Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Not far from Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London was a book seller named Charles Rivington. In May 1724, he placed copies of a small, leather-bound book on his shelves. The author’s name, Captain Charles Johnson, meant little to those who saw it. What caught their eyes was the title: A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (GHP). A quick perusal of the title page and contents further piqued their interests, for it revealed the book to be a “vivid and bloodthirsty account of a dozen English and Welsh pirates who had recently been in the news.” (Johnson, vii) Also accompanying the text were illustrations made from copper engravings that depicted the four most famous of these villains – Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, and a page that unfolded to reveal two female pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
According to the table of contents, the chapters featured not only information about “Their Policies, Discipline and Government”, but also numerous pirates who hunted victims between 1717 and 1724. This list included a veritable who’s who of pirates:
Henry Avery Mary Read
Edward Teach Anne Bonny
Stede Bonnet Howel Davis
Edward England Bartholomew Roberts
Charles Vane George Lowther
Jack Rackham Edward Low
First editions of the book quickly sold out. Second and third editions followed. Then in 1726 another printer, Thomas Woodward, released the first of a two-volume set. A few minor corrections were made, but many errors in the original edition remained. The second volume, which came out two years later, included additional, notorious pirates. A few of these were lesser-known villains, but at least one – Captain Misson – was fictional. The more famous pirates included Thomas Tew, William Kidd, Christopher Condent, Samuel Bellamy, and William Fly. Sixty pages were devoted to Magadoxa (in Ethiopia), and the appendix included information on a trial and execution of pirates while Woodes Rogers was Governor of the Bahamas.
Who was Captain Charles Johnson? We don’t know. Neither seamen’s journals of the period nor muster books for the British Royal Navy and the East India Company mention him. A naval captain of that name hunted pirates for Sir Thomas Lynch in 1682, but there’s only a slim chance this Johnson was the same as the author.1
Was he the playwright, Charles Johnson, who wrote The Successful Pirate in 1712? Probably not. This tragic-comedy was a revised version of a play from the previous century, and Johnson’s whole aim was to capitalize on the Henry Avery craze.2 The playwright was once said “the only real piracy in his dramas was the taking of the spectators’ money for an entertainment which had nothing to do with piracy.” (Moore, 130)
If you examine GHP, however, the author does reveal some facts about his experience, if not the man.
He is obviously proud of his knowledge of nautical terms; but he is conscious of the landsman’s point of view at all times, stopping again and again to explain technical difficulties or to bring foreign scenes home to his readers by illustrations drawn from London and the Thames or from the everyday conduct of English life. (Moore, 130)
The narrative shows the historian or journalist’s ability to sift through a massive amount of information and present it in a coherent fashion. While fallacies and fiction exist in the narrative, researchers and historians have shown the accounts also include many factual details.
It used to be said that his history was made up more of fairy tales than fact, but of late years evidence has proved Johnson to be accurate, and there is no doubt that he is on the whole to be believed. (Gosse, 185)
. . . the portion of his history relating to the North Atlantic coast has been verified by original records and items of current news in the newspapers and found to be a truthful relation in all essential details. With so much corroborative evidence at hand it is only fair to concede the probability that other portions of his “History,” not verified at this time, are also based upon fact. (Dow, v-vi)
Johnson had access to transcripts of actual pirate trials and/or reports of those hearings from various newspapers of the day, such as the London Gazette and Daily Post. Unlike historians today who write books, Johnson did not, however, list his sources. Johnson claimed:
Those facts which he himself was not an eye-witness of he had from the authentic relations of the persons concerned in taking the pirates, as well as from the mouths of the pirates themselves after they were taken . . . . (Johnson, x)
If he wasn’t a seaman, he at least interviewed those who were. He knew the nautical jargon of the day and how to use it appropriately.
