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Herstory Not History

Pleading the belly


Writing a novel about the pirate Mary Read, who lived most of her life disguised as a man, what has struck me most is how little the practicalities of being female have informed our view of her. Though the femaleness of Mary and her crewmate Anne Bonny is what made them famous, male historians have largely overlooked the biological significance of certain dates and details. Additionally, despite the fact these women were largely newsworthy because of their transgression of ‘femininity’, much of what we believe about them struggles to escape the sexist stereotypes foisted upon them. ‘Inhabiting’ a fictional version of Mary Read for the last six years has helped me gain some new perspectives.

The bare facts are insufficient for biography. On 22 August 1720, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, as part of the fourteen-person crew of Jack Rackham, stole the sloop William from Nassau in the Bahamas. They raided small vessels until they were captured, exactly two months later, off the coast of Jamaica. We have precise details of some of the vessels they captured, the value of those vessels and their ‘apparel and tackle’, but know very little about the women themselves. Beyond what we learn from the transcript of their trial, almost everything we know about Read and Bonny comes from A General History of the Pyrates (1724 and 1728), by one ‘Captain Charles Johnson’, once thought to be Daniel Defoe and now believed to be the journalist and newspaper editor Nathaniel Mist. Though Mist has fictional tendencies, he was a contemporary commentator with reliable informants, and the book is the closest we will get to a primary source. Since Mist first established Read and Bonny in the public imagination, false depictions have proliferated.

The women are almost invariably sexualised. Mist says that whereas Read was ‘remarkable for her modesty’, Bonny ‘was not altogether so reserved in point of chastity’. The context for this comment is a story about Bonny making a pass at Read, not realising Read was female. Whether or not this is true, it has given rise to Anne Bonny being repeatedly depicted as a sex-hungry figure, not only in TV dramas such as Black Sails (2014) but in, for example, The Lost Pirate Kingdom (2021), a documentary series that is largely accurate, with the glaring exception of its having Anne Bonny sleeping with every major pirate on New Providence. Perhaps Mary Read escaped that fate because she is documented as saying she ‘had never committed adultery or fornication with any man’.

The sexualised representations of Read and Bonny include the occasional claim that one or both of them were prostitutes. A recent (male) investigator concluded this on the basis that each was described as ‘spinster’ at their trial, saying that they joined Rackham in that capacity, to give pleasure to the crew. This would be despite the fact that women were usually banned on board ship, sometimes on pain of death of the sailor who brought them aboard. One cannot rule out that any woman in financial need might resort to prostitution, but Bonny is clearly noted by witnesses to have been an active member of the crew and, more than once, armed. The most generous observation we could make about the habitual sexualising of Bonny and Read is that it arises out of a wilful misreading of a witness’s deposition at the trial that they were ‘very active on Board, and willing to do any Thing,’ though the example of ‘doing anything’ given in that same sentence is the provision of gunpowder.

Alternatively, and sometimes in addition to being sexually available to men, Bonny and Read are frequently depicted as lesbians. When a statue to these ‘lesbian pirates’ was unveiled in 2020, historian Kate Williams even spoke of their ‘desire to love each other’. Yet we know nothing about their sexuality. Mist depicts them as firmly heterosexual. Mary Read had left soldiering to marry a Flemish comrade after falling in love and at the trial spoke of a second man, whom she called her husband. Anne Bonny had married a sailor before leaving him for Jack Rackham. In the story told by Mist, Bonny’s attraction to Read vanished as soon as the latter confessed she was female. One can argue that Mist invented both their conventional sexuality and the story of mistaken flirtation. But there is no evidence at all that they were lesbians.

What they were, I contend, is women attempting to make an independent living without resorting to prostitution, in an age where this was very difficult. Mary Read had, according to Mist, spent a long life in male disguise: as a merchant sailor, then a foot soldier, and later a cavalry trooper in the War of the Spanish Succession. Up until the early nineteenth century, there was a strong tradition in northern Europe of working-class women dressing as men and taking up male professions. The majority of the cases uncovered were sailors, not because this was the preferred female career, but because of the difficulty of disguising one’s sex in the close confines of a ship. Thus it stands to reason that there were large numbers of women in other male professions who were never discovered.

Neither Bonny nor Read were disguised as men on the William, however. Rackham knew they were women, and so did the Governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, who named them in his September proclamation. A witness described how they alternated between men’s clothes (during pursuits and action) and women’s, and makes it clear they were not concealing their shape; she knew they were women ‘by the largeness of their breasts’. So the question must arise how this unusual situation came about.

The pirates based in Nassau were exceptionally egalitarian. Pirate crews were racially mixed, with escaped slaves making up significant proportions of some crews, at one point more than fifty percent in the case of ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy. Spoils were shared equally, with the exception of the quartermaster and captain, who would get a double share. Captains were decided by democratic vote. In my novel, I have absorbed various aspects of the evidence to create a narrative in which Jack Rackham took the principles of the Pirate Republic further than most and was happy to absorb women onto his crew as equals.

Though Bonny and Read successfully escaped the strictures, which is to say the social conventions, of their sex, neither could escape their female biology. Menstruation was a problem. Lower-class women didn’t wear underwear, and bled into their clothes rather than using clouts, partly because even the scraps of material used for clouts had commodity value and couldn’t always be afforded. Since free bleeding might be hidden under skirts but not trousers, I have Mary Read resort to wearing sponges internally, as prostitutes did. At least while in the army and merchant navy, a poor diet may have halted her periods. But once piracy had improved her means and thus her health, there was the obvious risk of pregnancy. Anne Bonny was already a mother; another important aspect of her female experience most male-written narratives ignore. Mist tells how after being at sea with Rackham for some time she fell pregnant. Rackham took her to Cuba to be looked after during her confinement, before sending for her to join him. Before long, she was pregnant again, and so was Mary Read.

For me, the timing of the stealing of the William became fascinating when viewed as a response to pregnancy. No one appears to have done these calculations, but at their trial, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were not pregnant enough to show through loose clothing, but pregnant enough for those pregnancies to be confirmed on ‘inspection’, meaning they were at least twelve weeks gone. I was struck by the thought that Read’s death from ‘a violent fever’ just before 28 April 1721, may have been puerperal fever, caused by sepsis of the placental wound. Since this tended to kill women within three days of giving birth, her baby would have been born around 25 April. If this was close to her due date, then she would have been almost six weeks pregnant – enough to suspect it – when the William was stolen, and nineteen weeks pregnant at the trial. This raises the question of whether Bonny and Read knew they were pregnant when they slipped the William from its mooring. And even whether their pregnancies prompted that decision.

Male-focused history tends to ignore these questions, making the two women titillating side characters. But taking Mary Read’s perspective, combined with the gap-filling expansiveness of a novel, has allowed me to explore her and Anne Bonny as independent human beings, albeit ones whose choices were shaped by their female biology. I hope this approach may have contributed to our understanding of them, and stands as an example of how historical fiction can add insight to history. Both women were spared the noose after pleading the belly. But though their reproductive capacity briefly saved their necks it was, as Mary Read probably knew, always as big a risk to their lives as piracy.

Ros Barber is a novelist and academic. Her debut novel The Marlowe Papers (2012) won the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award; her second, Devotion (2015) was shortlisted for the Encore award. She is currently completing a fictional autobiography of Mary Read.

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