and from thence sailing round into the Adriatic, he went directly to attack these pirates in their hives; as soon as he came near the Corecesium in Cilicia, where the remainder of the pirates now lay, they had the hardiness to come and give him battle, but the genius of Old Rome prevailed, and the pirates received an entire overthrow, being all either taken or destroyed; but as they made many strong fortresses upon the sea coast, and built castles and strong holds up the country, the foot of Mount Taurus, he was obliged to beseige them with his army; some places he took by storm, others surrendered to his mercy, to whom he gave their lives, and at length he made an entire conquest.
But it is probable, that had these pirates received sufficient notice of the Roman preparation against them, so as they might have had time to draw their scattered strength into a body, to have met Pompey by sea, the advantage appeared greatly on their side, in numbers of shipping, and of men; nor did they want courage, as may be seen by their coming out of the port of Coracesium, to give the Romans battle, with a force much inferior to their's; I say, had they overthrown Pompey, it is likely they would have made greater attempts, and Rome, which had conquered the whole world, might have been subdued by a parcel of pirates.
This is a proof how dangerous it is for government to be negligent, and not take an early care in suppressing these sea banditti, before they gather strength.
The truth of this maxim may be better exemplified in the history of Barbarouse, a native in the city of Mitylene, in the island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea; a fellow of ordinary birth, who being bred to the sea, first set out from thence upon the pirating account with only one small vessel, but by the prizes he took, he gained immense riches, so that getting a great number of large ships, all the bold and dissolute fellows of those islands flocked to him, and lifted in his service, for the hopes of booty; so that his strength was increased to a formidable fleet: With these he performed such bold and adventurous actions, that he became the terror of the seas. About this time it happened that Selim Euteme, King of Algiers, having refused to pay the accustomed tribute to the Spaniards, was apprehensive of an invasion from thence; wherefore he treated with Barbarouse, upon the foot of an ally, to come and assist him, and deliver him from paying this tribute; Barbarouse readily came into it, and sailing to Algiers, with a great fleet, he put part of his men on shore, and having laid a plot to surprize the city, he effected it with great success, and murdered Selim in a bath; soon after which, he was himself crowned King of Algiers; after this he made war upon Abilabde, King of Tunis, and overthrew him in battle; he extended his conquests on all sides; and thus from a thief became a mighty king: and though he was at last killed in battle, yet he had so well established himself upon that throne; that dying without issue, he left the inheritance of the kingdom to his brother, another pirate.
I come now to speak of the pirates infesting the West Indies, where they are more numerous than in any other parts of the world, on several reasons: first, because there are so many uninhabited little islands and keys, with harbours convenient and secure for cleaning their vessels, and abounding with what they often want, provision; I mean water, sea-fowl, turtle, shell, and other fish; where, if they carry in but strong liquor, they indulge a time, and become ready for new expeditions before any intelligence can reach to hurt them.
It may here perhaps be no unneccessary digression, to explain upon what they call keys in the West Indies. These are small sandy islands, appearing a little above the surf of the water, with only a few bushes or weeds upon them, but abound (those most at any distance from the main) with turtle, amphibious animals, that always choose the quietest and most unfrequented place, for laying their eggs, which are to a vast number in the seasons, and would seldom be seen, but for this (except by pirates). Then vessels from Jamaica and the other governments make voyages, called turtling, for supplying the people, a common and approved food with them. I am apt to think these keys, especially those nigh islands, to have been once contiguous with them, and separated by earthquakes (frequently there) or inundations, because some of them that have been within continual view, as those nigh Jamaica, are observed within our time, to be entirely wasted away and lost, and others daily wasting. There are not only of the use above taken notice of to pirates; but it is commonly believed were always in buccaneering piratical times, the hiding places for their riches, and often times a shelter for themselves, till their friends on the main, had found means to obtain indemnity for their crimes; for you must understand, when acts of grace were more frequent, and the laws less severe, these men continually found favours, and encouragers at Jamaica, and perhaps they are not all dead yet; I have been told many of them still living have been of the same trade, and left it off only because they can live as well honestly, and gain now at the hazard of others necks.
Secondly, another reason why these seas are chosen by pirates, is the great commerce thither by French, Spaniards, Dutch, and especially English ships. They are sure in the latitude of these trading islands, to meet with prizes, booties of provision, clothing, and naval-stores, and sometimes money; there being great sums remitted this way to England (the returns of the Assiento, and private slave-trade, to the Spanish West Indies): and in short, by some one or other, all the riches of Potosi.
A third reason, is the inconveniency and difficulty, of being pursued by the men of war, the many small inlets, lagoons and harbours, on these solitary islands and keys, is a natural security.
'Tis generally here that the pirates begin their enterprizes, setting out at first with a very small force; and by infesting these seas, and those of the continent of North America, in a year's time, if they have good luck on their sides, they accumulate such strength, as enables them to make foreign expeditions. The first, is usually to Guinea, taking the Azores and Cape Verde Islands in their way, and then to Brazil and the East Indies, where if they meet with prosperous voyages, they set down at Madagascar, or the neighbouring islands, and enjoy their ill gotten wealth, among their elder brethren, with impunity. But that I may not give too much encouragement to the profession, I must inform my readers, that the far greater part of these rovers are cut short in the pursuit, by a sudden precipitation into the other world.
