Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’re talking about probably two of the most famous women pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
LC: But before we go into that, let’s welcome our resident pirate expert, Alyse, for a game of Fact or Fiction. First one for 2022, let’s go.
Alyse Knorr: Hi.
LC: Hi, Alyse.
AK: I’m excited to hear y’all’s guests today.
EB: I’m excited, too. What do we got? What’s our pirate Fact or Fiction for the day?
LC: Let’s go.
AK: Okay, you know how you always hear about pirates looking for treasure? Like doubloons and pieces of eight? Are both or either of those real?
LC: A doubloon? I don’t even think I’ve heard that word before. Can you explain what it is? Or no?
AK: I mean, it’s what pirates talk about when they talk about their treasure. And it’s usually, like, coins, right? Like in a treasure chest.
EB: Yeah, like a currency.
EB: I feel like doubloons is fact, and it was just like, a type of currency during the time where, like, the “Golden Age of Piracy.” And so it’d be like, okay, if you find your treasure, it’s going to be in doubloons, in the same way that you could find a bunch of quarters. Or, like, golden dollar bills? I don’t know. But I think they’re probably a bit more valuable than a quarter each.
LC: Well, maybe not in today’s currency.
EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Pieces of eight–that also means doubloons? Like, it’s just a different type of–
LC: Or are they different?
EB: You’re saying like a currency?
AK: I’m not telling you.
EB: Yeah. Okay. I’m going to say that both of these are facts. And that’s because piece of eight is another type of currency as well. It’s like eight pieces of a dollar, or whatever the dollar equivalent would be. Those are my thoughts.
LC: So it’s like, a quarter but a quarter-quarter.
LC: No half-quarter.
LC: I can math. I feel like pieces of eight is like piece of eight of a ton of gold. That’s what I think it is. I’m just going to do that because I want to say something different from you. But I also think pieces of eight are real. But maybe doubloons, like, it feels like it could be a made up Disney thing. I’m just trying to be contrarian. I’m just gonna play devil’s advocate.
EB: I also would like to say, like, did either of you play on Neopets? Is that like, totally out of your range of age?
LC: Is that like a Tamagotchi?
EB: No, it was like a website where you raise–it’s like you raised pets.
LC: It sounds like a Tamagotchi, except on the internet.
EB: Yeah, like similar, similar, but it was online and you raise these pets. But they also had this, like, adventure mode where you, like, were looking for doubloons as a pirate pet.
LC: I mean, doubloons is like a very…
AK: It’s very tied to pirates, yeah.
EB: It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere in pirate culture, like–but I’m not sure if it’s, like you said, Leesa–I’m gonna say it’s true. But it could also be like, what’s the one that, like, everything comes from?
EB: Treasure Island?
LC: Oh, yeah, Treasure Island.
EB: I’m like, I feel like it could also be something from Treasure Island.
LC: We just don’t know what’s real anymore.
EB: I know, Alyse, you really have like, completely defied our like laws of reality. So let’s hear it. I need to know.
AK: All right, Ellie’s actually 1,000% right on all of her theories.
EB: Nailed it.
LC: What a way to go into the year, must be nice.
EB: Alright, so tell me why I’m right.
AK: Well, these are both coin-based Spanish currencies that were really big from like, the 1500s through the 1800s. So all of the like high Pirates of the Caribbean time. A doubloon was a gold coin, four dollars in Spanish money. It’s worth like 400 today, just in the amount of gold that they use to mint these.
AK: A piece of eight was a one-dollar silver coin that you could actually cut into eight pieces to make change.
LC: Oh my goodness, that would be such a different experience of…I just remember being a cashier, and like, I’m just thinking about how to, like, give change like that. Really, really strong knife.
EB: You just have to carry a knife with you every time you go to work.
AK: Yeah, that’s right.
LC: Yeah, please.
EB: That’s how it is.
