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Pirate Stories

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Library blog. While perusing the Library stacks in search of an interesting volume on piracy, I discovered a khaki leather-bound book titled “History of the Pyrates” by Capt. Charles Johnston. Based on the condition of the volume, I expected it to date from the 1920s. Imagine my surprise when I opened the cover and discovered it was printed a full 200 years earlier, in 1726! This book tells the tales of all the traditional pirates of the Caribbean: Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackam, Mary Read & Anne Bonny, and Black Bart Roberts. Written less than 10 years after the last of these great pirates was defeated, this book provides a remarkable firsthand glimpse at exactly how British society saw these famous buccaneers.

This is what a 286-year-old book looks like. If you take care of it. From The Mariners’ Museum Library collection.

First and foremost, a noticeable difference between this book and more modern works is the use of the long “s” in some cases. While the language is otherwise perfectly readable, the long “s” usage can nevertheless be distracting. On the bright side, it is particularly invigorating to read an account of Blackbeard’s defeat less than a decade after it took place in the language of the time. Historically, Lt. Maynard and his sloop Jane engaged Blackbeard’s sloop Adventure in hand to hand combat off the coast of Ocracoke, North Carolina, during which Blackbeard was slain and the pirates killed or captured. In Johnston’s History, a fellow British sloop arrived as reinforcements after Blackbeard died and helped capture the remaining pirates. To quote Johnston, “The Sloop Ranger came up, and attack’d the Men that remain’d in Black-beard’s Sloop, with equal Bravery, till they likewise cry’d for Quarters.” (p. 84).

This rare book containes a few illustrations like this one of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. From The Mariners’ Museum Library collection.

The Caribbean pirates of the early 1700s are surrounded by so much mythology that it’s often hard to separate fact from fiction nowadays. Johnston’s book is full of accounts of not only the famous pirates listed above, but many less well-known ones as well. In each case, the passages read out almost like biographies instead of stories. Even so, Johnston’s account of Blackbeard’s death has him suffer 20 sword wounds and 5 gunshot wounds before expiring. One can’t help but wonder if the tales of these pirates captured the imaginations of people back then like they do nowadays. And hey – even if Johnston’s account is true, doesn’t that make his history an even more compelling read?

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