Captain Charles Johnson

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Captain Charles Johnson is the British author of the 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, whose identity remains a mystery. No record exists of a captain by this name. Some scholars have suggested that "Charles Johnson" was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pen name, but this is disputed. His work was influential in shaping popular conceptions of pirates, and is the prime source for the biographies of many well known pirates.[1][2]

Character of the author[edit]

Johnson's identity is unknown, but he demonstrates a knowledge of the sailor's speech and life, suggesting that he could have been an actual sea captain. He could also have been a professional writer using a pseudonym who was well versed in the sea. If this is true, the name may have been chosen to reflect playwright Charles Johnson, who had an unsuccessful play called The Successful Pyrate in 1712. The play addressed the career of Henry Avery, and it had been something of a scandal for seeming to praise a criminal.[3] Following the book, many biographies and catalogs of criminals were published, including catalogs of highwaymen and prostitutes. This theory suggests that the "Charles Johnson" of the pirate catalog was merely taking part in a burgeoning industry in criminal biography.

Daniel Defoe[edit]

In 1934, John Robert Moore, an American scholar of Daniel Defoe, announced his theory that Johnson was really Daniel Defoe writing pseudonymously. He eventually published Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies, in which he compared the style and contents of A General History to Defoe's writing, noting that the frequent meditations on morality are similar to Defoe's work, and that Defoe wrote several other works on pirates.[4] Moore's study and his reputation as a Defoe scholar was so convincing that most libraries recataloged A General History under Defoe's name. However, in 1988, scholars P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owen attacked the theory in The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe, in which they point out that there is no documentary evidence linking Johnson to Defoe, and that there are discrepancies between A General History and Defoe's known works.[5]

Contents of the different editions[edit]

The original publisher Charles Rivington[2] emphasized the fact that the catalogue included stories of "the remarkable ACTIONS and ADVENTURES of the two Female Pyrates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny" (largely assembled from newspaper accounts, Admiralty Court records and a few interviews)[6] A second edition came out within a few months, vastly enlarged and most likely assembled from writings by other authors. German and Dutch translations were published in 1725.[6] These German- and Dutch-language versions greatly played up the salaciousness of the accounts of "Amazon" pirates.

Modern editions and related works[edit]

A General History of the Pyrates continues to be reprinted in many different editions, often with additional commentary, sometimes published under Charles Johnson's name and sometimes under Daniel Defoe's name. Nova Scotian author William Gilkerson published the children's novel Pirates Passage (Trumpeter Books, 2006) which was inspired by the life and work of Charles Johnson, reissued as The Brotherhood of Pirates.


  1. ^ Cordingly (1995), p. xix
  2. ^ a b A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. By Charles Johnson Introduction and commentary by David Cordingly. Conway Maritime Press (2002).
  3. ^ Robert Dryden, (Hillyer College, University of Hartford). "The Successful Pyrate. A Play. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane." The Literary Encyclopedia. 23 October 2006. The Literary Dictionary Company. 3 June 2007.
  4. ^ Cordingly (1995), pp. xix–xx
  5. ^ Cordingly (1995), p. xx
  6. ^ a b Druett (2000), p. 105


  • Cordingly, David (1995). Under the Black Flag: the Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Harcourt Brace. 
  • Druett, Joan (2000). She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea. New York: Simon and Schuster. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Charles Johnson (1724), A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates

External links[edit]