Discussing a ship in a storm he explains how ‘they took necessary measures to secure the mast, by rigging preventer shrouds, etc, and then wore and lay to upon the other tack, till the storm was over’. This is exactly the sort of understated description of a nightmare situation at sea that is frequently to be found in the logbooks of sea captains. (Johnson, xiii)
Nearly three hundred years after GHP first appeared, we still don’t know who the elusive Captain Johnson was. Philip Gosse, a pirate historian, wrote in The History of Piracy:
There is a strong assumption that the author himself was, or had been, a pirate, in which case he no doubt considered it wise to shelter himself behind a nom-de-plume. (185)
Daniel Defoe was born around 1659 in London. Although destined for the ministry, he opted to become a merchant, but lacked a head for business. While trade interested him, so did politics, and he published his first pamphlet on the subject in 1683. His reputation as a pamphleteer gained prominence during William II’s reign, but after that monarch’s death, Defoe contributed to an anonymous, religious satire entitled The Shortest Way with Dissenters. The uproar over this publication led to charges of seditious libel. A reward was posted for his arrest, which described him as:
. . . a middle-size spare man, about 40 years old, of a brown complexion, and dark-brown coloured hair, but wears a wig, a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth. (Mutter, 2)
This eventually led to his being pilloried and imprisoned for two years. He also was bankrupt for the second time in his life.
Aside from his pamphlet writing, Defoe was also a journalist. He wrote for Nathaniel Mist’s Weekly Journal. His writings explored moral scruples, ethics, and religion, but also were spiced with the illicit and immoral, which made them intriguing to read and profitable. On three different occasions in 1724 – 23 May, 6 June, and 29 August – Defoe wrote about GHP.
We received the same kind of Pleasure from a Book of this kind, as a Man does in travelling thro’ a pleasant Country newly discovered, where every Thing he meets gives him an agreeable Suprize. (Moore, Daniel, 270)
I am most entertained by those actions which give me a light into the nature of man. (Moore, Daniel, 271)
Pirates fascinated Daniel Defoe. They made excellent subjects “because they were in the news . . . their stories brought together so many of his favorite topics – travel, trade, crime, colonization, the national security, and the isolation of the human soul.” (Baer, 3) Perhaps his most famous work, Robinson Crusoe (1719), was based on an episode in Alexander Selkirk’s life.3 Both this and other works, including The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton (1720), demonstrated that Defoe was knowledgeable about the maritime world and traveled quite a bit, but he wasn’t a seamen.
Defoe died in April 1731. A prolific writer, he often published his work under a pseudonym or anonymously. Of the many works published after 1710, only two listed him as the author. This wasn’t unusual for the day; many writers did this to protect themselves from criminal and civil retribution. In spite of his fame while alive, no one made a serious attempt to compile a list of all his writings until sixty years after his death. At no time during his life did he claim to be Captain Johnson.
Until 1931 everyone accepted the author of GHP as Captain Charles Johnson. At different times following Defoe’s death, attempts were made to determine if the author had actually written pieces ascribed to others (unknown or fictitious) or published under “Anonymous,” but these did not include GHP. John Robert Moore, however, claimed he accidentally discovered Defoe and Johnson were one and the same in 1931. So certain was he of this breakthrough that he convinced well-respected academic librarians to reclassify the author of GHP as Daniel Defoe.
In the second edition of A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe, published in 1971, Moore included a paragraph about the complexity of identifying the author’s works:
No fixed line of progression can be charted for our knowledge of Defoe’s authorship, which requires constant reexamination on the basis of available evidence. Occasionally such evidence comes from an accidental discovery, as in the six letters from Defoe to De la Faye which were found in the State Paper Office in 1864 and served to open a vast new area in his journalistic career. More often it comes from long-neglected clues or from careful observation of likenesses and relationships. (Moore, 240)
In his final analysis regarding GHP, Moore found the following:
He claimed there was an overlap with Johnson’s writings in five of Defoe’s: The History of the Union (1709), The King of the Pirates (1719), Adventures of Captain John Gow (1725), The Four Years’ Voyage of Capt. George Roberts (1726), and Robert Drury’s Journal (1729). For the purposes of this article, we highlight the third of these – Adventures of Captain John Gow.
