She-Pirates: Early Eighteenth-Century Fantasy and Reality

John Massey Wright, 1777–1866, British. Pirates (undated). Watercolor with graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

In “The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and Other Pirates” published in 1721, witnesses have testified that when the she-pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny “saw any Vessel, gave Chase, or Attacked, they wore Men’s Cloaths; and, at other Times, they wore Women’s Cloaths” (28).  While this testimony proves that both female criminals were crossdressing on board the pirate sloop, it reveals an interesting characteristic that marked these two women seafarers different from their female cohort in the early eighteenth century:  they were not interested in concealing their feminine identity at all.  If this is true, one cannot help but wonder why Mary Read and Anne Bonny would even consider crossdressing when they had the freedom to choose what they would wear in the first place.  Through analyzing the trial record of the said she-pirates and Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, I argue that the crossdressing she-pirate was not just a literary fantasy but a possible identity that women could choose to adopt because of the unique social understanding of identity in early eighteenth-century society.

To figure out why Mary Read and Anne Bonny would want to cross-dress as pirates, we should begin by knowing that identity was not considered as “naturally” gendered in the early eighteenth century.  Therefore, the she-pirates’ crossdressing might not seem as uncommon an act as it is today.  According to Dror Wahrman, “[a]lthough expectations of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ were generally well defined, contemporaries did not perceive them as necessarily pinning down each and every individual” (40).  That is to say, “delineations of maleness and femaleness [. . .] are perceptual and relational rather than natural or self-generated” (Dugaw “Female Sailors Bold” 44).  In early eighteenth-century society, a biological male could be delicate and sentimental while a biological female did not have to be maternal and caring.  These seemingly “unnatural” identities would be met “with resignation, tolerance, or sometimes even appreciation” (Wahrman 40).  From this perspective, the she-pirates’ crossdressing should not be regarded as a serious transgression because they lived in a society that allowed more freedom in terms of gender and identity.  Although they would be expected to appear more feminine, femininity was by no means the only quality they could use to present themselves.

Yet Mary Read and Anne Bonny’s crossdressing denotes more than gender.  Indeed, the clothes they wore shaped the role they were playing.  As a letter in a 1711 issue of the Spectator notes, “People dress themselves in what they have a Mind to be, and not what they are fit for” (Addison and Steele 45).  Although the author was referring to his experience going to a masquerade, Dianne Dugaw reminds us that the eighteenth century was a period “in which pervasive metaphors of masquerading conditioned the very terms in which people thought and behaved” (Warrior Women 132).  Adopting a different identity was not a privilege for one attending masquerades, acting on the stage, or appearing in literary works—people would don on a different persona even in their daily lives by wearing different clothes.  This prompted Maximillian E. Novak to call the period “The Age of Disguise” (7), for one’s clothes, as Terry Castle indicates, “spoke symbolically of the human being beneath its folds” (55).  Early eighteenth-century society is unique for its belief that clothes are used “to make identity” (Wahrman 178, italics original).  Like going to a masquerade, a contemporary could alter their appearance and begin performing the role that their clothes designated.  There existed the possibility for one to have multiple identities instead of just one fixed persona.  This cultural belief thus provides the ground for women to wear a pirate’s outfit and begin acting as one.

Although the pirate identity was an option for women in the early eighteenth century, the pirate community was, unsurprisingly, not particularly friendly to women.  Captain Bartho Roberts, who was active at the beginning of the eighteenth century, clearly states in his often-quoted pirate code that “[n]o boy or woman [is] to be allowed amongst them [the pirates]” (Johnson 183).  On speculating why women would cross-dress to be soldiers in contemporary ballads, Dugaw also notes that if a single woman is undisguised in the predominantly male environment, she “was subject to harassment and violence” (Dugaw, Warrior Women 130).

Furthermore, Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell have noted that pirates “largely regarded women or indeed any sexual attachments at sea as a perilous distraction” (102); therefore, they avoided having them on board as much as they could.  While Marcus Rediker believes that Captain Roberts was “more straitlaced than most pirate captains” (9), it should be evident that the pirate profession was predominantly masculine and potentially dangerous to women.  Therefore, besides trying to perform the role of a pirate, another possible and practical reason for Mary Read and Anne Bonny to disguise themselves was that crossdressing would carve out a safe space for them to blend in the community that was predominantly masculine.