The rise of these rovers, since the Peace of Utrecht, or at least, the great increase of them, may fairly be computed to the Spanish settlements in the West Indies; the governors of which, being often some hungry courtiers sent thither to repair or make a fortune, generally countenance all proceedings that bring in profit. They grant commissions to great numbers of vessels of war, on pretence of preventing an interloping trade, with orders to seize all ships or vessels whatsoever, within five leagues of their coasts, which our English ships cannot well avoid coming, in their voyage to Jamaica. But if the Spanish captains chance to exceed this commission, and rob and plunder at discretion, the sufferers are allowed to complain, and exhibit a process in their court, and after great expence of suit, delay of time, and other inconveniencies, obtain a decree in their favour, but then when the ship and cargo comes to be claimed, with costs of suit, they find, to their sorrow, that it has been previously condemned, and the plunder divided among the crew; the commander that made the capture, who alone is responsible, is found to be a poor rascally fellow, not worth a groat, and, no doubt, is placed in that station for the like purposes.
The frequent losses sustained by our merchants abroad, by these pirates, was provocation enough to attempt something by way of reprisal; and a fair opportunity offering itself in the year 1716, the traders of the West Indies, took care not to slip it over, but made the best use of it their circumstances would permit.
It was about two years before, that the Spanish galleons, or Plate Fleet, had been east away in the Gulf of Florida; and several vessels from the Havana, were at work, with diving engines, to fish up the silver that was on board the galleons.
The Spaniards had recovered some millions of pieces of eight, and had carried it all to the Havana; but they had at present about 350,000 pieces of eight in silver, then upon the spot, and were daily taking up more. In the mean time, two ships, and three sloops, fitted out from Jamaica, Barbados, etc. under Captain Henry Jennings, sailed to the Gulf, and found the Spaniards there upon the wreck; the money before spoken of, was left on shore, deposited in a store-house, under the government of two commissaries, and a guard of about sixty soldiers.
The rovers came directly upon the place, bringing their little fleet to an anchor, and, in a word, landing 300 men, they attacked the guard, who immediately ran away; and thus they seized the treasure, which they carried off; making the best of their way to Jamaica.
In their way they unhappily met with a Spanish ship, bound from Porto Bello to the Havana, with a great many rich goods, viz. bales of cochineal, casks of indigo, and 60,000 pieces of eight more, which their hands being in, they took, and having rifled the vessel let her go.
They went away to Jamaica, with their booty, and were followed in view of the port, by the Spaniards, who having seen them thither, went back to the governor of the Havana, with the account of it, who immediately sent a vessel to the governor of Jamaica, to complain of this robbery, and to reclaim the goods.
As it was in full peace, and contrary to all justice and right, that this fact was committed, they were soon made sensible that the government at Jamaica would not suffer them to go unpunished, much less protect them. Therefore they saw a necessity of shifting for themselves; so, to make bad worse, they went to sea again, though not without disposing of their cargo to good advantage, and furnishing themselves with ammunition, provisions, etc. and being thus made desperate, they turned pirates, robbing not the Spaniards only, but their own countrymen, and any nation they could lay their hands on.
It happened about this time, that the Spaniards with three or four small men of war, fell upon our logwood cutters, in the Bay of Campeachy, and Bay of Honduras; and after they had made prizes of the following ships and vessels, they gave the men belonging to them three sloops to carry them home, but these men being made desperate by their misfortunes, and meeting with the pirates, they took on with them, and so increased their number.
THE LIST OF SHIPS AND VESSELS TAKEN BY THE SPANISH MEN-OF-WAR IN THE YEAR 1716
The Stafford, Captain Knocks, from New England, bound for London.
Anne, Gernish, for ditto.
Dove, Grimstone, for New England.
A sloop, Alden, for ditto.
A brigantine, Mosson, for ditto.
A brigantine, Turfield, ditto.
A brigantine, Tennis, for ditto.
A ship, Porter, for ditto.
Indian Emperor, Wentworth, for New England.
A ship, Rich, master.
A sloop, Richards, belonging to New England.
Two sloops, belonging to Jamaica.
One sloop, of Barbados.
Two ships, from Scotland.
Two ships, from Holland.
The rovers being now pretty strong, they consulted together about getting some place of retreat, where they might lodge their wealth, clean and repair their ships, and make themselves a kind of abode. They were not long in resolving, but fixed upon the island of Providence, the most considerable of the Bahama islands, lying in the latitude of about 24° North, and to the eastward of the Spanish Florida.
This island is about twenty-eight miles long, and eleven where broadest, and has a harbour big enough to hold 500 sail of ships; before which lies a small island, which makes two inlets to the harbour; at either way there is a bar, over which no ship of 500 ton can pass. The Bahama islands were possessed by the English, till the year 1700, when the French and Spaniards from Petit Guavas, invaded them, took the fort and governor in the island of Providence, plundered and destroyed the settlements, etc. carried off half the blacks, and the rest of the people, who fled to the woods, retired afterwards to Carolina.
Excerpted from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates - From Their First Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence to the by Charles Johnson Copyright © 2002 by Charles Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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