Hello Book Bees and welcome to another discussion post! This one is about the genre known as Pirate Literature, also called Transatlantic literature. Don’t worry, I’ll be getting into all the definitions you need as well as giving you some book recs if you’re interested in this genre but not quite sure where to begin.
When I was in undergraduate, I took a course titled Pirate Literature simply because it was called that. It was an awesome course, and I thoroughly enjoyed the materials we read. Our professor had specialized in transatlantic literature, specifically studying how pirate and slave narratives had shaped literature from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. We read a wonderful list of books from the classic A General History of Pyrates to a book written by Daniel Handler (yes, the same Handler who as Lemony Snicket wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events).
This genre is a rich one with a long history and some very interesting contributions from the years. I’ll be discussing what makes a book “pirate literature” in this post, so as to differentiate from books about the sea and other narratives. A lot of pirate literature overlaps with transatlantic literature, as well. Considering that I’ve always been fascinated with the sea and even got my Master’s degree in a maritime field, this genre is one near and dear to my heart and I hope to find some fellow sea-obsessed readers!
Defining the Genre
So, what makes a novel pirate literature? From a pretty simple standpoint, a novel is pirate literature if the main characters, major events, and plot concern pirates and piracy. Perhaps the pirates are the primary antagonists of a seafaring novel, or the protagonist is a pirate captain themselves. So long as one or more pirates feature prominently (not a passing mention, or a single incident involving pirates) the book can fall under pirate literature. But, it can become more complicated than that! Pirate literature has a long history, starting during the Golden Age of Piracy itself as a genre. Then, it was popular for those dissatisfied with the state of their governments to write escapist pirate stories in which brave men bucked the restrictions of their king and country to pursue treasure, adventure, and love on their own terms. There were also those that wrote without sympathy towards pirates and instead wrote retribution tales, or tales of adventure in which pirates were rascals and scoundrels.
Escapist fantasy is a major part of the genre. At a time when men were regularly press ganged onto ships, sold into slavery in the Caribbean, and otherwise abused by the people in power there was a lot of appeal to making one’s own rules on the sea. A lot of outcasts of society made decent lives in piracy, despite the overwhelming mortality rate for all those involved. It’s no surprise, then, that for people unable to turn to the romantic life of piracy writing adventure novels about those that could was a popular pastime, as was reading those books. The more gritty, realistic versions in which pirates are rapists, thieves, and scoundrels were also popular in a sensationalist way that played on the very real fears that many had of pirates.
Tropes + Hallmarks
There are quite a few characteristic tropes, plots, and other markers of pirate literature. First, I’ll just give a quick and dirty list of some of those:
- scoundrel with a heart of gold (protagonist)
- forced servitude or slavery
- piracy as escape from servitude or slavery
- ruthless pirates, cartoonishly evil
- treasure as a metaphor for a woman
- treasure as a literal treasure
- supporting a political agenda with piracy
- supporting piracy with a political agenda
- pirates being admired by every woman except whom he wants
- a woman being the ultimate conquest
- a ship named for a woman
- one major antagonist in the form of a political or naval official
- conflicts between the antagonist and protagonist having major consequences
- daring and death defying raids of majorly fortified cities
Of course, this isn’t everything that can, does, and might happen in pirate literature. Peter Pan is an excellent example of something that falls to pirate literature’s side of the spectrum without falling into many of these tropes. Fantasy pirate literature has its place, as well, though which is why Peter Pan ends up on the list.
A lot of pirate literature’s tropes depend on the time period in which the story was written and/or published. The closer to the Golden Age of Piracy the more political stories tend to be, with clear alliances in terms of king and country. Fictional accounts and real accounts both reflect certain loyalties in which pirates tend to only strike out at ships flying certain flags. This is in part due to the people who became pirates. Those that were accused of treason and sold into slavery, for example, tended to join pirate crews as a path to freedom and revenge against the government that enslaved them. Other pirates, still patriotic to their home, would strike against the political enemies of their country, earning some approval in the form of commissions and pardons.
There is no small amount of romantic pirate literature, and not all of it written for women either. While there is absolutely a subgenre of the romance world dedicated to a woman being swept away by a romantic pirate, a lot of the most romantic stories are written by and for men as well. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini and Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck both focus heavily on a long term attraction between the main pirate protagonist, and a beautiful woman he desperately pines over. In fact, that plotline itself is often a requirement of a pirate sympathetic novel in which the pirates are the protagonists and the ones you root for. The subplot of the roguish, successful pirate captain being weak at heart for a beautiful, innocent woman whom he cannot have because of his profession is a very common one in pirate literature.
