Anne Bonny and Mary Read: Female Pirates and Maritime Women (Page Two)

The Sailor's Return, 1744

The Sailor’s Return, 1744

Note to the Readers: This is a two-page article.  This is page two of two, featuring the third and fourth sections of the article.  For sections one and two, which cover Anne Bonny and Mary Read, see PAGE ONE (Click Here).

Other Women Pirates and Female Interactions with Pirates

For the period of 1680 to 1740, Anne Bonny and Mary Read are almost the only examples of women who went onboard pirate ships and actively participated in piracy.  The exception to the famous pair is a woman named Mary Critchett.  In May of 1729, a group of six convicts, transported from England and sold in Virginia, ran away from their masters and banded together to steal a vessel.  The crew managed to hijack a sloop, the John and Elizabeth, in the middle of the night of May 12, without any weapons.  The group sailed the vessel out of the Piankatank River and into the Chesapeake Bay for several days, and eventually let the master of the sloop and his servant leave in a flat boat.  There are no details of when or who caught the five men and Critchett.  Since their trial showed the convicts had limited maritime skills, and the charges in court all concerned the John and Elizabeth, it appears someone caught them in the Chesapeake Bay before they could go to sea and attack other vessels.  During this briefest of pirate careers, Critchett’s most significant actions as a pirate included sitting on a hatch to prevent their two prisoners from escaping and arguing against allowing the prisoners to leave since they would tell the authorities.  The court found her guilty of piracy along with the rest of the crew.  There are currently no known documents showing authorities carried out this execution.  While Critchett’s piracy consisted of two minor acts on her part, and lasted a shorter amount of time than the already brief careers of Bonny and Read, it is the only other example of a woman pirate for this period.[1] Continue reading

Anne Bonny and Mary Read: Female Pirates and Maritime Women

Four Images of Anne Bonny. From left to right, Anne in the original first edition of Charles Johnson’s “General History of…Pyrates”, then an image from the 1725 Dutch edition of the same book, followed by Anne Providence (actress Jean Peters) in the film “Anne of the Indies” (1951), followed by Anne Bonny (actress Clara Paget) on the television show “Black Sails” (2014-?)

Note to the Readers: This is a two-page article.  This is page one of two, featuring the first two sections of the article.  For sections three and four, which covers other female pirates beyond Anne Bonny and Read, and the topic of women in the maritime world, see PAGE TWO (Click Here).

In 1720, the pirate John Rackham rallied together a group of twelve men and two pregnant women, named Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and stole a small sloop in Nassau.  This fledgling cruise took several fishing vessels and a handful of merchant sloops over the course of two months before their capture and trial in Jamaica.  The court condemned and hanged the male members of the crew.  They also found the two women guilty of piracy, but the revelation of their pregnancies resulted in the postponement of their executions, at which point both women disappear from the historical record.

According to period evidence, the paragraph above presents an accurate and concise description of the brief careers of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.  Most other accounts of these two, be they fiction or non-fiction, tend to include romantic and sensational stories in their histories of these female pirates.  When addressing the issue of women and pirates during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, most discussions center on the history of Bonny and Read.  Many participants at modern pirate festivals and “Renaissance Faires” use these two women to justify wearing bust boosting corsets and thrilling headgear.  Since many people enamored themselves in the romantic mythos of Bonny and Read for three centuries, the broader topic of women and pirates also suffered from the mixing of fact and fiction.

In recent years, primarily after the year 2000, a small number of historians and researchers began to reject the typical romantic and sensational narratives about Bonny, Read, and general female involvement with pirates.  Through new dissections of the evidence, the more recent generation of scholars revealed that the work of past historians featured glaring errors and flawed conclusions.  For Anne Bonny and Mary Read, this new scholarship helped strip back the fiction and unverified facts in their histories and helped bring more consideration to the complex relationships between women and pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy.  While the following concentrates on reestablishing the historical foundation for the history of Bonny and Read, it will also address the other pirate women during this period, the manner in which females interacted with pirates, and establish context for the roles of women in the maritime world.

The Bare Bones of Anne Bonny and Mary Read’s History  

The historical record, already a sparse collection of documents for this short-lived pirate crew, features one questionable, though possibly accurate, account for the origins of Anne Bonny up to August of 1720.[1]  The account in question is a section of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, written by an author using the pseudonym Charles Johnson, published between 1724 and 1728. In the second volume, Johnson wrote an appendix for the content of his work’s first volume, claiming he received new information from “Relations,” since the printing of his first volume.[2]  Based on specific details included in this text, some historians concluded that Woodes Rogers, the governor of the Bahamas from 1718 to 1721, provided information for this brief account, though the few known documents about these pirates verifies little of this particular text.[3]

Johnson stated that before May 1719, Anne wanted to travel to the Bahamas from the Carolinas.  The, “very young,” unmarried female could not gain passage on any outbound vessels, because a lone single woman rarely went onboard an eighteenth-century ship without a guardian or an escort.[4]  Anne enlisted the help of an Anne Fulworth to act as her mother, and thus supplied the young woman the guardian needed to gain her passage to the Bahamas.  In Nassau, a young Anne, whose maiden name is possibly Fulford, kept in contact with her faux mother and married a pirate named James Bonny.  This, “young Fellow,” received the Kings pardon offered to pirates sometime in 1718, resulting in James adopting of a quieter and more sober lifestyle than he had as a pirate.  This change presumably led Anne Bonny to lose interest in James and to pursue her, “Libertine,” desires elsewhere with other men.  Considering her circumstances, it would not be surprising if Anne engaged in prostitution while she resided in Nassau.  James eventually stumbled upon Anne sleeping with another man.  Even though James found her being unfaithful to him, he did not legally divorce Anne.[5]

Not long after James’ discovery of her adulterous actions, Anne met another former pirate, John Rackham.  Like James, John also took a pardon for his pirate crimes, once in early 1718 and again in May of 1719 through a direct appeal to Governor Rogers.  John plied the plunder he gained from his previous pirate cruises on Anne.  John soon expended all his money, forcing him to join a privateering expedition against the Spanish, Britain having joined the War of the Quadruple Alliance officially in December of 1718.  His profits from this venture renewed his funds and allowed him to resume his visits with Anne.  Anne and John wanted to pay James to divorce Anne so she could live with John.  The couple tried to arrange a witness, Richard Turnley, a local pilot and turtler, for the signing of legal papers for this divorce.  Turnley refused and allegedly went and told Governor Rogers of this affair.[6]

The Governor could not allow Anne Bonny’s infidelity to continue in his colony.  Rogers summoned Anne Bonny and Anne Fulworth to appear before him.  Both women confessed to Anne Bonny’s debaucheries in Nassau.  Rogers presumably held the same concerns other colonial leaders had about the marital activities of West Indian colonists.  At that time, British subjects in Caribbean colonies held reputations for regularly having children outside of sanctioned marriages, for engaging in polygamy, and for women becoming more promiscuous after extended exposure to the Caribbean’s tropical climate.[7]  After hearing these confessions, Rogers demanded she stop engaging in her depravities or he would throw both women in jail and force John Rackham to whip them in a public punishment.  Sometime in August, Anne Bonny and Rackham conceived a child.  Considering the potential consequences both of them faced if they stayed in Nassau, the piratical tendencies of Rackham, and the desires of both Bonny and Rackham to stay together, the couple decided to leave the Bahamas and to become pirates.[8]

