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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730
Edited by Joel H. Baer
Pickering & Chatto, 2007, ISBN 978-1-85196-845-9, $595.00, £350.00


This four-volume set of primary documents and early publications deals with maritime piracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. These republications include both rare and popular books, pamphlets, and documents from the time period in which they were first written. Baer chose to use the wider time frame of the Golden Age, encompassing both buccaneers and the more infamous pirates familiar to the layman, because how piracy was viewed politically and criminally changed during these years.

The series opens with a general survey on outbreaks of British piracy from the Middle Ages through 1730. Baer examines how pirates ranged farther from their native shores as time progressed; how they joined together to achieve certain goals, then separated; how they governed themselves aboard their ships; what steps nations took to curb piracy; and what trials and the ritual convicted pirates participated in at their hangings were like. These are the subject areas that are then explored in greater depth in each book.

The first volume, which contains general accounts of piracy, demonstrates how pirates coalesced into what we know as the marauders of the Golden Age as well as their decline. Each selection concerns a distinct, but different, threat to commerce and life, whether it appeared as a story, in a government document or mariner’s journal, or in newspapers. Volumes two and three deal with the legal aspect of piracy: trials, histories, applications, and commentaries. They contain reports of thirteen pirate trials, perhaps the largest collection of such in one place. The introduction to this subject is one of the most concise and easy-to-understand explanations of maritime law (as it pertains to pirates) that I’ve read. The last volume primarily contains sermons and spiritual advice given by preachers to sailors and pirates, but it also contains dying speeches from and ballads about pirates.

Not only does Baer provide an introduction to the set, he also introduces each volume and each selection. He sets the historical stage, interprets who’s who, and explains why the work is important or what sets it apart from other similar publications. Each introduction includes end notes with complete citations of the source material consulted. Editorial notes at the conclusion of each book explain how some words and phrases were used in the particular time period, as well as identifying people and clarifying specific aspects found in the document. Volume four also includes an appendix listing all cited manuscripts and a detailed index to the set.

If there are any drawbacks to British Piracy in the Golden Age, one is the price and the other is some of the print. This set of books is primarily for libraries and maritime history collections, although avid pirate historians may well pinch pennies to acquire this treasure. As for the second drawback, these documents are facsimiles of the original – as opposed to being retyped for this edition – so at times the typeface the original printer chose is small or difficult to read. Also, writers of this age tended to spell less rigidly than we do and some letters, like f, may actually represent something else. This, however, is the hazard any researcher who explores primary documents finds while researching his topic, and with the aid of a magnifying glass and a bit of patience, any reader will be able to decipher those included here that fall into this category.

British Piracy in the Golden Age is as valuable a find as the gold, silver, and jewels that Henry Every uncovered when he captured the Ganj-i-sawai, or that all pirates dreamed of as they searched for the Spanish treasure ships laden with the riches of the New World and bound for King Philip’s coffers. Nowhere else will you find such a diverse collection of documents that cover all aspects of piracy in one set of books. Each document and each volume is one to be studied and savored, much as a connoisseur appreciates the finest wines and delicacies.

Annotated List of Documents in this Collection

Volume 1
  • Newes from Sea, of Two Notorious Pyrates (1609) – a pamphlet that examines the threat of Barbary pirates to trade in the Atlantic. Two particular renegados, John Ward and Simon Simonson (aka Danseker), are discussed.
  • ‘Sir Henry Morgan’s Voyage to Panama, 1670,’ in The Present State of Jamaica (1683) – nine documents from government archives that undermine charges of piracy against Morgan.
  • The Voyages and Adventures of Capt. Bartholomew Sharp (1684) – six manuscripts concerning Caribbean and South Sea piracy.
  • Periodicals from August 1696 through July 1729 – excerpts from English and colonial newspapers that provide anecdotes on pirates and where they hunted.
Volume 2
  • The Lives, Apprehensions Arraignments, and Executions, of the 19 Late Pyrates (1609) – first printed piracy trial.
  • The Grand Pyrate: or, The Life and Death of Capt. George Cusack (1676) – a pamphlet that was the second account of piracy published.
  • An Account of the Tryals of Captain J. Golden [et al.] (1694) – a broadside that reports on the trials of privateers, sailing under commissions from the exiled King James II, who were indicted as pirates and traitors while King William III ruled England.
  • The Tryals of Joseph Dawson [et al.] (1696) – trials of four men who participated in the mutiny Henry Every led.
  • The Arraignment, Tryal, and Condemnation of Captain William Kidd (1701) – most extensive primary document on Kidd’s career published in the eighteenth century.
  • A Full Account of the Proceedings in Relation to Capt. Kidd (1701) – first detailed account of the political scandal surrounding Kidd’s expedition and arrest.
  • The Arraignment, Tryal, and Condemnation, of Capt. John Quelch (1704) – first printed report under the piracy act passed in 1700.
  • The Trials of Eight Persons Indited for Piracy (1718) – trials of the remaining members of Samuel Bellamy’s crew after the Whydah was shipwrecked off Cape Cod.
  • The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, and other Pirates (1719) – the ten trials held for the only pirate who purchased his ship and hired his crew, and his men.
Volume 3
  • The Tryals of Captain John Rackham, and other Pirates (1721) – the only source of facts regarding Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
  • A Full and Exact Account, of the Tryal of all the Pyrates, Lately Taken by Captain Ogle (1723) – contains more miscellaneous information on pirate society than any other primary source of the Golden Age.
  • Tryals of Thirty-six Persons for Piracy (1723) – five trials of Edward Low’s men.
  • The Trials of Five Persons for Piracy, Felony and Robbery (1726) – trial of French and Mikmaq Indians.
  • The Tryals of Sixteen Persons for Piracy (1726) – six trials to convict or clear William Fly and his comrades.
  • A Discourse of the Laws Relating to Pirates and Piracies (1726) – how to keep sailors from straying into piracy.
  • A General Treatise of the Dominion of the Sea (1710) – key provisions of maritime law, including three aspects dealing with piracy.
  • Piracy Destroy’d (1701) – why men turn to piracy and how to stop this crime.
  • Reasons for Reducing the Pyrates at Madagascar (1707) – proposal to repatriate British pirates that sought sanctuary on this island.
  • Introductions to 3 Popular Books on Pirates: Alexander Exquemelin’s The History of the Bucaniers of America (1699); Alexander Smith’s The Compleat History of the Lives, Robberies, Piracies, and Murders Committed by the Most Notorious Rogues (1720); and Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c. (1734) – defensive essays for publishing accounts about criminals.
Volume 4
  • Foure Sea-Sermons by Henry Valentine (1635) – illustrates how preachers saw life at sea and prepared sailors for such rigorous lives.
  • An Account of the Behaviour, Dying Speeches, and Execution of Mr. John Murphy, for High Treason; and William May [et al.], for Robbery, Piracy and Felony (1696) – only account of what pirates, some who followed Henry Every, said prior to their hangings.
  • An Account of the Behaviour and Last Dying Speeches of the Six Pirates (1704) – Cotton Mather’s account of the executions and dying speeches of John Quelch and his men.
  • Paul Lorrain, The Ordinary of Newgate: His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Last Speech of Capt Alexander Dolzell (1715) – the dying speech of a recalcitrant pirate as seen through the eyes of the preacher who tended the prisoners of Newgate.
  • The Mariners Divine Mate: or, Spiritual Navigation Improved (1715) – a sermon for mariners that examines their fears, strengths, and sins, including piracy.
  • Instructions to the Living, from the Condition of the Dead (1717) – Cotton Mather’s sermon published after the execution of six of the nine survivors of Samuel Bellamy’s crew.
  • Useful Remarks. An Essay upon Remarkables in the Way of Wicked Men (1723) – Cotton Mather’s take on the trial of 36 of Edward Low’s pirates at Newport, Rhode Island, and the executions of 19 of them.
  • The Seaman’s Monitor: or, Advice to Sea-Faring Men by Josiah Woodward (1723) – emphasis on a mariner’s moral duties.
  • It is a Fearful Thing to Fall into the Hands of the Living God by Benjamin Colman (1726) – Presbyterian sermon delivered at the request of two condemned pirates.
  • The Famous Adventures of Captain John Avery, of Plymouth (1809) – collection of scenes that first appeared a century earlier.
  • Popular Ballads: ‘Bold Captain Avery’ (c. 1770) and ‘Captain Ivory, the Bold English Pirate’ (c. 1818-1835) – broadsides dealing with the legendary pirate and the mutiny he led.

Review copyrighted © 2008 Cindy Vallar

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