Besides politics and romance, escapist fantasy is another major motivation of pirate literature. This is where a lot of novels with fantasy elements, or that utilize pirates as the fantasy element, come into play. Peter Pan is in many ways all about fantasy escapism, and the presence of Hook’s pirate crew as antagonists is more about the use of historical fears of pirates to create a specter of adult fear that children can still dream about fighting against. Pirates are one of the few villains that can easily cross over into both childhood and adulthood. The romanticized version is appealing to both, and the very real threat pirates posed historically is also fascinating in a villain which is how pirates come to be the protagonists and antagonists of books across all age ranges. The escapist fantasies associated with piracy, or with escaping piracy, can be applied to fantasy, horror, romance, adventure, and even science fiction stories because there is just something universal about escaping the rules and constraints of daily life on land by taking to a ship at sea.
Examples + Recommendations
Perhaps the easiest way to explain this genre is to have you read some examples of it. This is not a comprehensive or strictly chronological list of examples/recommendations, though, so if you’re truly interested in reading more pirate literature you should research it for yourself and find what you like!
A General History of the Pyrates by disputed authors
This book is a really excellent place to start no matter what side of pirate literature you’re interested in. The book covers historical pirates with famous names from Edward Teach to Mary Read and Anne Bonny. There’s definitely a fair few facts in the book, but some of the accounts are sensational and probably exaggerated. Published under the name Captain Johnson, the book’s “true” author has been investigated over and over through the years. Many attribute the book to Daniel Defoe, but this is largely because a Defoe expert decided that there were distinct similarities and very little tangible evidence backs up the author’s identity. Since this book is so old, it’s also easy to obtain a cheap or free copy, making it a very good place to start.
Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck
This is a personal recommendation of mine that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold is considered an anomaly for his bibliography in that many people strongly dislike the rambling adventure story of Henry Morgan’s pursuit of the metaphorical cup of gold. Personally, I rather enjoyed this book despite some of its more problematic elements. If you’re looking for a classic example of the pirate adventure romance novel, this is one you should definitely consider picking up!
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
Having reviewed this book here, I’m not going to spend too much time discussing it for this post. Captain Blood reminds me a lot of Cup of Gold, though, and follows the same basic story structure (all the way down to being partly inspired by Henry Morgan’s life and adventures).
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
This one is a pretty obvious choice, now isn’t it? Treasure Island is the classic tale of Jim Hawkins, who gets swept up into quite the pirate adventure. This is an example of placing pirates in the antagonistic role of pirate literature, and making them the villains of the story. Unlike Cup of Gold or Captain Blood, this book doesn’t shy away from how ruthless and monstrous pirates were in recorded history, and doesn’t romanticize them as heart of gold heroes. Of course, the adventure to obtain the treasure is still a bit of a romanticized choice, but it is still a daring and dashing adventure for the main characters.
Peter Pan and Wendy by J.M. Barrie
I’ll be honest, when this book appeared on my pirate literature course reading list I was surprised! But after our professor walked us through the history of Barrie’s approach to pirates (and a lecture about the racist portrayal of Native Americans and how it was considered racist even in its time, which has nothing to do with piracy but is usually a good reminder to have) I understood why this work has its place in pirate literature. The portrayal of Hook and his crew as antagonist foils to the Lost Boys is another example of childhood romanticizing of pirates even in the role of antagonist, and from Hook’s fictional backstory and behavior you see a lot of influence from the real history of piracy.
Pirate literature has a long and varied history, and of course you can look out of the traditional body of its work and discover any number of diverse pirate novels from books with historical characters from all over the world (East Asia has its own rich history of piracy) to fictional characters (Vampirates, enough said). If you’re at all interested in getting to the meat of the genre I do recommend A General History of the Pyrates, but of course depending on your own preferences anyone can start anywhere frankly. Pirates feature in almost every genre from science fiction to romance, and if you’re like me and eternally obsessed with the sea then it shouldn’t be too hard to determine exactly which branch of pirate literature you’d like to wader down.
How about you, book bees? Any of you fellow pirate fans? Leave your suggested books in the comments!