- Since the History is not a romance of adventure but a rather carefully documented record of fact (barring some typical digressions of Defoe’s fancy), we must expect to find Defoe writing in his more sober style as editor and historian rather than as the irresponsible teller of interesting tales. Likewise, although the hand of the same author is apparent throughout . . . and there are numberless cross-references which establish the unity of purpose which underlies the History, the reader must expect to meet with extensive borrowings from the materials on which Defoe based the work.
- The History is substantially Defoe’s throughout . . . is characteristic of Defoe in style as well as subject-matter, and his authorship is attested by a greater mass of evidence than can be offered for most of his previously accepted writings.
- The History is Defoe’s only connected account of piracy, a subject which had such a fascination for him that he referred to it in writings throughout nearly his entire life . . . .
- The History . . . is interesting enough in its own right to deserve its many reprintings and its translations into foreign languages.
- It has exerted a great influence upon historians . . . . (Moore, Defoe, 126-128)
Defoe published this pamphlet the day Gow hanged, 11 June 1725. This pirate didn’t appear in GHP until the third edition, and according to Moore, “‘Johnson’ stole the narrative from Defoe – unless Defoe rewrote his own pamphlet. . . . If the second supposition is the right one, we have here not only a remarkable example of Defoe at work rewriting his own pamphlet; we have indisputable evidence for Defoe’s hand in the History and for his authorship of a considerable part of it.” (Defoe, 160-161)
Twenty-one thousand words comprised the pamphlet, but Johnson’s version cut that down to 5,000 words. Had he not done so, according to Moore, GHP would have required significantly more pages. Revision, of course, wasn’t and still isn’t unusual in publishing. Moore compared the two documents and decided Johnson’s version “turned some of the story inside out to give it a more logical form . . . [and] considered [it] as history rather than as sensational journalism . . .” (161). While Johnson retained the important aspects of the pamphlet, he corrected the inaccuracies contained in the original account and fleshed it out.
Another important comparison is that both authors include “Smith” as the pirate’s name at some point in the rendering. The third edition of GHP lists him as “Gow, alias Smith,” while the fourth reverses the names. Defoe’s pamphlet uses “Gow” throughout, but incorporates a letter signed “John Smith.” There are other discrepancies that Moore elucidates, then he discusses the additions Johnson added to the narrative. He also indicates that “passages in the two versions are absolutely identical”, while others show a slight modification. One example of this is shown below.
Defoe’s Gow Johnson’s Gow . . . they stood away from Porto Santo, about ten leagues to the windward of Madeiras, and belonging also to the Portuguese. Her putting up British colours, they sent their boat ashore with Captain Somerville’s bill of health, and a present to the governor of three barrels of salmon and six barrels of herrings, and a very civil message, desiring leave to water, and to buy some refreshments, pretending to be bound to -----.
The governor very courteously granted their desire, but with more courtesy than discretion went off himself, with about nine or ten of his principal people, to pay the English captain a visit, little thinking what kind of a captain it was they were going to compliment, and what price it might have cost them.
However, Gow, handsomely dressed, received them with some ceremony, and entertained them tolerably well for a while; but the governor having been kept by civility as [long as] they could, and the refreshments from the shore not appearing, he was forced to unmask; and when the governor and his company rose up to take their leave, they were, to their great surprise, suddenly surrounded with a gang of fellows with muskets and an officer at the head of them, who told them, in so many words, they were the captain’s prisoners, and must not think of going on shore any more till the water and provisions which were promised should come on board.
. . . they weighed from that road, and beat up to Porto Santo, about ten leagues to windward of Madeira, belonging also to the Portuguese. Here putting up English colours, they sent their boat ashore with Captain Somerville’s health, and a present to the Governor of three barrels of salmon, and six of herrings, and a civil message desiring leave to water and buy refreshments, on pretence of being bound to the West Indies.
The Governor receiving this compliment kindly, not only granted the request, but went himself to pay his compliments to the English Captain, with several of his people. Smith received them handsomely enough, and entertained them with the best the ship afforded, without giving any suspicion; till the Governor going to take leave, and the provisions not coming off, he thought it necessary to pull off the mask. Whereupon a parcel of fellows immediately, by his order, surrounded them with firearms, and Captain Smith let them know they were to be his prisoners till the water and provisions which were promised, came aboard.
Moore explained the shorter account thusly: “Every significant detail has been retained, and the style has been made more racy of the sea and even more characteristic of Defoe. There is no doubt that any careful student of Defoe will recognize ‘pull off the mask’ and ‘parcel of fellows’ as even more like Defoe’s typical style than ‘unmask’ and ‘gang of fellows’.” (165)4
He also noted a similarity between the two authors – both gentlemen possessed the “knack of giving life to a dull passage of exposition by recasting it in the first person.” (166) They also liked to add drama by including personal speech.
Defoe Johnson Then Gow, with an air of desperation, told them they were all dead men. Smith . . . crying out in a terrifying manner, We are all dead men.
In his conclusion for the comparison of these two publications, Moore said, “Unless ‘Johnson’ was a very demon of skilful revision, he must have been the author of the original pamphlet on the life of Gow, which he understood so well.” (168) This was why the condensed version worked.
Moore believed Defoe was Johnson because the former traveled a lot, recognized a good story when he saw it, and rarely published his writings under his own name. The language style and moral reflections found in GHP were elements Defoe frequently employed.
Based on the entirety of his analysis, Moore believed Johnson and Defoe were the same person, and his Checklist became the standard authority of what Defoe did write. The problem was the case he made lacked a solid foundation. Evidence toward this end was presented in 1988 with the publication of Philip Nicholas Furbank and W. R. Owens’ The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe. According to their research and studies, they found inconsistencies that negated Moore’s comparisons and called into question the methods he used to draw his conclusions. They referred to the latter as “chain forging,” which they defined as building his arguments atop a shaky base that wouldn’t stand up to further scrutiny.
Moore based his attribution on how the two authors used “idiomatic phrases, the comic or ironic turns of thought, the introduction of dialogue to dramatize a scene, the interspersed moral reflections . . . ”, as well as their similar ideas and interests. (Defoe, xxiii) This is known as internal evidence of attribution, but in and of itself is not a reliable way to authoritatively attribute one author’s work as that of another. For that to occur one must have external evidence:
In the case of GHP no such external evidence exists, and according to Furbank and Owens, there are numerous examples of such evidence to argue against Moore’s conclusion that Defoe was Johnson. For example, Johnson’s account of Henry Avery’s life differs significantly in tone and fact from that of Defoe’s The King of Pirates – one of the works Moore used to substantiate his claim. As for the Gow evidence, Furbank and Owens pointed out that a) Johnson cited information from the pamphlet without acknowledging its source; b) it not only contained information not found in the original, but also included a crucial detail for Gow’s decision to sail to Orkney; and c) a few items actually contradict what’s contained in the pamphlet.
- a contemporary who knew the author’s true identity,
- a near contemporary who had knowledge of the author,
- a pseudonym the author was known to have used, and/or
- a distinguishing mark that identifies a work as being that of a particular author.
In Defoe’s The Four Years’ Voyages of Capt. George Roberts, the pirate Loe is seen as a “model of gentlemanliness and goodwill, plying the captive Captain Roberts with wine and holding late-night conversations with him ‘concerning Church and State, as also about Trade’.” (Furbank, 1988) Johnson, on the other hand, describes Low as “a Terror” and “a base cowardly Villain.” Contrary to Defoe’s description of a gentleman, Johnson writes:
But after taking two Whale-Boats near Rhode Island, he caused one of the Masters’ Bodies to be ripp’d up, and his Intrails to be taken out; and cut off the Ears of the other, and made him eat them himself with Pepper and Salt . . . . (Defoe, 334)
The other difference is the two authors didn’t spell Edward “Ned” Low’s name the same way.
To further complicate matters, some of Defoe’s works that Moore compared Johnson to weren’t proven to have been written by Defoe – Gow, being one of them. In using Gow as evidence of the same authorship, Moore admitted that only one copy of the original pamphlet existed “and exact reprints of it are not at all common . . . .” For his purposes he cited from “accessible modern texts” rather than the original. (Defoe, 165)
Moore found the two men used the same phrases in GHP and The King of the Pirates, another indicator that the two were the same author. Examples of these included de facto, de jure, nor do I find, and in fine. The problem with such comparisons is these were commonplace phrases. One commentator wrote:
Such an unsystematic use of parallels does not even approach serious scholarship. . . Not only did Mr. Moore fail to distinguish between what is peculiarly Defoean and what is merely conventional in contemporary narrative style and idiom; he also drew for his parallels upon works which have been since shown to be the work of others. (Furbanks, 108)
Did Daniel Defoe use the alias Captain Charles Johnson to publish A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates? The simple truth is no one knows. There is no incontrovertible proof to say he did. “Even sophisticated computer analyses of his ‘peculiar’ style have been found to be generally inconclusive.” (Defoe, 711)
That Defoe used pseudonyms isn’t in question, and even during his lifetime, publications were erroneously attributed to him. He wrote:
And this is to have every Libel, every Pamphlet, be it ever so foolish, so malicious, so unmannerly, or so dangerous, be laid at my Door, and be call’d publickly by my Name. It has been in vain for me to struggle with this Injury; It has been in vain for me to protest, to declare solemnly, nay, if I would have sworn that I had no hand in such a Book or Paper, never saw it, never read it, and the like, it was the same thing.
My Name has been hackney’d about the Street by the Hawkers, and about the Coffee-Houses by the Politicians, at such a rate, as no Patience could bear. One Man will swear to the style; another to this or that Expression; another to the way of Printing; and all so positive, that it is no purpose to oppose it. (Defoe, 709)
What cannot be questioned is that GHP influenced our modern concept of pirates and served as inspiration to other writers, such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Had the book never been published our knowledge of these villains would be greatly diminished.
Each reader must decide whether the two authors are the same person. For me, I believe Johnson (whoever he may have been) actually wrote this important source on historical pirates and will continue to do so until someone can show beyond any doubt otherwise.
1. The age of the naval Johnson in 1682 is unknown. Gosse put forth the supposition that if he was twenty-six at that time, he would have been sixty-eight when GHP was published.
2. Avery, also spelled Every, captured the Gang-i-Sawai and disappeared from the historical record a rich man, although some of his crew were captured and punished.
3. Selkirk was a buccaneer/privateer who ended up marooned on Juan Fernandez Island for more than four years before Woodes Rogers’ expedition rescued him.
4. Spelling variations play little importance in writings of the period because English has yet to be standardized.
For more information, I recommend these resources:
Baer, Joel Herman. Piracy Examined: A Study of Daniel Defoe’s “General History of the Pirates” and Its Milieu. Princeton, 1971.
Chapman, R. W. “Authors and Booksellers” in Johnson’s England: An Account of the Life and Manners of His Age edited by A. S. Turberville (vol. 2). Clarendon Press, 1952.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Dow, George Francis, and John Henry Edmonds. The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730. Dover, 1996.
Foxe, Ed. “Captain Charles Johnson and The General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates” at Pirate Mythtory. [http://www.bonaventure.org.uk/ed/johnson.htm -- link no longer active 8/4/2015]
Furbank, P. N., and W. R. Owens. The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe. Yale, 1988.
Furbank, P. N., and W. R. Owens. Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist. Hambledon Press, 1994.
Gosse, Philip. The History of Pirates. Rio Grande Press, 1995.
Johnson, Captain Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates with introduction and commentary by David Cordingly. Lyons Press, 1998.
Konstam, Angus. “The Pirate Apprentice” in Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate. John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
Moore, John Robert. A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe 2nd edition. Archon Books, 1971.
Moore, John Robert. Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World. University of Chicago, 1958.
Moore, John Robert. Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies. Folcroft Press, 1969.
Mutter, Reginald P. C. “Daniel Defoe Biography” at Biography.com.
Pancoast, Henry S. “Daniel Defoe” in An Introduction to English Literature 3rd edition. Henry Holt, 1907.
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