Primary Sources > Captain Charles Johnson
Captain Charles Johnson
A General History of the Pyrates Second Edition (1724)
Captain Charles Johnson is the stated author of the 1724 primary source book A General History of Pyrates that described the biographies and exploits of the most infamous pirates. From the work it appears the author had first hand accounts or was possibly on many of the pirating cruises of the Post Spanish Succession Period. A General History of Pyrates as it is commonly known has become one of the only primary source accounts of many of the pirates and is one of the most influential documents alongside Alexander Exquemlein's primary source document De Americaensche Zee Roovers or the Buccaneers of America.
However, there is no record of this person existing in the historical record. Several people have done research and there is no evidence of any Charles Johnson serving as a captain during the correct time period, only one entry forty-two years before. This has led some to believe that the true author was simply Daniel Defoe under a pen-name while others disagree. Defoe had previous written works about the infamous pirate Henry Every and had no problem putting his name on the work. There are also rumors that Woodes Rogers, the infamous governor of the Bahamas was involved in the creation of their biographies.
Along with court documents this book is one of the best resources for learning the true story about pirates and provides valuable insight into the time period that one cannot gain by simply looking back at history. The disputed identity of Charles Johnson is very fitting with the era and lends even more mystery to the exploit and adventures of the pirates. Not all of the stories of the pirates have been told yet, and with the pirates there is more that we do not know about them than we do know, such is the nature of their trade.
So who exactly was Captain Charles Johnson? Many scholars have debated the true origin with most attributing the work to Daniel Defoe. This is a easy theory and a convenient one to accept however, over time it should be known that over five hundred separate works written by anonymous authors have been attributed to Defoe over the years. Literary scholars based this on the style of the writing however, this is very easy to do when dealing with very old English.
According to John Robert Moore who wrote in his book The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (1934), Charles Johnson was Daniel Defoe based on the reflections on morality and ethics during the work and his style. He also bases this assertion on the evidence that Defoe commonly wrote about the topics of pirates and seafaring. This has led many recent editions of the book to even be published under Defoe's name and for it even to be catelogued in libraries under his name as well. However, it has never been proven he was the author. Despite the fact that Defoe wrote other works on pirates that does not automatically mean he wrote this one as well.
Bartholomew Roberts - A General History of the Pyrates (1724)
Recently, two scholars named P.N Furbank and W.R Owen begun to doubt this convenient theory and reexamined the evidence. They believed there was no relation between the two works and that A General History of Pyrates was written by a different author.
Despite it not being Defoe, the author clearly understands and has knowledge of maritime life and understood the life and exploits of all the most famous pirates which suggests they were embedded in the social structure of the area. The work could have been composed based on rumors, court documents and other primary sources at the time, or the writer could have been an educated sailor such as a pirate surgeon like Exquemelin.
The writer may not have wanted to associate himself with the trade for fear of tarnishing his families name, or it may have been in homage to the writer and playwright named Charles Johnson who wrote The Successful Pirate in 1712 about the exploits of Henry Every. By adopting the pseudonym of Charles Johnson they were paying respects to the man who first began to glamorize the careers of pirates and criminals and despite not being successful was still the first one to attempt it.
A General History of Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates