The Improbable Pirate: All at Sea with Captain Singleton

  • ian ward Newcastle law school


In 1720 Daniel Defoe published a novel entitled The Life, Adventures and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton. He had started it as he finished what would be his break-through novel, and perhaps his most renowned, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In many ways very similar, not least in their inspiration, for both were, in their different ways, pirate novels; a genre of writing which emerged, by no coincidence, as the ‘golden age’ of piracy was reaching its zenith. Ever acute to the commercial dynamics of his profession, Defoe knew that another novel about ‘derring-do’ on the high seas would do well. The eponymous Captain Bob Singleton is, though, a slightly odd pirate. At least when compared to many of those who would make starred appearances in the History of the Pyrates which appeared in 1726, and would do so much to shape how contemporary and later generations would read this ‘golden age’. The extent to which Defoe may have played a part in writing this History remains a matter of fierce debate. As to what makes Bob an odd pirate, it is because he is, put simply, likeable. If anyone had happened to find themselves pressed into service on an early eighteenth-century pirate ship, they would have wanted it to be Bob’s. This article is about the Bob that Defoe writes, and why he writes him.