AK: Well, I’ve got some more fun facts for you about doubloons and pieces of eight. I was researching this. So okay, the reason it’s such a big thing for pirates is because this was the currency and this was the Spanish economy. It was what they would use for their–they would ship this money, right, like across the ocean to the Caribbean, and then they’d ship back like silk and spices, and they would trade with this money. So it was everywhere. And because of that, it was actually like the first worldwide currency by the late 18th century. It’s like the–I don’t know, yeah, like the first international currency you could use, just because of how uniform it was and how people were using it all over the world.
LC: That’s super exciting.
EB: Very cool, really interesting.
AK: Yeah. I think so. There’s also a theory that it’s the origin on the back of a piece of eight, they had this thing that looked like a dollar sign. So there’s some theories that that’s where our dollar sign comes from, is on the back of these pieces of eight. It looks so much like that.
EB: Very, very cool. So also, because these doubloons are, what, $400 apiece?
EB: How many doubloons would have to be in a thing of treasure, for you to be like, “I just made a million dollars from this treasure!” Let’s see.
LC: Are you gonna do math right now?
EB: So you would just need 2,500 doubloons.
LC: Okay, let’s go find some.
EB: I feel like that makes sense, like that could fit in a treasure chest.
AK: Yeah. People are still finding these sunken pirate ships, like these underwater archaeologists are still finding sunken pirate ships, and they’re fucking full of doubloons and pieces of eight.
LC: If you find them, do you–is it finders keepers?
AK: I don’t know. That’s a good question. Because, like if it’s international waters, does that mean it’s yours? But if it’s someone’s water territory, does that mean it’s theirs? I don’t know.
LC: I mean.
LC: It kind of feels to me like finders keepers.
LC: I think that’s the pirate way of life.
AK: Or just don’t tell anyone.
EB: To be fair, I feel like it probably is finders keepers. Like I just don’t think you would like spend that much money. I feel like there’s probably a lot of private expeditions. I don’t think you would like spend that much money to fund this expedition if you couldn’t keep it.
LC: That’s true.
EB: Or, maybe they’re like, funded by museums or stuff like that.
AK: You guys, this is sounding a lot like Titanic when the guy is looking for the Heart of the Ocean.
LC: It’s true.
EB: And the Heart of the Ocean I’m pretty sure was finders keepers. I don’t think he was–he was trying to sell that thing.
LC: Oh, yeah.
AK: What sucks is that his timing was so bad. Like, here he is out here, he’s got a submarine, he’s looking around. And that bitch is in that lady’s pocket the whole time. Just when he’s done looking–
LC: Spoiler alert.
AK: –in that exact spot, she drops that fucker in that exact spot!
LC: And actually, truthfully, a bit of a dick move. Like, I guess I see where she’s coming from. But like, come on, you’re about to die. Like, just give the guy what he wants.
EB: She could have just given it to him, yeah.
AK: I remember seeing the movie when I was 12 and thinking, “Fuck you! You could sell that thing and give it all to the hungry children of the world!” What are you doing? What are you doing! It’s worth like $10 million. Like you could fund hypothermia victims in honor of Jack’s memory.
LC: Hypothermia victims!
EB: Yeah, there’s a lot more she could have done with tha than throw it into the ocean. Like did she think Jack is gonna come and like pick it up, also? Like, you know what I mean? Like–
AK: She literally thinks she’s giving it to him. So then she can go die and think about all the orphans, she’s personally starving by throwing that money away.
EB: It was, yeah. It’s honestly the stupidest thing that old woman ever did. But actually the first stupid thing she did was not let Jack up.
AK: There was room.
LC: There was room.
AK: They have literally done this on Mythbusters, and there was room.
EB: There was room. Yes, there was room.
EB: That was a props misfire.
AK: Big time. I think the door problem is the aerial shot they did. The aerial shot made it so clear that she had extra room. But I don’t know, maybe–yeah. I have a funny story about Titanic, actually. Because this tangent hasn’t gone on long enough.