The shared voyage of John Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read began on August 22, 1720 with the theft of John Ham’s sloop, the William, out of Nassau’s harbor.  Governor Rogers’ proclamation against these pirates on September 5 described the William as a small sloop of about 12 tons, probably her registered tonnage, and carrying four carriage guns and two swivel guns.[9]  A sloop of this size, with a measured tonnage of around 18 tons, would probably have a main deck length of between 35 and 40 feet, a beam width between 9.5 and 10 feet, and a draught of between 4 and 5 feet.  Two of her carriage guns of a small caliber would have sat in the vessel’s quarterdeck area.  The other two would have sat near the bow to allow for a better trim while sailing.  The William also had oars for rowing.[10]  In the appendix account, Johnson said the sloop was between 30 and 40 tons and described it as, “one of the swiftest Sailers that ever was built of that Kind.”[11]  He then goes on to name the owner as John Haman, instead of Ham, and briefly describes Ham’s life in the Bahamas and his frequent successful raids on the Spanish off the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola.[12]  Considering the small size of Rackham’s gang and the regular use of smaller vessels by Bahama residents at the time, the proclamation’s description appears more likely than the larger version mentioned in Johnson’s account.

Cannon C-19 from the QAR Project, as seen in the N.C. Maritime Museum at Beaufort exhibit for the QAR. C-19 is a Swedish gun from 1713, made of cast iron, fired a 1-pound 1.81-inch diameter solid shot, and measured 4 feet in length. Her size is similar to those that would have appeared on the sloop William.

Rackham gathered a small crew of twelve men, Anne Bonny, and another woman named Mary Read to take the William.  Johnson’s appendix account described the taking of the sloop as a thoroughly planned operation, involving Bonny visiting the William and asking various questions about the activities of John Ham and his crew.  They quietly boarded the sloop at midnight, when it was dark and rainy, surprised the two crewmembers onboard, and bluffed their way past the harbor’s guard ship and fort with an excuse concerning a broken anchor cable.[13]  Neither Johnson’s appendix nor any other period accounts suggest when, where, or why Rackham and Bonny met Mary Read or any of the other pirates they recruited for this venture, only that they united at and sailed from Nassau.

For the next two weeks, Rackham and his crew attacked several vessels in the Bahamas.  Rogers’ proclamation said the pirates first sailed for the southern side of New Providence Island once they left Nassau and robbed a James Gohier in his boat.  Immediately after the taking of the William, the Governor sent a sloop with 45 men to pursue the pirates.[14] Johnson does not mention Gohier or the pursuit vessel, but claims Rackham and Bonny went to revenge themselves on Richard Turley for telling the Governor about Bonny’s desire to leave her husband.  They supposedly sailed to an island where Turnley regularly caught turtles, but Turnley and his son were ashore salting a hog they recently killed.  The two managed to hide themselves in the woods when Rackham’s gang arrived.   The pirates failed to find Turnley and instead robbed and sunk his sloop.  They also took Richard Conner (or Corner), John Davis, and John Howell, who Johnson claimed to be three of Turley’s four crewmen on the sloop, to be part of Rackham’s gang.  This part of Johnson’s account conflicts with the reports from the Boston Gazette and the trial account, which stated these three men started with Rackham at the initial formation of the pirate crew.[15]  Both Johnson and the proclamation agree that the crew then proceeded to the Berry Islands and took a sloop sailing from South Carolina to New Providence.[16]  On September 2, Rogers deployed another sloop of 12 guns and 54 men under Dr. Rowan along with Captain Roach from Barbadoes.[17]  Before leaving the Bahamas, on September 3, the pirates captured seven fishing boats two leagues from Harbour Island.  They robbed the fishermen of their catch and their fishing tackle, valued at £10 in Jamaica money.[18]  Two days later, Rogers issued his proclamation, which declared John Rackham and crew as pirates and stated that they, “Swear Destruction to all those who belong to the Island [of New Providence].”[19]  After leaving Harbour Island, for nearly four weeks, Rackham and his gang sailed the small William south against the winds and currents that carried vessels north through the Windward Passage to the Bahamas.[20]

Sometime in late September, the William arrived on the French coast of western Hispaniola.  On October 1, the pirates encountered and captured two British merchant sloops.  One of these sloops’ crews included a mariner from Philadelphia named James Dobbin. [21]  At some point between this event and October 19, the pirates either forced or recruited James Dobbin to join their crew.[22]  During their cruise off Hispaniola, the pirates discovered two Frenchmen, Peter Cornelian and John Besneck, hunting wild hogs.  Rackham forced the two men to sail with the pirates.[23]  Beyond the taking of these two Frenchmen and the October 1 attacks, there is no further information on whether the pirates encountered or attacked any other vessels between September 3 and October 19.  Between their departure from the Bahamas and their arrival off Jamaica, Rackham’s crew lost five men, since they started with twelve and ended up with only seven of the original pirates by October 19.  It is unknown if battle, disease, desertion, or other causes led to the loss of these men.[24]  It may be why the pirates added Dobbin to their crew and forced the two Frenchmen onto their sloop.  There are also no mentions of what Bonny and Read did during this period.  There is no evidence of either of them possessing maritime skills.  One possibility is that they did what other women on ships did in the Age of Sail, repairing garments and laundry.[25]  After cruising south and west along Hispaniola, Rackham and his crew decided to sail for Jamaica’s northern coast.

On the coast of Jamaica, the pirates took two vessels, their most well documented prizes during their brief cruise.  On October 19, Rackham, Bonny, Read, the eight other English pirates, and the two forced Frenchmen made their first encounter five leagues from Porto Maria Bay.  The pirates fired their muskets and pistols at a small British schooner, called the Neptune, commanded by Thomas Spenlow of Port Royal.  The small arms fire convinced Spenlow to surrender his vessel.  The pirates took fifty rolls of tobacco, nine bags of allspice, and other items from the Neptune.  Rackham then forced Spenlow and his schooner to follow the pirates.[26]  The next day, Rackham’s gang sailed west along the coast and encountered the sloop Mary and Sarah one league from Dry Harbour Bay.  When the Mary and Sarah’s master, Thomas Dillon, saw the unfamiliar sloop come into the bay and fire a gun at his vessel, he led his crew ashore to better defend themselves.  The pirates continued to fire at Dillon and his men.  Dillon then hailed the pirates.  George Featherstone, the pirate sloop’s master, declared that, “they were English Pirates, and that they need not be afraid,” and that they wanted Dillon to come aboard the pirate sloop.[27]  Dillon and his men agreed to submit to the pirates, who decided to take the Mary and Sarah, valued at £300 in Jamaica money.[28]  Sometime on or between October 19 and October 22, the pirates also encountered the canoe of Dorothy Thomas, which they robbed and released, even though Bonny and Read demanded they kill Thomas since she could testify against the pirates in court.[29]  The pirates, possessing only a small crew, soon realized they could not manage the William and two prize vessels at the same time.  They allowed Spenlow and his crew to leave in the schooner Neptune on October 21; about 48 hours after the pirates originally captured them.[30]

During their engagements on the coast of Jamaica, witnesses took notice of Bonny and Read.  In times of combat, both women prepared for the conditions of battle by wearing sailors’ clothing.  They donned jackets, trousers, and handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads.  Outside of combat, the two wore women’s attire.  Even though they wore maritime clothes in combat, their sailor’s jackets did not hide their sex from onlookers who could still recognized them as women, especially by, “the largeness of their Breasts.”[31]  While Bonny and Read did wield pistols and machetes during at least some of these encounters, no witnesses ever mentioned their participation in discharging the ship’s guns, firing small arms, or engaging in close combat.  Bonny reportedly brought gunpowder to her fellow pirates during engagements, probably referring to charges of powder for the ship’s guns.  Other women at sea also fulfilled this role, a position often referred to as powder monkeys, during the Age of Sail.[32]  At no point did the two women act like captives, but instead swore and cursed like their fellow male pirates, acted upon their own free will, and consented to being pirates.[33]

The pirate career of Rackham, Bonny, and Read ended on the night of October 22.  That day, about one league off Negril Point, the westernmost point of Jamaica, Rackham’s crew and the William discovered a periauger, a type of boat, and nine mariners from Port Royal who supposedly purchased the boat to go turtling.  The nine men anchored their periauger and landed ashore right before the pirate sloop arrived, which flew a white pennant, and potentially fired a gun to gain the turtlers’ attention.  The men armed themselves and hid in the bushes nearby.  Eventually, one of the Port Royal mariners hailed the sloop.  The pirates responded by saying, “They were Englishmen, and desired them all to come on Board, and drink a Bowl of Punch.”[34]  Rackham then sent over a canoe to bring the nine men over to the William.  After some persuasion, the mariners agreed to come onboard the pirate sloop, still carrying their firearms and cutlasses.  Onboard, the nine men and the pirates drank together.  Soon after the drinking bout between the Port Royal men and the pirates began, another sloop came into sight, the vessel that ended the pirate careers of everyone onboard the William.[35]

The sloop approaching the pirates belonged to Captain Jonathan Barnet.  On that day, Barnet and another sloop commanded by a Captain Bonnevie happened to be sailing on their trading voyage to the South-Keys of Cuba.  Bonnevie’s sloop, sailing ahead of Barnet’s vessel, sighted the William near the shore and thought he saw the sloop fire a gun.  He waited for Barnet to come up so he could tell him of this discovery.[36]  Five years before to this event, Barnet received a six-month commission to hunt for pirates and to fish the Spanish Treasure Fleet wrecks off the Florida coast.  It is unclear if Barnet ever renewed his privateer commission after May of 1716.  Regardless, Barnet, being a, “brisk fellow,” according to Jamaica Governor Nicholas Lawes, and carrying a large crew onboard his sloop, decided to investigate what he deemed a suspicious vessel in the fading light of the evening.[37]

When the pirates saw Barnet’s sloop approach, they ran from the vessel that could pose a potential threat to the William.  Rackham ordered the crew to weigh anchor and tried to get the Port Royal men to help.  Though they refused at first, Rackham soon coerced them to assist in weigh anchor through violence, or at least through violent threats.  Later, witnesses also noted some of these mariners helped the pirates row the sloop in their efforts to escape.  Some of the pirates and other mariners stayed on deck during the chase while others stayed below and continued drinking.  Barnet fired a shot at the sloop from a distance and raised British colors, but the pirates continued to run.  At 10 o’clock that night, Barnet sailed close enough to hail the pirates.  Barnet heard the pirates respond, “John Rackam, from Cuba.”  Barnet demanded Rackham strike to British colors, which received the response of, “they would strike no Strikes.”[38] After this refusal, one or several people onboard the William fired a swivel gun, a carriage gun, small arms, or some combination of the three at Barnet’s sloop.  Barnet responded in kind with a full broadside and volley of small arms fire, which caused all the Port Royal men on the pirate sloop to flee below decks.  The gunfire carried away the boom on the William’s main mast, making any further attempts at escape impossible and caused some of the people onboard the pirate sloop to call for quarter.  Barnet’s sloop sailed alongside to capture the pirates on the William.  After securing everyone on the pirate sloop and their former prize vessel, the Mary and Sarah,[39] Barnet sailed to Davis’s Cove, where he landed twenty-six men and two women.  He turned the pirates and the former prisoners of the pirates over to militia officer Major Richard James and a guard detail he recruited to escort the pirates to imprisonment and trial in Spanish Town.[40]

Over the course of three trials held between November 16, 1720 and January 24, 1721, the court found most of the men involved with Rackham’s pirate activities guilty and hanged them in public executions.  Only the two Frenchmen, John Besneck and Peter Cornelian, who testified against the pirates, escaped any charges of piracy.  Sir Nicholas Lawes’s Court of Admiralty used loose evidence to convict the pirates and the Port Royal mariners who happened to be onboard that day.  The court considered the presence of the pirates and Port Royal men onboard a pirate vessel as enough evidence to convict defendants of being a willing participants in piracy.[41]  This resulted in the court ignoring the pleas of innocence from both Rackham’s pirate crew and the nine Port Royal mariners.  On November 18, Jamaican authorities hanged John Rackham, George Featherstone, Richard Corner, John Davies, and John Howell at Gallows Point in Port Royal.  They took the bodies of Rackham, Featherstone, and Corner and gibbeted them in chains at Plumb Point, Bush Key, and Gun Key as warnings to pirates and others thinking of becoming pirates.  On November 19, authorities hanged Noah Harwood, James Dobbin, Patrick Carty, and Thomas Earl in Kingston, Jamaica.  The court executed some of the Port Royal mariners on February 17 and 18, 1721.[42]

While the court found Anne Bonny and Mary Read guilty of piracy on November 28, both of them avoided immediate execution since their pregnancies, both in their second trimesters, allowed them to “plead their bellies,” since the court could not hang the innocent unborn.[43]  The court never hanged either of the women pirates.  A record of burials in St. Catherine, Jamaica, notes the death and burial of a Mary Read on April 28, 1721.  It is highly probable that this Read is the female pirate of the same name.  The date of the death came close to the time when Read’s child was due to be born.  It is possible that she died of complications from childbirth.[44]  No documents shows if Anne Bonny died in prison or if authorities released her.  The historical record only shows a lack of documents demonstrating that Governor Lawes carried out Bonny’s execution.

The Fictions and Mythology of Anne Bonny and Mary Read

John Rackham image from a 1725 publication which reprinted, with a few alterations, Charles Johnson’s “General History of the Most Notorious Pyrates.”

Thanks to the work of writers and some historians, fiction and unfounded information marred the history of these two famous female pirates for the three centuries after their trial.  Thanks to the mythos surrounding the two women, some readers of the previous section may have concerns about what they perceive to be missing parts of Bonny and Read’s history.  While Johnson appears to have had access to some of the period accounts of these pirates, he also mixed in a significant share of fiction to make his publication more appealing to early eighteenth-century audiences.  If Johnson had not added full life biographies of Bonny and Read, something he did for no other pirate in his two-volume work, he would have had no choice but to offer a chapter of only a few pages to his readers for these women pirates.  Since other writers and historians did not make significant challenges to the accuracy of Johnson’s account well into the twentieth century, the line between fiction and the historical record blurred until recent years.

While few people are familiar with the trial and newspaper accounts, many more remember the colorful stories that do not appear in the historical record.  Common aspects of this mythos include:

  • The two women dressed in men’s clothes to hide their sex.
  • Both discovered each other’s female identities after they met at sea.
  • There was almost an intimate romantic interaction between the two women because of mistaken identities.
  • Mary Read found a new lover from the ranks of the pirate crew, who she fought a duel to protect.
  • Well before their final cruise began, Rackham took Bonny to an unnamed hideout in Cuba where Anne gave birth to a child.
  • Bonny and Read were courageous and skilled fighters.
  • In the last battle with Captain Barnet, only the two women stayed on deck and offered to fight in close combat when Barnet’s crew boarded their sloop.
  • The women reprimanded and ridiculed their fellow male pirate crewmembers, including Rackham, for cowardice during their voyage and after their capture.

None of these things appear in the historical record regarding Bonny and Read.  Of particular note, the historical record demonstrates that Bonny and Read operated together from the beginning of their careers and that their identity as females was a secret to practically no one.  These pieces of the Bonny and Read mythos all originated in the pages of Johnson’s first volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, specifically the sections of chapter seven that covered the lives of Bonny and Read.

Chapter seven of the General History begins as a history of John Rackham, also known as Calico Jack according to Johnson’s appendix account.  The nickname, from Rackham’s alleged habit of wearing jackets and drawers made of calico material, is also another potential invention of Johnson.[45]  In the portion of the chapter describing his final cruise, there are no mentions of the two female pirates until the last paragraph.  There is a mention of Rackham had a family in Cuba, which is likely a reference to Johnson’s claim that Anne bore Rackham a son before setting out on his final voyage.[46]  Most of Johnson’s details in the Rackham part of the chapter mirror those published trial account .  He also comments on the court’s decisions and use of evidence.[47]  If Johnson did not have a copy of Rackham’s trial account while writing this section, he must have communicated with someone who did own a copy, or he interviewed someone who saw the trial in person.  After Rackham’s history,  the chapter features sections describing the histories of the two women pirates.[48]  None of the content in these histories, at least not content already adopted by Johnson in his Rackham section, have a known basis in the historical record.

The portrayal of Bonny and Read by Johnson falls in line with the literary traditions of the early eighteenth century and presents a significant amount of insight into some of the era’s perceptions of sex and gender.  This story of two disguised female pirates intersects well with the period’s literary traditions of tales concerning warrior women, biographies of female criminals, and long stories about cross-dressing ladies.  Johnson’s account repeatedly used the bodies of these women, particular their breasts, in a significant and symbolic manner for his narrative.  Female breasts held a strong position as symbols of womanhood, domesticity, and maternity during the eighteenth century.  The fictional versions of these women used attire to disguise and challenge the standard boundaries of their gender adhered to during that period.  However, these boundaries return immediately when the two women revealed their sex through their bodies.  Johnson uses their bodies to both excite the audience and to prevent them from completely overcoming their traditional role in society.[49]  As Sally O’Driscoll, one of several scholars of literature and sexuality in the early eighteenth century, stated, “female pirates, as convicted criminals, have bodies that are available to be publicly interrogated and eroticized; readers cannot fail to be concerned with their bodies and what they might signify.”[50]  Johnson took two real female pirates and used them as an opportunity to create a story that delved into a growing literary tradition of the era, and played upon women’s position in society.

While Johnson is responsible for originating many of the stories about the two female pirates through his tantalizing fiction, a few other pieces of the mythos did not arise until more recently.  When popular publications about piracy display the flags pirates supposedly used, they often depict a flag with a skull and crossed swords as belonging to John Rackham, which would mean Bonny and Read sailed under this flag as well.  No documentation for this flag has yet surfaced, with the earliest known publication to depict it being a 1978 publication on pirates from the Time-Life book series Seafarers.[51]  A popular quote attributed to Rackham, concerning the way he courted women, states that his, “methods of courting a woman or taking a ship were similar – no time wasted, straight up alongside, every gun brought to play and the prize boarded.” The quote appears to be an invention of historian Philip Gosse, printed in one of his publications from 1934.[52]  While Johnson’s work might have presented imagery that could excite ideas of a lesbian relationship, he never came close to showing or stating that Bonny and Read actually engaged in same sex relations.  In an unauthorized reprinting of Johnson’s work from 1725, the publisher added a poorly written and vague passage where Read testified she had entered into piracy because she was a “lover” of Anne when they first meet and allegedly thought Anne was still a man.[53]  The first known publication to directly claim the two engaged in a lesbian relationship appeared to come from an article entitled, “Anne Bonny & Mary Read: They Killed Pricks,” published in 1974 and written by feminist Susan Baker.[54]  Jo Stanley claimed in 1995 that the court in Jamaica used the insinuation of lesbianism to worsen the two’s reputations and improve the likeliness of a conviction at their trial.[55]  While historians, feminists, and writers all made various claims, accusations, and conjectures about the type of relationship Bonny and Read had, the historical record does not support anything regarding these two pirates and lesbianism.

Of all the contributions made by the twentieth century to the mythos behind this pair of women, one claim invented by a 1960s fiction writer stands out since several late twentieth-century historians caused a fictional passage from this author to become an assumed fact.  In 1964, John Carlova wrote a fictional account of Bonny and Read, entitled, Mistress of the Seas.  Carlova claimed in his book’s introduction that he conducted thorough research into pirate history and listed a dozen different important sounding archives and libraries to bolster his claim.  Besides inspiring several other works of fiction, some historians took Carlova’s claim of authenticity at face value, including Linda Grant De Pauw, who published Seafaring Women in 1982, and the writers of the publication Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger in 1997.[56]  One of Carlova’s creations from the 1960s included the invention of names for Anne Bonny’s Irish parents, William Cormac and Peg Brennan, and the establishment of a birth date, March 8, 1700.[57]  Linda Grant De Pauw is one of the historians who included the names of the parents for Anne, along with other outright fictional accounts of women at sea, as fact.[58]

In 2000, Tamara Eastman and Constance Bond produced a small publication that stated Anne Bonny’s parents were William Cormac and Mary Brennan from Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, and that she was born in the year of 1698.[59]  There are no references to documents in this section regarding where Eastman, the main researcher into Anne’s origins for the publication, found the reference to William Cormac.  There is only a reference to one record of a twenty-year-old woman named Mary Brennan from Kinsale charged with theft and threatening her employers.  The courts sentenced her to transportation to the American colonies with her unnamed young daughter.  Eastman admits that there is no evidence to link this Mary Brennan with William Cormac or that her daughter was a young Anne Bonny.[60]  It is also noteworthy that the bibliographies for this book include the previously mentioned works that used Carlova’s Mistress of the Seas for facts.[61]  Considering the evidence Eastman presented and the flawed secondary sources she used, it appears that when she found the transportation document, she likely assumed the claims in the secondary sources she read were correct, but had minor mistakes regarding Anne’s birth.  She then adjusted the mother’s name, place of birth, and Bonny’s birth date to fit the transport document’s data.

