13 Jan 23

Oh dear!  How do you relate the story of two women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, whose joint piratical activities lasted only between August and October 1720?  During which time, contrary to this book’s blurb, they did not ‘terrorize the Caribbean’ but, rather, while serving under Jack Rackham in the captured sloop William, renamed Revenge, they took part in the capture of eight fishing boats, several schooners, two merchant ships (loot valued at £1,000), a schooner worth £20, and a canoe.  Hardly the basis for notoriety, save they were female and that, along with the detail that they charged into battle with their gender made obvious by their wide-open shirts, appealed to a prurient nation.

So, why ‘Oh, dear?’  It is this reviewer’s task to judge and recommend books not solely on their worth but whether he considers that they will or will not appeal to the general readership of the Naval Review.  The author is an acknowledged expert about pirates, their lives and their roles, but in this publication, she seems much more concerned with the sociology and psychological significance of women in an 18th century man’s world.  To quote just one example taken almost at random:

“Cross-dressing had a mythological component that both aroused and terrified male pirates.  Maritime mythology concerning seductive mermaids and sirens influenced a view that female pirates were seen as pagan goddesses and matriarchal fantasies that had to be destroyed for men’s safety.  Mythological pirate men were seen as the most virile of males.  Women invading their space would diminish their maleness, especially if they came onboard assuming the men’s virility by taking on their dress…women pirates were depicted with unsheathed swords while dressed in tight clothes, which gave them ‘an erect, boyish impression.’  This provoked a form of penile envy in the men, because this imagery of the female pirates reminded the men of the penis they would like to have…”

There is much more along the lines of “the sexualisation of women in relation to the sea through the male gaze”. How does the author know that male pirates were “aroused and terrified”?

Far be it for me to debunk a fellow maritime historian, so let me just say, I finished this book much better informed about menstruation, pregnancy, and its effect on breast size, and lesbian relationships than I was about pirate activities.  Indeed, the period in which Anne and Mary went swashbuckling, occupies just one chapter in the book which does not include a description of Revenge – for that we have to turn to the Appendix to find, in the trial documents, that she ‘about 12 tons, mounted with 4 great guns and two swivel ones.’ She carried a crew of 14.

The pirates’ escapade ended when the drunken crew were surprised while at anchor by the pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet. The account of their capture is followed by an excellent description of their trial, which is supported with detailed and fascinating Appendices. The men were hanged, the two women, sentenced to death but reprieved on exposing their pregnant state. However, it did not end ‘happy ever after’: Mary died of typhus in April 1721; Anne may also have died in Jamaica in 1733.

The first three chapters of the book deal with the Anne and Mary’s early years, including an episode, so unlikely and ludicrous that it could have been drawn from one of the bawdier Canterbury Tales. The final chapter and conclusion concern ‘Women’s Attraction to Piracy’ and, includes a poem by Emily Dickinson which somehow confirms the reviewer’s impression that this is a book that views its subject through post-Freudian, feminist eyes and that it would be better sold with the sub-title ‘a psychological study’. Nothing wrong with that but potential readers or purchasers should be warned.