LC: It hasn’t. A Titanic tangent is never long enough, might I say. Neither is the movie. Continue.
EB: Yes, please.
AK: So, early on in the pandemic, like when it was still March 2020 and we thought it was like kind of cute and interesting to be quarantined in our houses–we arranged with some friends, we were like talking about Titanic. And we were like, “We haven’t seen it since middle school. Let’s watch it tonight on Zoom, this new platform called Zoom. Let’s drink champagne, and watch Titanic.” And we thought it would be really funny and silly and adorable. And so we’re watching it, and it is for the first half, right before they hit the fucking iceberg.
LC: Before you put in the second tape.
AK: Yeah, exactly. So we put in the second tape, and then we’re all just watching it in horror, like the Zoom chat and the texts go silent, because the pandemic is starting and it feels like we just globally hit an iceberg. And we’re all like sad drunk, watching Titanic. And that movie is really fucked up. Like, they’re like when the lady’s putting the kids to bed before they die. And she’s singing them a song in Irish and like, it’s such a sad movie. I don’t think I can ever watch it again. Now that I have a kid, it’s just too sad.
EB: Yeah. And yet we’re still on the Titanic right now.
LC: I mean, yeah, all of those horror things–even like I watched Don’t Look Up the other day, and that was written before the pandemic, which like–and it was first supposed to be about climate change. But now with a pandemic, it’s like even more so, you’re like, wow.
EB: Oh, yeah.
LC: Too on the nose.
AK: Yeah, ’cause “don’t wear a mask” is the equivalent of “don’t look up.” Like, “Don’t wear a mask, you won’t die!”
LC: And you’re like laughing and you’re like, it’s hilarious because this is exactly what would happen.
EB: Yeah, it’s like–I was like, this is a comedy, question mark? Like this is not…
AK: Right. The Titanic equivalent–is just to extend the metaphor–is that the ship was literally like pointing up in the air sinking, and everyone’s like, “It’s not sinking. It’s not! It’s warm outside, I’m gonna go for a swim!” Then they jump off the edge. And they’re like, “It’s great down here! I’m not cold. I’m warm.”
EB: “Join me in here. It’s perfect.”
AK: Yes. That’s what our country is doing on the Titanic.
EB: Yep. Sounds about right.
LC: Not just your country, I feel like, should be made fun of. It is many countries, but yes, America has a special kind of way of doing it. Should we actually talk about what we came here for?
EB: And yet, yes, we should. Let’s talk about Anne Bonny and Mary Read. So before we jump in, Alyse, can you just tell us, like because they are two of the most famous women pirates? I know we’re gonna dig into it in the episode, but like, what do you know about Anne Bonny and Mary Read? What’s your, like, general knowledge of them?
AK: I mean, before I started reading about them and interviewing them and interviewing experts for this podcast, I had never heard of them.
LC: You interviewed them?
AK: Yeah, I interviewed Mary and Anne. Dug ’em up. Yeah, so I had a seance. I was great. You know, me and the ghosts. We hung out. I took them to my local lesbian bar.
EB: They would love that, honestly.
LC: Oh my god.
AK: I know! I never knew–I never heard of them. I never heard of them in my life. And so it was really exciting to learn more about them for this.
EB: Yeah. I feel like for me, the only thing I knew was like, because there’s a statue of them, right. And I feel like that’s like iconic.
AK: That’s our whole next episode, actually, is about the statue.
EB: Yeah. So I think I knew about the statue because I’m gay. And I was like, “Oh, look at these two gay women hanging out in the statue. This is cool.” But we will talk about the speculation about their sexuality, because it’s not confirmed that the two of them were together. So–but we will discuss that in our next few episodes.
LC: I feel like historically, if there’s speculation, they must be gay. Because like, history be trying to quash that shit.
EB: It’s a very gals being gals situation, but–
LC: Yeah, like roommates.
EB: –we’re gonna let the experts speak to that.