If we examine the descriptions of the she-pirates in the trial record, we can recognize that crossdressing certainly enabled Mary Read and Anne Bonny to mingle with the masculine pirate community.  According to a captive on the sloop, Mary Read and Ann Bonny “wore Mens Jackets, and long Trouzers, and Handkerchiefs tied about their Heads; and each of them had a Machet and Pistol in their Hands” (“The Tryals” 27).  Their outfits were obviously masculine, and the weapons in their hands enhanced their image as aggressive outlaws.  Additionally, other witnesses also reported that they have heard the she-pirates cursing and swearing, which further distanced them from the delicate feminine identity.  The testimony thus illustrates Dugaw’s observation that a woman disguised as a man “could move about the same world with safety and freedom” (Warrior Women 130).  As the trial record indicates, the female-pirates were “hand[ing] Gun-powder to the Men” and “very ready and willing to do any Thing on Board” (“The Tryals” 28).  While dressing up as pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny were clearly not distractions to the crew but part of the crew that made pirating possible.  They were not particularly different from the rest of the crew.

A General History adds more to the function of crossdressing for the she-pirates by demonstrating that each has successfully dealt with hardships in their lives through crossdressing.  Dugaw suggests that two of the common reasons women would cross-dress in contemporary ballads were pursuing “true love” and “breaking out of custodial confinement” (Warrior Women 130, 135).  Johnson’s account shows much reminiscence of these reasons.  His version of Mary Read, as a newborn baby, was dressed and raised as a boy to pass for her deceased brother so that “the supposed grandmother should allow a crown a week for its maintenance” (Johnson 131).  Similarly, his Anne Bonny, being an illegitimate child, had to be “put into breeches as a boy” before her biological father could take her home to live with him (Johnson 139).  After failing to divorce her husband, Anne Bonny “consented to elope with him [Calico Rackam], and go to sea with Rackam in man’s clothes” (Johnson 140).  With these episodes of the she-pirates’ early lives, A General History further supports the idea that gender identity can be constructed in these ways during the period.

While Johnson’s narrative successfully adds spice to the story, the dramatic depiction inevitably makes the account seem more fanciful than real.  As David Cordingly indicates, a reason that made Mary Read and Anne Bonny so popular is that they “were the only women pirates of the great age of piracy that we know anything about” (59).  However, besides a few brief accounts, our knowledge of them mainly comes from “The Tryals” and A General History.  While most scholars would deem the trial record somewhat credible, there are concerns about Johnson’s work, for its content cannot be cross-checked and the author is still somewhat of a mystery.  A comparison of the two could also reveal gaps in the history.

Indeed, one telling difference is that A General History seems to suggest that a cross-dressed identity only works for a specific occasion, which is conventional in contemporary literary depictions of women crossdressers.  As Dugaw notes, disguised heroines in ballads “do not remain at sea or in camp,” for they “almost always bring about the disclosure of the disguise and a ‘return’ to ‘normal’” (Warrior Women 155).  Thus, in Johnson’s account, we can find that by crossdressing Mary Read lets the comrade she loves “discover her sex,” and she is immediately recognized by him as “a mistress solely to himself” and a woman he would court “for a wife” (Johnson 132).  As soon as the war is over, the two “bought woman’s apparel for her, [. . .] and were publicly married” (Johnson 132).  When she reveals her feminine identity, she abandons the borrowed identity for good.  While it is true that Mary Read crossed-dresses as a soldier later in the narrative, it happens after her husband dies, and she joins a different regiment.  She could not resume her previous persona.

It is also interesting to note that the crossdressing patterns for Mary Read and Anne Bonny are highly similar and formulaic in A General History.  They were both illegitimate baby girls who were raised as little boys.  As they grew up, they resumed their feminine identities to get married.  Upon facing a critical challenge in life, both cross-dressed again to become pirates who eventually pleaded after being sentenced to die.  An identity is never recycled—at least not in the same context.  Johnson’s account thus seems to be following the contemporary literary convention that favored the “return” of the crossdressers, which seems to imply that a she-pirate would eventually return to “normal.”

However, this “return” motif is nowhere to be found in the trial records.  As the witnesses clearly stated, Mary Read and Anne Bonny were able to don and shed their pirate identities in order to suit their needs.  When they were performing their pirate duties, they wore men’s clothes; when they were off duty, they had the option of wearing women’s clothes.  This not only reflects the ideas that the pirate as an identity can be borrowed by changing clothing but also demonstrates that it is an identity that women could assume and resume without creating much fuss.  The fact that Calico Rackham’s crew knew that Mary Read and Anne Bonny were women and continued to work with them as their comrade suggests that the she-pirate was not a mere literary construction—it was something like an acceptable persona for women in the early eighteenth century.  Mary Read and Anne Bonny pleaded their respective cases not because their pirate identity was incompatible with reality reality but because it was a practical decision that would prolong their lives.

