Anne Bonny: Feminist Pirate

by Rich Moreland, August 2017

This post reviews a new book by Phillip Thomas Tucker about Anne Bonny, renowned female pirate of the 18th century.

A 2017 Feral House publication (ISBN 978-1-62731-045-1), the text contains 252 pages and is amply illustrated.

Speaking of visuals, sources for the engravings presented here are 18th Century. The statue of Anne Bonny and Mary Read is the work of Erick Christianson.

*          *          *

A faculty colleague once told me the best way to teach history is through biographies because they enliven student interest in a subject that is often dead to them. Phillip Thomas Tucker’s Anne Bonny: The Infamous Female Pirate certainly proves the accuracy of his statement.

Tucker begins with the understanding that polite society in the 18th century marked the fairer sex as inferior. Assertive women were collectively denigrated as “psychopaths, misfits, or prostitutes,” he tells us, especially if they put on a sailor’s mantle and went to sea. Any demonstration of masculinity on a woman’s part was seen as an anathema in a culture that donned its patriarchal robes to stifle female expression.

The story of Anne Bonny boldly confronts these stereotypes, even as they existed among seafarers. The female pirate, and there were a few, challenged the  “male-dominated concepts of honor, faithful service, devotion to comrades, and courage, especially in the face of danger” aboard ship.

On Their Own

Unfortunately, Anne’s time on the tropical Caribbean stage was brief. She flourished in the seafaring outlaw culture for two years before facing her demise which Tucker discusses in great detail. Born of a servant girl, Anne began life in Ireland and died in the Tidewater area of colonial Virginia.

By the time her journey of independence within the only true democratic society of the time (shipboard with the pirate ethos) ended, Ann was accompanied by two characters who capture the reader’s imagination: Anne’s personal love, pirate captain “Calico Jack” Rackham, and her sister pirate, the strong-willed Mary Read.

And what a woman Mary is! With writing that the draws the reader into the story, Tucker relates that Mary, like Ann, “was the product of an illicit love affair.” Despite that seeming drawback, both women made their way in a man’s domain where birthright was meaningless. For her part, Mary signed on a British man-of-war at age thirteen and later fought as a “common soldier” in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Their sisterhood melded into a modern-day feminist tale boldly illustrated when the British navy closed in on Rackham’s ship during its final pirate hours. Anne and Mary defended the vessel as the crew and its captain, drunk from too much partying, languished incapacitated in the hold.

The pair stood side-by-side in the fury of attack.

“With sharp wooden splinters flying through the air and around Anne and Mary . . . on the sloop’s deck where they struggled to maintain their balance . . . the entire mainsail of the William crashed down . . . while tangles of ropes and lines rained down near the women . . .”

Then, as the battle moved in favor of the British, the author mythologizes the female buccaneers . . .

“Anne was now on her own to defend the ship without any male assistance whatsoever, including from her own captain and lover! Only Mary remained beside her at this moment. In the end , the two young women were on their own without their captain, in the greatest crisis ever faced by the Rackham crew.”

Tucker’s readable style and effective pace solves a persistent problem that faces all historians when they pick up the pen: how to present academic research that can come across as stilted and dry in a way that stimulates page turning. In other words, the trick of blending a scholarly work with popular history is never easy, but Tucker’s writing pulls it off.

Pirate Culture

Following Anne Bonny from her European birth to her escape from a domineering father who had moved the family to South Carolina, Phillip Thomas Tucker also finds space to paint an informative picture of pirate culture in its “Golden Age.” Captains Henry Morgan, William Kidd, and Edward Teach (Blackbeard) are brought into the story with Blackbeard’s beheading integral to the reader’s understanding of an outlaw’s fate.

As one would expect, death danced around in buccaneer waters, often manipulated by the pirates themselves to bring desired results. The author introduces us to the importance of the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger. Raised only when the pirates came upon a “prize” they had overtaken sometimes not far from shore, the flag was the best way to “intimidate a captain and civilian crew into handing over the ship without a fight in order to preserve pirate lives and precious reserves of gunpowder.”

On Jack Rackham’s vessel, his version deviated from the traditional skull and crossbones. “Calico Jack” preferred “a white skull with two crossed swords underneath on a black field.”

We learn his reasoning: create panic and persuade his prey to capitulate in short order . . . hopefully without a fight.

Later when his pirate time ended abruptly, Rackham’s executed carcass was covered in tar and suspended in a gibbet cage for public display at Jamaica’s Plumb Point “well within sight of Kingston and Port Royal and its main shipping lanes . . . as a chilling warning” that piracy has dire consequences. Over the years, wind and rain prevailed and we’re told that “Calico Jack’s” bleached bones fell harmless through the metal framework into the sand . . . a grave forever lost.

William Kidd in the gibbet cage

End of the “Golden Age

The story of Anne Bonny is that of youthful indiscretions. She chases the rogue and the rascal (one who married her and one who didn’t bother) in defiance of proper society and a culture that minimizes women.

The government was destined to win in the end, of course, but Anne’s narrative is about gender role confrontation and an expansion of same in a historical period when feminist ideas were largely unheard of but ripe for condemnation should they appear. As a pirate, she dressed like a man and fought with the best, though the Irish lass never actually killed or maimed anyone.

Today we interpret Anne Bonny’s image with a romantic, swashbuckling flavor as presented in media versions of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The truth is more jolting. She was a late comer, around when the “Golden Age of Piracy” (the late 1600s through the 1720s) lay enfeebled on its deathbed. In fact, perhaps Anne is no more than a historical afterthought because at twenty-two she disappeared as quickly as she made the scene.

Her legend is remarkable that it has survived, considering the pirate purge that roiled the waters on which she sailed and loved “Calico Jack.” As royal pursuit picked off more victims, pirates were quickly tried and executed by the hundreds to clean up the Caribbean infestation.

The details are grisly and the author is no fan of colonial governments and their duplicity. Early on the profits from pirating went to the elites, “the already rich and powerful,” who once supported the privateers against the Spanish. But the atmosphere shifted just as Anne was beginning her career. Colonial wealth came from other sources (slavery) rendering the “moral, upright” colonial governor as a “sham,” Tucker declares. In the end, these profiteers, who ducked under the cover of governmental legitimacy, turned against the pirates.

In the main, or metaphorically “on the main,” buccaneer culture was, as mentioned above, an authentic democracy which the author explores at various times in telling Anne’s story. Crews elected their captains and split the loot equally . . . and this included women like Ann and Mary. Of course, they did dress as men (thankfully clothing was light and voluminous so a woman’s figure was easily concealed) which served to make on-deck duties easier to perform.

Perhaps the only difference between seafaring men and women is what factored into Anne and Mary’s post-capture fate: both were ”quick with child'” and from there the story gets more interesting.

An Intriguing Tale

To its credit, Anne Bonny avoids the drudgery of an academic tome, but Phillip Thomas Tucker does repeat his major points to excess as if each time he tells us is our first exposure to them. However, that shortcoming can serve as a review for the reader and is not something I found terribly irritating.

From my perspective in the classroom, I know how important reinforcing information is.

On the other hand, Tucker reaches conclusions throughout the text that are conjecture. However, in light of the paucity of information concerning Anne’s psychological make-up and how she may have reacted to situations she encountered, that is a minimal criticism. She did, after all, leave no written records of her own.

On the whole, the author spins an intriguing tale and proves my colleague’s belief that “the story of the person” is the best way to teach the past. In Anne Bonny’s case, her message is about society’s contempt for women and the few alternatives available to them three centuries ago. As we’ve seen, one of those choices was the pirate culture and its leveling of social mores and individual status that is unique to history.

One final observation: Tucker comments briefly on the historical views of Anne Bonny, among them the late 20th century’s “prevailing feminist and political agendas” that turned Anne from “the ‘bad’ lesbian of the 18th century into the ‘good’ lesbian of the 1970s.” A fascinating thought, though there seems to be no evidence to validate the term in referencing her.

Nevertheless, does this give Anne Bonny a feminist label?

To a certain historical extent it does, but it’s one that we can modernize. Today, feminism is far more than a same-sex playground that unfairly pigeon-holed assertive  women four decades ago. Anne’s independence and “hold your own” attitude deserves praise as a model for all young women today. That is truly feminist and something, I believe, this “infamous female pirate” would have relished.

*          *          *

Jack Rackham . . .

and Blackbeard . . .

in piracy’s Golden Age.

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