Carlova also became the first nonfiction publication to suggest that Anne Bonny made it away from Jamaica, remarried, and settled with a gentleman in Virginia.  In Mistress of the Seas, Governor Lawes released Bonny because a Dr. Michael Radcliffe convinced the governor to release her on the promise that they would both leave the West Indies together and that Anne would cease her evil ways of living.[62]  In Eastman’s work, “some documents and personal papers belonging to William Cormac and his descendants,” supposedly show that Anne married a Virginia gentleman in December of 1721.[63]  The descendants of William Cormac have yet to release these sources, or transcripts of them, to the public.

Historian David Cordingly also encountered this concept of Anne Bonny being a Cormac and included it in his own work.  In the 2001 book he wrote concerning maritime women, later retitled to Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives, Cordingly states that William Cormac, Anne’s father, managed to obtain her release. After her returned to Charleston, she married a Joseph Burleigh.  The two eventually established a family with eight children.  They also managed to locate and bring back a boy Bonny had with Rackham in Cuba, who they named John.  This Anne died in 1782 at the age of 84.[64]  Cordingly references the, “Family papers in the collection of descendants,” as his source.[65]  Eastman also mention that William Cormac secured the release of Anne Bonny in her 2000 publication.[66]  In 2004, when Cordingly wrote the entry for Anne Bonny in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he included the birth information that is also in Eastman’s work.  He also used the previously mentioned story about Anne leaving Jamaica and marrying Burleigh in Charleston for this dictionary entry.[67]

Untwisting the complex web of logic and sources regarding Anne Bonny’s life before and after her pirate career is difficult, but it is clear that the foundation for these claims are built mostly upon fictional information.  In all these publications concerning the origins and conclusion of Bonny’s life, there are no substantial pieces of evidence to support them.  Most of the evidence comes from a series of assumptions and conjectures.  A Burleigh family probably did live in Virginia and one of them probably married an Anne Bonny or an Anne Cormac.  However, there is still no period evidence showing a William Cormac or a woman named Brennan gave birth to Anne Bonny, no evidence that Bonny ever left Jamaica after her trial, and no evidence that anyone in the Carolinas or Virginia married a woman who was also a former pirate.  Eastman admitted in her 2000 publication, “it has not been proven, yet, that the woman in these documents [the papers of Cormac’s descendants] is the same as the woman from pirate fame,” and that Eastman was still conducting research to find more evidence to verify the Cormac family claims.[68]  Sixteen years have passed since the publication of her book.  In that time, Eastman did not find the additional documents needed to verify the claims concerning Bonny’s birth or her life after piracy.[69]  Until someone unveils primary sources that support these assertions, and make them available to the public for scrutiny, there is no reason to assume they are fact.

The Next Two Sections, Regarding Other Female Pirates and Women in the Maritime World, Are Continued on PAGE TWO (Click Here)


[1] One document, discovered by historian E. T. Fox, contains a few details resembling the origins of Mary Read mentioned in the first volume of Johnson’s General History of the Most Notorious Pirates. The coincidences of this one document are nowhere near enough to confirm the accuracy of Johnson’s account or that this Mary Read of Bristol was the pirate of the same name, as Fox admits openly in his editorial notes to the document. E. T. Fox, Pirates in Their Own Words: Eye-Witness Accounts of the “Golden Age” of Piracy, 1690-1728 (Fox Historical, 2014), 359-360.

[2] A General History of the Pyrates, ed. Manuel Schonhorn (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972), 615 (abbreviated as GHP in all future footnotes).

[3] Manuel Schonhorn mentions that Rogers may have provided these details after his return to England in 1721 in his notes to edition of GHP Schonhorn edited and published in 1972.  David Cordingly expands on this point, mentioning that the publication of GHP helped Rogers recover his reputation in the mid-1720s.  Pirate historian E. T. Fox has also made this observation regarding Johnson’s appendix.  Nathaniel Mist published the first four editions of the first volume of GHP from 1724-1726.  The second volume appeared in 1728. It is plausible that the information published in the appendix account came from Rogers between 1726 and 1728.  Since Johnson’s work spoke so well of Rogers, Rogers may have willingly supplied Johnson information while attempting to gather new stories for his second volume.  Considering the manner in which Johnson wrote and his tendency to add in fictional details to improve the narrative of his text, it is possible that Johnson made additions to Rogers’ account.  While portions of Johnson’s appendix account are plausible, until more period accounts surface to corroborate it, there is no way to decisively verify or discount this account’s accuracy. GHP, 695; David Cordingly, Spanish Gold: Captain Woodes Rogers & The Pirates of the Caribbean (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 204-205, 250-252. E. T. Fox, e-mail message to author, April 15, 2016.

[4] John C. Appleby, Women and English Piracy, 1540-1720, Partners and Victims of Crime (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013), 192, 194.

[5] GHP, 623-624.  Based on the series of events mentioned in Johnson’s account, Anne Bonny arrived in the Bahamas sometime in 1717 or 1718.  In regards to Anne Bonny’s maiden name, the proclamation made by Woodes Rogers concerning the Rackham’s crew says, “Ann Fulford alias Bonny.”  It is possible that Fulford is Anne’s maiden name.  One other possibility is, working with an assumption that the GHP appendix account is accurate and came from Rogers, Anne Bonny possibly took Fulworth’s surname when Anne Bonny tried to pass Fulworth as her mother and someone made mistakes with these names afterwards.  Rogers could have made a mistake either with the Boston Gazette or with Johnson years later and accidently changed the second half of this surname, or Johnson made this mistake when publishing the name to the appendix account of Anne Bonny’s life.  Until further documents arise, identifying Anne’s real or original name remains unresolved. For James Bonny’s acceptance of the King’s pardon, the exact date and location are unknown.  He does not appear on the “List of the Names of such Pirates as Surrender’d themselves at Providence, 3 June 1718,” ADM 1/2282, TNA.  He may have surrendered to the authorities of another colony or to Woodes Rogers when he arrived in Nassau in July of 1718.  For Anne Bonny’s potential engagement in prostitution, this comes from a combination of Anne’s young age, her marital situation, and her economic circumstances, which left women in Bonny’s position few choices for a means of making a living. Suzanne J. Stark, Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 29, 35; B. S. Capp, When Gossips Meet Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 36-39.

[6] GHP, 623-626. For John Rackham’s earlier surrender in 1718, see “List of the Names of such Pirates.

[7] Natalie A. Zacek, Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1670-1776 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 169-174.

[8] GHP, 623-626. The date of Anne conceiving a child comes from deducing evidence from her trial in November.  The two women were able to conceal from the court that they were pregnant, yet doctors could still verify after an inspection that they were with child.  Considering the state of medicine in the period, this suggests that both women were in their second trimester, meaning both women conceived their children while in New Providence, probably sometime in August E. T. Fox, e-mail message to author, April 15, 2016.

[9] “By his Excellency; Woodes Rogers, Esq; Governour of New Providence, &c. A Proclamation,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720.