It is true that we do not have many records of she-pirates and that the case of Mary Read and Anne Bonny does not represent the whole picture of she-pirates in the early eighteenth century.  Yet the fact that they were rarely mentioned does not mean that they were not an option.  As both “The Tryals” and A General History demonstrate, women could cross-dress to present and perform different identities.  “The Age of Disguise” thus allowed women like Mary Read and Anne Bonny the freedom to become pirates not only in the realm of imagination but also on board Calico Rackam’s pirate sloop.  Thus, she-pirates should not be regarded as a female fantasy—at least not in the early eighteenth century when Mary Read and Anne Bonny were freely expressing themselves while sailing under the black flag.

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele.  The Spectator.  Edited by Gregory Smith.  J. M. Dent, 1907.  Hathi Trust, hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015050175952.

Burwick, Frederick, and Manushag N. Powell.  British Pirates in Print and Performance.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Castle, Terry.  Masquerade and Civilization:  The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction.  Stanford:  Stanford UP, 1986.

Cordingly, David.  Under the Black Flag:  The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates.  New York:  Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Dugaw, Dianne.  “Female Sailors Bold:  Transvestite Heroines and the Markers of Gender and Class.”  Iron Men, Wooden Women:  Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700- 1920.  Ed. Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.  34-54.

—.  Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850.  Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1996.

Johnson, Charles.  A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates.  Ed. by Arthur L. Hayward, 1926.  New York:  Routledge, 1955.

Novak, Maximillian E.  “Introduction.”  English Literature in the Age of Disguise.  Ed. Maximillian E. Novak.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 1977.  1-14.

Rediker, Marcus.  “Liberty beneath the Jolly Roger:  The Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Pirates.”  Iron Men, Wooden Women:  Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700- 1920.  Ed.  Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.  1- 33.

“The Tryals of Captain John Rackam, and Other Pirates (1721).”  British Piracy in the Golden Age:  History and Interpretation, 1660-1730.  Ed. Joel H. Baer.  Vol. 3.  London:  Pickering & Chatto, 2007.  1-66.

Wahrman, Dror.  The Making of the Modern Self.  New Haven:  Yale UP, 2004.

“No less than High Treason”: Libel and Sensationalism in the Careers of Jacobite Periodicalists George Flint and Isaac Dalton

Unknown artist after Thomas Malton the Younger, 1748–1804, British. Newgate (1799). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The early eighteenth-century British press was a hotbed for propaganda wars:  in the midst of the Succession Crisis, both Whig and Tory writers in London kept their fingers on the pulse of foreign affairs, war, and national politics.  Renowned writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele published on local goings-on, religion, and literature in their notably Whig periodicals, The Spectator and The Tatler.  Henry Fielding satirized Jacobites after the Rebellion of 1745 in The Jacobite’s Journal.  Though far less popular, the pro-Tory and pro-Jacobite press was booming, as well.  One pair of British periodicalists that quietly rose to notoriety was duo George Flint and Isaac Dalton, who published a series of treasonous Jacobite journals from 1715 to 1717.  Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick ran from 1715 to 1716 and landed Flint, its author, in Newgate Prison after he was arrested in July, 1716 for seditious libel.  He continued to write and have his periodicals published, though, and produced Robin’s Last Shift in 1716, which became The Shift Shifted later that year, and Shift’s Last Shift in 1717 as it attempted to outrun further government censorship.  Dalton, his printer, was arrested and imprisoned four separate times for offences to the crown.  Though their individual timelines are fascinating by definition, it is also worth investigating Flint and Dalton’s popularity and skill as periodicalists.  After the first arrests, Flint began to keep a log of their prison experiences, as well as the subsequent involvement and arrests of their family members, which proved quite popular with readers.  Through their persistence and command of pathos, Dalton and Flint’s periodicals provided both strength and exposure to the Jacobite movement in a time of unmatched government suppression.

Flint first published Weekly Remarks on December 3, 1715—just months after the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland and northern England, and only days before the Pretender himself would land on Scottish soil.  For years, tensions had been brewing between the Whigs, who supported the Hanoverian ascendancy to the British throne, and the Jacobites, who supported the Stuart line of succession and were planning to take immediate action.  With James II still in France, the Earl of Mar called a war meeting in Braemar, Scotland, to discuss plans for the rebellion.  In the fall of 1715, the Jacobites failed to capture Edinburgh Castle, but were successful in taking Inverness, Castle Gordon, Dundee, and Perth—“virtually the whole of Scotland” (Sinclair-Stevenson 96).  However, both the Scottish and English Jacobite forces failed to make an impact against the government armies in October when they fell in both the battles of Sheriffmuir and of Preston.  Shortly after, James sailed from France to Scotland; the December 24 edition of Weekly Remarks reports “this Day or Two, That the Pretender is Landed,” and that a number of Londoners were heard singing Jacobite ballads in the streets (Weekly Remarks, 4: 23-24).  Not long after arriving, however, James escaped from Scotland before the government began to severely persecute the Jacobites.

In his introduction to the first installment of Weekly Remarks, Flint claims the publication would be the source of “a pretty clear and impartial Judgement” (Weekly Remarks, 1: 1).  Each Saturday, the journal printed the news of a number of countries (like Spain, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain) and paired entries with a “Remarks” section, in which the author editorialized on that week’s foreign affairs.  For this Flint was arrested and tried in the summer of 1716:  the Old Bailey criminal court record states he “confess’d he was concern’d in writing the said Libel with another Person, which was to be of a different Nature from any yet publish’d:  That the Prisoner was seen to write some Part of the said Paper.  That it came from his own Hands to the Press.  And that he had own’d to my Lord Townshend and others, he wrote it for his Bread” (“Trial of George Flint”).  Though he had been arrested and imprisoned earlier that year for printing Robin’s Last Shift,I Dalton was again indicted and imprisoned alongside Flint; he was found guilty of cursing King George and attempting to pay prison guards to drink to the Pretender’s health.  He was also charged with seditious libel for printing Weekly Remarks, but “the Evidence failing in fixing that particularly, for which he was cried, upon the Prisoner, he was acquitted” (“Trial of Isaac Dalton” July, 1716).

Dalton would be found guilty of two more crimes related to his Jacobitical printing activities:  in November of 1716, he was charged with seditious libel for printing The Shift Shifted.  In May of 1717, he was again found guilty of libel—this time for printing a pamphlet (titled “Advise to the Freeholders of England”) a number of years previous to his work with Flint.II  This resulted in two additional imprisonments to be served following his July sentence of one year at Newgate, as well as fines to be paid and a day spent in the pillory.  In the article “Liberty and Libel:  Government and the Press during the Succession Crisis in Britain, 1712-1716,” P. B. J. Hyland describes this punishment as “a symbol of the ministry’s triumph, and perhaps to avenge its earlier humiliation” (Hyland 881).  But the Weekly Remarks would not be put down so quietly, no matter the efforts the government took to silence Flint and Dalton.  Through their own writing (before that privilege was taken away) and the interference run by family members, they continued to publish their periodicals, condemning the treatment of prisoners at Newgate and the overall actions of the government with a renewed passion.  One excerpt from the August 18, 1716, edition of The Shift Shifted describes Flint’s imprisonment as unthinkable and cruel.  As they starved and endured overly cramped quarters, the inmates were punished for attempting to share their rations with one another.  Flint himself “contracted another cruel Sickness,” and his wife was soon also sent to prison for helping publish The Shift Shifted (The Shift Shifted, 16:94).  The account, a dramatic exercise in pity and shock, reads,

“Yet his Wife for endeavouring to help her Husband, (which most think to be a Wive’s Duty) and in a way which she could not think unlawful, is also close imprison’d, and cannot be let out upon Bail, tho’ the Husband (beside the Bail) offers to take upon himself whatsoever his Wife can be charg’d with.  Now one would think her Crime could be no less than High Treason, and at the same time it is alledged to be no more than Ordering the Carriage of a few News-Papers.”  (The Shift Shifted, 16:94)

Neither man was stranger to this kind of rhetorical appeal.  In remarking on the Battle of Sheriffmuir in the December 3, 1715, edition of Weekly Remarks, Flint describes the horrors seen by the Jacobite soldiers on the battlefield:  they stood “like Motionless Statues, seeing their Friends cut to pieces by one third of their Number” (Weekly Remarks 1:5).  But perhaps the most provocative account Dalton and Flint provide is another entry in the August 18 edition of The Shift Shifted, following Dalton’s July arrest.  In an sensationally dramatized fashion, it details the subsequent arrest of Dalton’s sister, Mary, for continuing to print the treasonous periodicals after Flint and Dalton were arrested:

To do Good and Suffer Evil, is to act a Royal Part; and therefore I am not a little pleas’d that it is faln to my Share, to undergo so much Evil for endeavouring to do good to my Country … However, to imprison a Man for a Fancy, tho’ he be thereby ruin’d, we wave that as a Trifle, a Nothing to Moloch.  But to take his young Maiden Sister only for happening to receive a little Money for him; for this, I say, to cram her into a Messenger’s, and thence bring her directly to the Bar, all overwhelm’d with Tears and Confusion, without a Moment’s Preparation for her Tryal, and there after a Fine of 30 Marks, appoint the beautiful young modest Maiden to remain confin’d for a Twelvemonth in a loathsome Gaol, conversing with the Strums of Newgate.  Suppose she have innocently assisted her Brother in his Distress, does that (call it a crime) come up to this Punishment?  Was ever such a Virgin ever so unmercifully expos’d for such a Crime.”  (The Shift Shifted, 16:94)

As McDowell asserts in The Women of Grub Street:  Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730, Dalton was clearly crafting his words in an entirely gendered way to gain sympathy from the public for his and his sister’s situation:  “Isaac Dalton represented [Mary] as a sentimental heroine in the merciless clutches of an oppressive ministry … as a genteel young lady” who ultimately “became a martyr to the government” (McDowell 108-109).  And it worked.  Randall McGowen notes that the pillory “inflicted humiliation and brought notoriety to an offender, at least as much as physical suffering” (McGowen 123).  But the crowd that assembled the day Dalton was pilloried at Newgate did not curse at him or throw rotten tomatoes his way; they cheered him on and collected money for him to pay his fines instead (Hyland 881-882).

Flint and Dalton’s powerful publications accomplished what the English government wanted to avoid at all costs.  As Kathleen Wilson argues in “Inventing Revolution:  1688 and Eighteenth-Century Popular Politics,” they and other Jacobite journalists had become successful critics of Whig ideology, penning vivid editorials on the party’s corruption and abuse of power.  They believed “the government was a trust, based on popular consent, in which people of all ranks had residual rights separate from those of their representatives.  These included the rights to a free press, to lawful assembly, and to canvass public affairs and protest against bad governments and bad laws” (Wilson 372).  When those rights were infringed upon, Flint and Dalton were quick to remark on it in their writing, and their subsequent arrests only bolstered the frenzied reports featured in their periodicals.  They had amassed a following—both among fellow Jacobites, and among the pro-government Whig newspapers that continuously reported on their misdeeds and run-ins with the law.  What started out as an underground effort to undermine the politics of their enemies quickly became an intense and public battle that gave the Jacobite movement new exposure in London.  In using descriptive storytelling, interrogating moral and ethical norms, and appealing to the sympathies of their audience, Flint and Dalton brought the Jacobite movement to the forefront of English politics by changing the government’s own game.

Notes

I.  See both the March 17 and 31, 1716 editions of James Read’s The Weekly Journal, Or, British Gazetteer, Being the Freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick for briefs on Dalton’s original arrest.

II.  See both the November, 1716 and May, 1717 trials of Isaac Dalton on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online.

Works Cited

Flint, George.  “Great Britain.”  The Shift Shifted, Or, Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick.  August 18, 1716.

—.  “Great Britain.”  Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick.  December 24, 1715.

—.  “Introduction.”  Weekly Remarks and Political Reflections, Upon the Most Material News Foreign and Domestick.  December 3, 1715.

Hyland, P. B. J. “Liberty and Libel:  Government and the Press during the Succession Crisis in Britain, 1712-1716.”  The English Historical Review 101.401 (1986):  863-888.  JSTOR.

McDowell, Paula.  “‘To Run Oneself Into Danger’:  Women and the Politics of Opposition in the London Book Trade.”  The Women of Grub Street:  Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678-1730.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998.  1-120.

McGowan, Randall.  “From Pillory to Gallows:  The Punishment of Forgery in the Age of the Financial Revolution.”  Past & Present 165 (1999):  107-140.  JSTOR.

Read, James. “Great Britain.”  The Weekly Journal, Or, British Gazetteer, Being the Freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick.  March 17, 1716.

—.  “Great Britain.”  The Weekly Journal, Or, British Gazetteer, Being the Freshest Advices Foreign and Domestick.  March 31, 1716.

Sinclair-Stevenson, Christopher.  Inglorious Rebellion:  The Jacobite Risings of 1708, 1715, and 1719.  New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1971.

“Trial of George Flint, July 1716 (t17160712-5).” Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed May 1, 2019.  https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

“Trial of Isaac Dalton, July 1716 (t17160712-4).”  Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed May 1, 2019. https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

“Trial of Isaac Dalton, November 1716 (t17161105-81).”  Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed 1 May, 2019.  https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

“Trial of Isaac Dalton, May 1717, (t17170501-54).”  Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  Accessed May 1, 2019. https://www.oldbaileyonline.org.