My thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read may not have been the only female pirates who operated in what is known as the Golden Age of Piracy (1650–1730; dates debated), but they were amongst the best known. From inspiring ballads and having books written about them to other forms of popular culture like a recent Netflix docuseries, and even a song, these daring ladies are a source of fascination even centuries after their death. While there had been female pirate before their time, many quite as powerful and ruthless, their predecessors were different in that they came from more powerful positions having been wives mostly of chieftains or rulers who took over when widowed and turned to piracy. But Bonny and Read came from far more ordinary backgrounds, but still took to the seas. Their career as active pirates though, was rather short-lived, lasting only two months.
I first came across these two audacious ladies when I read a book called Meet the Georgians by Robert Peal last year which took one through the colourful Georgian period by examining the lives of twelve sets of characters, men and women who lived interesting, and in most cases, unconventional lives. So of course, when this book came up, I was keen to pick it up.
In Pirate Queens: The Lives of Anne Bonny & Mary Read, author Rebecca Alexandra Simon traces the lives of these two extraordinary women who chose to live differently from others. Surprisingly while Anne Bonny and Mary Read may have found much space in popular culture, information available about them is very limited, and much of it, aside from the transcripts of their trial when their band was arrested, likely fictionalised. So, Simon certainly had a tough job before her. Relying on available accounts as well as additional material on associated places and aspects, she puts together a portrait of their lives. Unconventional childhoods where both were at some point dressed as boys, Anne’s emigration to America with her father and initial experience on a pirate ship with her husband, James Bonny, Mary’s time as a soldier (in the guise of a boy, not as uncommon as one would think), subsequent marriage, widowhood and having to rely on her own devices once again, to both women joining on as crew aboard the ship of Pirate Captain Jack Rackham or Calico Jack, whom Anne married, and where they were no longer in disguise but lived and fought as women, to their arrest and trial just two short months after the start of their careers, are explored in the various chapters of this book. It also goes on to consider their legacy, their treatment and representation in books and other media from their own time where their activities were looked at from a male gaze to more current depictions. Simon also reflects on the question of why the pirate life with all its hardships and attendant dangers would have appealed to these women, what really may have attracted them to it.
Simon, who is a leading expert on pirates, and holds a PhD from King’s College on the public execution of pirates and British supremacy in the Atlantic world, certainly gives us a well written and very readable account of Anne Bonny and Mary Read’s stories. While she brings up conflicting accounts and highlights debatable aspects, she does gives us a smoothly flowing account that reads like a continuous/unbroken story. As mentioned, and as she discusses herself, Simon has worked with limited material, much of it of doubtful authenticity in putting together the lives of these women, supplemented by more solid material on related aspects. Therefore, there must be and indeed is, a fair amount of speculation in the book. And one can’t hold this against her, since she has made the best of what is available. However, one has to also take it as that, a story of the two that we can’t know is really theirs. A couple of things that did bother me, however, were the speculations as to how the two women would have felt about particular things or situations, and more so, the small imagined conversation she weaves into one of the initial chapters which I felt didn’t really belong in an academic text.
I found rather interesting her discussion of the possible attractions of pirate life for women, which Simon approaches in current day terms. On a pirate ship, every one lived on more or less equal terms, exercising a form of democracy (everyone could vote on captains), and for women, whether under the guise of men or as women (as was the case for Anne and Mary), it meant a life lived to the fullest away from the shackles of social convention and morality, earning for themselves where limited or no opportunities were present as women in society, and having complete agency over every part of themselves. For the two, with their unconventional early lives with disinclination on Anne’s part to be tied up by social norms and necessity for Mary, this did become an attractive choice, one in which their femininity became their weapon rather than an impediment.
I quite enjoyed reading this book, even though one can’t help feeling that tinge of disappointment as one will never really know who Anne and Mary were or their actual stories.
p.s. The discussion on the attractions of pirate life also seemed relevant when I thought about Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek which I had chosen to revisit for Ali’s #DDMReadingWeek partly since I had this book waiting to be read. The portrayal of pirates in that book is of course, far more romanticised than the real-life scenario here, especially since there we had a gentleman pirate leading them all. But from Dona St Colomb’s point of view in that book, this was the point that it came down to as well—not just a life of excitement and danger as a pirate, but a chance to life without the endless shackles that society placed on women, which impeded her dreams and wishes at every turn.
Author info from Pen & Sword