[10] Ian McLaughlan, The Sloop of War, 1650-1763 (Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2014), 30, 60-61, 280-281; William A. Baker, Sloops & Shallops (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1966), 68; Aji Vasudevan, “Tonnage measurement of ships : historical evolution, current issues and proposals for the way forward” (master’s thesis, World Maritime University, 2010), 15-17; Christopher French, “Eighteenth Century Shipping Tonnage Measurements,” Journal of Economic History (June 1973), 434-435; “The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and Other Pirates…” in British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730, ed. Joel Herman Baer, Volume 3 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007), 47 (this trial will be abbreviated as Tryals in future notes).  The dimensions of this sloop came from using data concerning other sloops of the period and the 1695 measured tonnage formula, assuming a keel length to maximum beam ratio of between 3.5 to 3.75.  For the William’s armament, the sloop’s beam limited the type of guns it could use.  Guns close to 5 feet in length would have been difficult to operate in a sloop of this size.  Short “cutt” versions of Robinet and Falconet guns, firing solid shot weighing less than two pounds, would have been the most likely guns used on a small sloop like the William, with lengths below five feet and weights of around 200-300 pounds.  Two guns that would resemble ones similar to those on the William, see Cannons 19 and 21 from the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project.  Cannon 19 is a Swedish gun from 1713, made of cast iron, fired a 1-pound 1.81-inch diameter solid shot, and measured 4 feet in length.  Cannon 21 is an English robinet gun, made of cast iron, fired a half-pound 1.5-inch diameter shot, measured 3.5 feet long, and weighed 199 pounds according to the markings on the barrel.  Nathan C. Henry, “Analysis of Armament from Shipwreck 31CR314: Queen Anne’s Revenge Site,” Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project: Research Report and Bulletin Series QAR-B-09-01 (June 2009), 8-12.

[11] GHP, 624.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 624-625.  Johnson’s description of taking the William, particularly Anne’s actions, may have happened in a general manner, but it is possible some of the more specific details could be additions made by Johnson to make the theft sound more thrilling.  Again, there is no way to confirm or deny the accuracy of this part of Johnson’s account.

[14] “A Proclamation,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720; “New Providence, Sept. 4,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720.

[15] GHP, 625-626; Tryals, 15; “New Providence, Sept. 4,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720.  Rogers’s proclamation mentioned vessels Rackham’s crew attacked.  If this attack on Turnley did occur, the sinking of a vessel would be a significant omission for Rogers to make.

[16] GHP, 626; “A Proclamation,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720.

[17] “New Providence, Sept. 4,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720.

[18] Tyrals, 15-16.  £10 in Jamaica money refers to the value of British currency or the British monetary value placed on any goods while in Jamaica.  The colonies received little currency from Britain, frequently resulting in coinage shortages and British money holding higher value than it would have in Britain.  The shortages also encouraged the regular use of Spanish currency in the British colonies.  A piece of eight held a value of five shillings in Jamaica at this time.  £10 in Jamaica money held a value of £7.407 in Britain in the year 1720 (or roughly £7.08.00 – Sums of British currency listed in pounds, shillings, and pence will utilize this format: £[Pounds Here].[Shillings Here].[Pence Here]).  John J. McCusker, Money & Exchange in Europe & America, 1600-1775, A Handbook (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1978), 246-247, 251.

[19] “A Proclamation,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720.

[20] The English Pilot. The Fourth Book. Describing the West-India Navigation, from Hudson’s-Bay to the River Amazones (London: Rich. and Wil.l Mount, and Tho. Page, 1716), 46-47.

[21] Tryals, 16.  £1,000 in Jamaica money is equivalent to about £740.15.00 in Britain.

[22] Ibid., 16-18.

[23] Ibid., 18.

[24] “A Proclamation,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720; “New Providence, Sept. 4,” Boston Gazette, October 10-17, 1720; Tryals, 15.  Another possible explanation is that Rogers or the newspaper printers made a mistake when gathering intelligence on the pirates before publishing his proclamation.  There may have never been an Andrew Gibson on Rackham’s crew if this is an error.

[25] Stark, Female Tars, 55.

[26] Tryals, 16-18, 21.  The trial account used the term pimento for allspice.

[27] Tryals, 17-18, 27-28.

[28] Ibid. £300 in Jamaica money is worth about £222.04.04 in British money.

[29] Ibid., 27-28.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.  This part of Dorothy Thomas’s testimony is more significant when considering that both Bonny’s and Read’s pregnancies were well into their first trimesters at this point, a time when said pregnancy begins to cause a woman’s breast to increase in size.

[32] Ibid., Stark, Female Tars, 71.

[33] Tryals, 27-28.

[34] Ibid., 18, 46-47.

[35] Ibid., 46-47.

[36] Ibid, 18; Governor Sir Nicholas Laws to the Council of Trade and Plantations, Jamaica, November 13, 1720, Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series (from now on abbreviated CSPCS), March, 1720 – December, 1721, item 288.  Barnet’s vessel was not one of the two sloops, with 100 men each, commissioned to fight the pirates and Spanish privateers harassing Jamaica. As indicated in the trial, Barnet operated as a merchant vessel on a trading voyage.  Mentions of these privateers are in the previously referenced letter from Laws to the Council of Trade and in the London Journal, January 14, 1721.  The London Journal account appears to think that one of these privateers caught Rackham.  The account is one of the less accurate newspaper reports regarding the capture of Rackham.  It states that Rackham had a crew of fourteen, which does not match any of the potential ways to count the pirates and the prisoners they carried (see fn. 40 for more on counting Rackham’s crew when captured).

[37] Tryals, 18.; Cordingly, Spanish Gold, 190-191; Jonathan Barnett, Deposition of Jonathan Barnett, Jamaica, August 10, 1716, Jamaica Council Minutes, f.63. Deputy Secretary of Jamaica, to the Secretary of State, CO 152/11, no.16ii, TNA.  In 1715, when Governor Hamilton commissioned a sizeable fleet of privateers, Jonathan Barnet received a commission on November 24, 1715 for the Snow Tiger, of 90 tons, 80 men, and 12 guns, with Lewis Galdy and Daniel Axtell providing funds for the security bond required of privateers.  While Barnet sailed to the channel between Florida and the Bahamas, he did not attack any Spanish targets.  The courts spared Barnet from any of the charges of piracy faced by most of the privateers commissioned by Hamilton.  Barnet might have been suspicious of the William since he had sailed the waters of Jamaica for years and did not recognize the small sloop as a typical visitor among Jamaica’s maritime traffic, or the vessel somehow appeared out of place in that location.

[38] Tryal, 18, 46-47.

[39] The trial account never stated the pirates released Captain Dillon’s vessel, the Mary and Sarah, so it is assumed the pirates still had someone onboard that sloop to watch over Dillon and his men during October 22.  What the vessel did during any of the events of that day is unknown.

