5 Must-Reads: Piracy in the Early Modern Atlantic

Old_book_bindingsIn the first installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), Rebecca Simon, PhD Candidate (KCL), chooses 5 books that sparked her interest in the topic of early modern Atlantic Piracy.

I research how the public executions of pirates impacted British Atlantic maritime polices and Atlantic polite society between 1670 – 1830. This area of research involves close study of legal history, print culture, polite society and religious history throughout British America. The books I’ve chosen are ones that either sparked my interest in the subject and/or had the most impact on my research.

 * * *

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004).

This is the first book I ever read about the history of piracy, so of course it has to be first on the list. I began studying early modern piracy and the Atlantic world during my MA because I always had a fascination with both early modern British and Colonial American history. Luckily, the history department at California State University Northridge had just started a new area of focus in Atlantic history around the time I started my MA, which allowed me to study the wider impact of early modern exploration. I chose to focus on piracy after reading Villains of All Nations because this book showed me how pirates were a common problem between the Americas and Britain. Piracy was the perfect subject for me to simultaneously research early modern British and Colonial American society. This book is a social history of pirates and examines how British authorities used a dialectic of terror to crack down on piracy in the early modern Atlantic. This book is highly readable and I’d definitely recommend it to both academic and popular audiences.

Bloody pirates

Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986).

This book has to be, in my opinion, the best book written about the history of piracy. Ritchie takes the history of Captain William Kidd as a case study to examine how the explosion of Atlantic piracy at the turn of the eighteenth century changed British Admiralty administration and responses toward piracy. By tracing Kidd’s activities in the East and West Indies, Ritchie explores how laws directed at piracy changed to allow the Admiralty Court (the British maritime ruling body) full jurisdiction to prosecute piracy throughout the British Atlantic in any manner they saw fit. This book is a must if someone wants both a biography of a notorious pirate and a detailed history of how British authorities came to stamp out Atlantic piracy.


Alison Games, Migrations and Origins of the English Atlantic World (Cambridge, 2001).

This is the book that introduced me to the history of the Atlantic World. Games examined the 1635 London port register and traced over 7000 English migrants to the American colonies and how people settled in the Chesapeake, New England, the West Indies and Bermuda. This is a fascinating history of the colonial development of the Americas as Games argues that one of the major struggles English settlers had was recreating English society in the colonies. This is an argument that has influenced much of my own research when I look at the legal developments throughout the colonies as colonists had to try and execute pirates with the laws of England as if they were in England. Like recreating society, this was not always possible because of the vast differences in settlements, geography and new hazards of life.

Bartholomew_RobertsLauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400 – 1900 (Cambridge, 2009).

Benton argues that Europeans imagined imperial spaces as networks of corridors and enclaves and that they constructed their ideas of sovereignty in ways that merged ideas about geography and the law. She examines the struggles European imperialists encountered – treason, convict transportation, piracy – and how they created irregular spaces of law. What makes this book particularly interesting is the way Benton examines physical spaces – mountains, rivers, oceans – to illustrate the challenges of how different European powers attempted to establish their sovereignty. The land had physical challenges in unfamiliar terrain while oceans had no physical borders to control. This book has been very influential to my research when I discuss how the British authorities established their sovereignty in the Americas through the eradication of piracy because pirates lived outside the law and were, as a result, extremely difficult to control.


Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice (Oxford, 1979).

I read this book while working on a research project about crime in Colonial North America during my MA.  Walker’s survey on the history of the American justice system changed the way I saw criminal and legal history. Before reading this book, I had a very narrow view of legal history and assumed it meant close examinations and memorisations of torts and Acts, which bored me in school. However, Walker traces the Quaker, Puritan and Anglican settlements in North America and how these different communities shaped their laws around their religious beliefs and home cultures. He also examines how early Americans experimented with different European laws as they figured out how to justify their prosecution of crime. This book showed me that legal history is much more nuanced and interesting than I had previously thought because it demonstrated just how much impact early modern British and European societies had on the early American criminal justice system. Walker’s examinations helped shaped the foundation of my own research.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *