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Authorship of The General History of the Pyrates, Page 1

The question of who wrote the book that is the premiere period resource on piracy is one that has long been debated in academic circles. When I first came across this discussion on a forum where I posted, I stubbornly believed that Defoe was the writer and there was no more to be said on the subject. However, one of the amazing things I've learned about history is that it is seldom as simple as it appears on the surface. Captain Charles Johnson was credited with writing the tome for centuries before the authorship was shifted to Defoe. How this came to be was revealed in a book by P.N. Furbanks and W. R. Owens called The Canon-isation of Daniel Defoe. Incensed, I decided to get and read this book and decide this thing for myself. The rest of this web page is basically the result of my reading.

Canon~ical Background

First, in order to understand Furbanks and Owens' reasoning behind why they don't think Defoe wrote General History, you have to understand what they think is wrong with the Defoe "Canon". (By canon, they mean the books that are attributed almost unquestionably to Defoe.)

It has been historically difficult to accurately define Defoe's Cannon because 1) he wrote many things anonymously or under a pseudonym and 2) Defoe varied his writing style according to what he was trying to accomplish. He liked to parody styles to poke fun at people and this confuses things greatly. It is also suggested that he was sometimes paid to write on opposite sides of the same issue.

Furbanks and Owens look at six scholars/biographers who tried their hand at creating the body of Defoean works (see list below). They take great pains to point out what is personally wrong with each author as a Defoe scholar and why each author is biased. As much as I disagree with their attacks, I can see where the various scholars' personal opinions may have colored their research. However, I believe this is true of any researcher, including Furbanks and Owens. It is impossible for the scientist to be truly dispassionate. Even they seem to feel compelled to admit their bias when they state that, "Up to this point, our book has been largely destructive." (p. 125).

Perhaps the biggest problem they identify is that the men who created the various canons were deliberately seeking to expand Defoe's list of attributed works so that they could claim that they had added to the canon. This is another common problem with research; if it isn't positive or doesn't add to the knowledge base in a positive way, it often isn't published. So in this way, Owens and Furbanks are doing us a service.

Just as an overview, I will list the various Defoe Biographers Furbanks and Owens examine, the dates these authors created their list of Defoean works and the number of works they attributed to Defoe.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (1660 - 1731)

George Chalmers, 1790, 81 attributions to Defoe
Walter Wilson, 1828, 210 attributions to Defoe
William Lee, 1869, 254 attributions to Defoe
James Crossley, ~1869/Not Published, 60 additional attributions to Defoe
W.P. Trent, ~1920s/Not Published, 382 attributions to Defoe
John Robert Moore, 1960, 570 attributions to Defoe

You can see that the list has grown and swollen, almost alarmingly, to the point where Defoe is credited with having written 570 different books and pamphlets. Two points to consider here. First, note that the first version of the canon occurred 61 years after Defoe died. That's a long time to reach back and untangle what Defoe did and didn't write. Second, Furbanks and Owens make it very clear that they have no use whatsoever for Moore's list, motivation or methods. This is of crucial importance to this discussion because it was Moore who, over 200 years after Defoe's death, attributed A General History to him.

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