[40] Ibid., 18-19, 46-47; “Philadelphia, Dec. 8,” American Weekly Mercury, December 8, 1720. According to the American Weekly Mercury, Rackham had a crew of twenty-six men and two women.  While it is possible that this number is the result of inaccurate reporting, this number might include not only the pirates, but also the prisoners they took before their capture by Barnet.  Rackham, the eight male pirate crewmembers make up nine of the twenty-six men.  Add to this the two Frenchmen Rackham forced onto the pirate sloop and the nine Port Royal mariners, and that accounts for twenty of the twenty-six men.  The pirates never let Captain Thomas Dillon and the crew of the Mary and Sarah leave before Barnet’s arrival.  Dillon also testified against the pirate at their trials.  The six remaining men could have been Dillon and five men belonging to the Mary and Sarah, a typical crew size for a trading sloop in the Caribbean.

[41] Tryals, 2.

[42] Ibid., 23, 48.

[43] E. T. Fox, e-mail message to author, April 15, 2016.  For more details regarding when the two female pirates became pregnant, see footnote 8.

[44] Tamara J. Eastman and Constance Bond, The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read (Cambria Pines, CA: Fern Canyon Press, 2000), 40-41.  Eastman sites the following document for the record of Mary’s death: Early Parish Records of burials for St. Catherine, Jamaica. National Library of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica.  I have yet to see the original record to verify if it says this Mary Read died in prison and thus prove it is the pirate Mary Read, though the timing of the death makes it highly probably that it refers to the pirate.  Johnson’s main account of Mary Read says she died of a fever while in prison.  This claim is probably an educated, though probable, guess on Johnson’s part, but no known documents corroborate this claim of death by fever.

[45] GHP, 620.  The attribution of this nickname and habit of wearing calico attire come from Johnson’s appendix for the first volume of his pirate history.  As previously discussed, the appendix is a potentially more accurate account featuring information from Woodes Rogers.  This does not mean that all of the information in this section is accurate.  In this situation, there are other doubts to add to the analysis of this particular claim.  In all the other documents concerning Rackham, “Calico Jack” never appeared as an alias for John Rackham.  The fact that Johnson did not include this nickname in his first volume version of Rackham’s history is also significant.  Period accounts have yet to verify any of the other descriptions of clothing worn by pirate captains included in Johnson’s text.  Finally, calico also held a more feminine connotation during this time, making its use by someone such as Rackham even more unusual.

[46] Ibid., 149-150,165.

[47] GHP, 149-152.

[48] Ibid., 153-165.

[49] O’Driscoll, Sally. “The Pirate’s Breasts: Criminal Women and the Meanings of the Body.” The Eighteenth Century 53, no. 3 (2012): 357–379.  This article discusses this issue in more detail than can be covered in the current article.  Her arguments explore the nuances and significance of this topic that can, and did, expand into longer studies of their own.

[50] Ibid., 374.

[51] E. T. Fox, Jolly Rogers: The True History of Pirate Flags (Fox Historical, 2015), 16, 63.

[52] Philip Gosse, The History of Piracy (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1934), 203; Neil Rennie, Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 263.

[53] The History and Lives Of All the most Notorious Pirates, and their Crews (London: Edward Midwinter, 1725), 72.  In her article in Jo Stanley’s greater work, Bold in Her Breeches, Julie Wheelwright discovers an 1813 publication that lifted this passage from this unauthorized printing of Johnson’s work.  Wheelwright did not know of the passage came from this addition published by Edward Midwinter.  Julie Wheelwright, “Tars, Tarts, and Swashbucklers,” in Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages, ed. Jo Stanley (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 192-193.

[54] From Baker’s work, Steve Gooch received his inspiration for subtly suggesting the two had a lesbian relationship in his 1978 play, The Women Pirates Ann Bonney and Mary Read.  Rennie, Treasure Neverland, 256-257; Rictor Norton, “Lesbian Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read”, Lesbian History, updated 14 June 2008,  Klausmann, Meinzerin, and Kuhn also site Baker in their book when they discussed the possibility of a lesbian relationship between Bonny and Read.  Ulrike Klausmann, Marion Meinzerin, and Gabriel Kuhn, Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997), 212.

[55] Stanley, ed., Bold in Her Breeches, 155.  In 2001, David Cordingly also began to think that there was merit to the idea that the two engaged in a lesbian relationship.  David Cordingly, Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007), 82; Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell, British Pirates in Print and Performance (New York: Paulgrave Macmillan, 2015), 187-188, fn. 11.

[56] John Carlova, Mistress of the Seas: A Dramatic Biography of Anne Bonny, the Lusty Eighteenth Century Beauty Who Became a Pirate Queen (New York: The Citadel Press, 1964), 12-13. Rennie, Treasure Neverland, 255-256, 265-267.

[57] Carlova, Mistress of the Seas, 17-19; Johnson originated the idea of Anne’s parents coming from Cork, Ireland, but provided no names, GHP 159.

[58] Rennie, Treasure Neverland, 265.

[59] Eastman and Bond, The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 16.

[60] Ibid., 18.

[61] Ibid., 61-62.

[62] Carlova, Mistress of the Seas, 253

[63] Eastman and Bond, The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 44.

[64] Cordingly, Seafaring Women, 86-87.

[65] Ibid., 261, fn. 33.

[66] Eastman and Bond, The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 42-44.

[67] David Cordingly, ‘Bonny, Anne (1698–1782)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.

[, accessed 16 Jan 2016].

[68] Eastman and Bond, The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 44-45.

[69] Tamara Eastman, private messenger communication to author, January 17, 2016.

Editorial: Black Sails, Historical Accuracy, and the Pirate Genre in Hollywood

To the left, the N.C. Wyeth 1911 illustration of Long John Silver from Treasure Island. To the right, Luke Arnold portraying a young John Silver in season 2 of Black Sails in 2015.

To the left, the N.C. Wyeth 1911 illustration of Long John Silver from Treasure Island. To the right, Luke Arnold portraying a young John Silver in season 2 of Black Sails in 2015.

Caution to those who have not seen all of Black Sails up to March 26, 2016 and wish not to spoil their first viewings – there are discussions that occasionally spoil small plot points from the show.  Also, this editorial and review covers the show’s first three seasons

“…Set in and around a historically accurate time and place, in Nassau in the Bahamas…”

– Jonathan E. Steinberg, Executive Producer/Co-Creator of Black Sails

“It’s brutal, it’s gritty, and it’s real…”

– Hannah New, role of Eleanor Guthrie in Black Sails

“It’s not the cheesy pirate thing, it’s not fantasy, it’s trying to actually portray how life could have been in the Golden Age of Piracy.”

– Clara Paget, role of Anne Bonny in Black Sails

On January 18, 2014, Starz released the first episode of their new show, Black Sails, on Youtube, in partnership with the entertainment network Machinima, a week before it officially aired on Starz’s premium American cable television channel.  This early preview included a ten-minute featurette about their new show and presented the previous three quotes.  Other promotional videos for the show featured similar claims about accuracy.  Two years after the premiere, the show continues to promote itself as “realistic”.  One claim they repeated involved avoiding the most common clichés in pirate films such as parrots, eye patches, and Robert Newton’s pirate accent.  So far, Black Sails avoided these obvious pirate stereotypes.  They did not perpetuate the most blatant tropes of pirates, but Black Sails still repeats many other tropes from the past century of film and television, resulting in many historical inaccuracies.  However, some aspects of this show are new to this media genre and present the smallest of steps towards historical accuracy.  It also stands as a unique production for the pirate genre in Hollywood. Continue reading

Salt Pork, Ship’s Biscuit, and Burgoo: Sea Provisions for Common Sailors and Pirates

Ship’s Galley in a Thomas Phillip print of a first rate ship of the line from the 1690s. Note the ship’s cook with a knife in his right hand wearing an apron and possessing a wooden leg. Image printed in Brian Lavery’s “The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815” on page 196.

Prologue: Due to the amount of content on this subject, this article is broken into two parts. The second part will be published several weeks from now.  Special thanks to Jeff Pavlik for his consultations regarding period ship’s biscuits.

UPDATE, 9-8-2018: Many people have asked if I will complete part 2 of this article. Since this is one of my most popular posts, I will respond.  As of now, my main priority is to complete my maritime clothing book, so any work on maritime food will have to wait until that is completed.  In addition, after doing work on this post, I realized that the subject is extremely large, and that if I wanted to pursue it further, I would probably want to publish it in some other format beyond a post on my website.  This is also why I removed “Part 1” from the post title.

“Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else.”[1]  This classic quote from Samuel Pepys summarized well the significance of food to sailors during the Age of Sail.  Mariners could endure hard work and ragged clothing, but had little patience for short rations or rotten provisions.  Pepys recognized this when he work for the English Royal Navy, and that, “any abatement from them in the quantity or agreeableness of the victuals,” could turn sailors against serving the Navy.[2]  The stereotype for the diet of sailors during the Age of Sail included ship’s biscuit, salt pork, and rum.  Many people at sea in that era ate or drank all the items in this cliché menu, but also consumed many other foods and drinks.  Since food played a significant role in the lives of sailors, exploring the specifics of their diets can provide more insights into their experiences at sea.

Examining food for common-rank Anglo-America sailors in the various maritime services requires answering a variety of questions:

  • What foods did sailors receive in their rations?
  • How did the food issued in European waters differ from those in other places such as the Caribbean?
  • Did Navy provisions differ from those of pirates, merchant sailors, or other maritime services?
  • How did French, Spanish, or Dutch provisions differ from those on British vessels?
  • What dishes did sea cooks prepare?
  • When did mariners eat?
  • What tableware and utensils did they use at mealtimes?
  • What did sailors eat or drink onshore after a voyage?
  • How did the sailors’ diet compare to that of the lower class ashore?

Attempting to answer these questions, specifically for sailors who sailed between 1680 and 1740, offers a glimpse into a somewhat neglected period of maritime history and provides context to future food choices for mariners in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Continue reading

The Firsts of Blackbeard: Exploring Edward Thatch’s Early Days as a Pirate

A potential depiction of Edward Thatch, otherwise known as Blackbeard, in his earliest pirate days. (Portrayed by the late Joseph Ruggiero (1984-2010), with beard photoshopped black. Picture taken by David Fictum.)

Preface: A special Thank You goes to The Blackbeard Society for its generous financial support of the research I engaged in for this article.  The Blackbeard Society is a new organization that strives to support of research, writing, and events created to enhance knowledge and appreciation of the notorious pirate’s history.  More special Thanks goes to Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates ( link here), and Jim Lawlor, author of The Harbour Island Story ( link here), for their help during the research stage of this article.  Some of their references led me to more obscure information about Thatch’s, Bonnet’s, Hornigold’s, and Napping’s careers.  A further special thank you Bethany Easton of London who visited the National Archives at Kew and photographed some of the documents I needed for this study.

Of all the pirates who sailed during the past millennium, Blackbeard’s history possesses more legends, myths, and unverified information than any other pirate. If half of the tales about his treasure proved true, his plunder’s value would rival those taken by pirates in the Red Sea in the 1690s and 1720s.[1]  Unfortunately, for treasure hunters, the historical record does not produce the same rich details featured in these many legends.  After the defeat of Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Thatch, the navy did not find dozens of chests full of valuable coins like a creative writers might imagine.  Instead, the navy men found barrels sugar, cocoa, cotton, and several slaves.  When sold in Virginia, the perishable commodities sold for £2247.19.4 in Virginia currency.[2]  Some might propose that the navy and other people in the area missed or neglected to report Thatch’s other treasures.  But, such ideas can only be conjecture since there is no evidence that Blackbeard collected an enormous fortune.  The historical record often refuses to yield many of the claims made of Thatch’s story made by enthusiasts, writers, and even some historians.

This difficulty of matching period evidence to these perceived narratives plagues Blackbeard’s early days as well as his later ones.  In 2013, William Cronan in his presidential address to the annual meeting of the American Historical Association stated, “We [historians] are not allowed to argue or narrate beyond the limits of our evidence.”  In the realm of Blackbeard’s history, publications from enthusiasts and historians alike stray far beyond what period documents say on a regular basis.  Discussing the errors of every historian who published an account of Thatch’s career could fill its own book, but accomplish little towards bringing people closer to understanding what the historical record presents of Thatch’s history.  The few known documents about Blackbeard’s early career lack information on many issues, including a definitive date for when Thatch became pirate, when he became the captain of his own crew, and what voyages he engaged in before his raid off the Virginia and Delaware Capes in the latter half of 1717.  With period sources yielding few facts about this pirate, asking several questions of the historical record offers a means of understanding Thatch’s early days less hindered by centuries of old narratives and legend.

Continue reading

“The Strongest Man Carries the Day,” Life in New Providence, 1716-1717

Excerpt from image of Capt. George Lowther and his Company at Port Mayo in the Gulf of Matique, 1734, showing pirates in a makeshift tent.

Table of Contents:


By 1716, New Providence stood as a stronghold for pirates.  Since past Bahamian residents and governments allowed pirates to enter and use their harbor for generations, this news surprised few among people familiar with New World maritime activity.  John Graves, a former customs collector in Nassau, published a prediction in 1707 that the Bahamas would become a, “Shelter for Pyrates, if left without good Government and some Strength.”  He further predicted, “that one small Pyrat with Fifty Men that are acquainted with the Inhabitants (which too many of them are) shall and will Ruin that Place, and be assisted by the loose Inhabitants; who hitherto have never been Prosecuted to effect, for Aiding, Abetting, and Assisting the said Villains with Provision.”1  Six years later, Grave’s predictions came true.

In the past decade, a premium channel television program, a billion-dollar video game franchise, and popular press publications all helped revive public awareness and interest in the Bahamas and its pirate past.  These shows, games, and books are consistent in the manner they present the history of New Providence.  In telling the stories of the pirates, the narratives usually centered on captains, their crews, and the British officials that confronted them.  The recent portrayals of Nassau tend to follow what Hollywood and artistic mediums has done for generations.  The romanticized image of the typical pirate base set at a remote Caribbean settlement features a group of wooden post-and-beam frame buildings, built near an elegant beach, and populated with pirates gallivanting with attractive women day and night.  This common media depiction, while appealing to general audiences, is two-dimensional.  This weak caricature does not delve deep into understanding what New Providence was like in 1716-1717, when Nassau’s pirate population was at its peak. Continue reading