LC: Okay. Well, thank you so much, Alyse. I think it’s time for us to take a break and gather ourselves. We’ll be back soon. We are back. So as we said at the top of the episode today, despite some tangents, we are discussing the women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and not Titanic.
EB: Here’s historian Ryan Burns on how these women became pirates.
Ryan Burns: Anne Bonny is born in Ireland. And from an early age, she was dressed by her father as a man, from the time that she was an infant. And this was done so that her father could hide his infidelity. So he had a daughter out of wedlock, and so he wanted to pretend that this child that was in his household is not his daughter, it’s actually a male relative that is coming to stay with him. And Mary Read is also, from an early age, dressed as a man. And in the depiction of her, this is done so as to actually receive money from her parents’ grandmother. It’s to more or less convince the grandmother that there is a son that needs sustenance and needs to be taken care of, so money is sent. And then Mary Read can also, as she gets older, go off and find employment in some way. And so she actually joins a company of soldiers that is fighting on the continent. She marries a member of her own regiment, and the two of them open a tavern. But Mary Read somehow gets on the ship of a man named Jack Rackham, or sometimes he’s called Calico Jack. And Calico Jack takes an interest in port with Anne Bonny. Anne Bonny had a succession of relationships that fell apart, and so she goes to the Caribbean, she meets Jack Rackham, who brings him on board his ship, which violates the taboos of not having women on board. And Jack Rackham is able to get away with this, potentially for two reasons. One, his ship is actually not a very large or very lucrative venture. So he’s a pretty minor figure and had Anne Bonny and Mary Read not been on board, we probably wouldn’t ever know much about him. I mean, he doesn’t exactly plunder 400 ships like Bartholomew Roberts does. His reputation never really precedes him. So it’s a small vessel with a small number of crew. And so he’s able to kind of get away with it a bit more. There’s also evidence that Calico Jack was not somebody to be crossed. So, if a crew member brings a woman on board, well that’s taboo and can’t happen. If this particular captain brings a woman on board and dares somebody to say something about it, then he’s able to get away with it. So he brings Anne Bonny on board. And somehow Mary Read also is a member of the crew, dressed as a man, and Anne Bonny notices that Mary Read is on board this vessel. She is able to recognize that there’s a fellow woman on board, and in the description that is given to us in the General History of the Pyrates, Calico Jack finds out that there are two women and not just one woman on board his ship, when he sees the two of them in what some scholars see is a compromising position. Jack Rackham believed that Mary Read was, in fact, a man who was making moves on his consort, on Anne Bonny. And so he reaches to grab his dagger and his pistol to fight off this intruder who would dare do such a thing. And then, in the General History of the Pyrates, Mary Read is said to have then exposed her nature to him. And immediately when Jack Rackham sees that Mary Read is, in fact, a woman and not a male crew member, he sees nothing out of the ordinary and then just lets the matter drop. Because in his mind, he can’t conceive of a same-sex relationship between women on board the vessel. So he thinks, “Oh, well, this person clearly was not making any such moves.”
EB: So remember when I said we would let the experts talk to you?
LC: That didn’t take long.
EB: You can just listen to what the experts are saying here about this compromising position and make your own judgments on that.
LC: It just makes me think of that South Park episode. I don’t know if you saw it. And they’re like, “How do women even?” And like, the whole episode is like, “Did they–“
EB: Oh my god.
LC: –“Scissor?” And like, it’s like the whole episode. And when I hear that, I’m like, that’s exactly what I think.
EB: That’s exactly that.
LC: Yeah, it’s exactly that. Like what even happens? Which–I think we’ve covered that before in the past in this podcast, or just life maybe.
EB: Yes. And also, I mean, with our Sappho season as well, where it’s like–
EB: “Oh, yes. Women laying on a bed together. Totally platonic. They definitely were just sleeping.”
LC: Of course.
EB: “Taking a nap.”
LC: Definitely. On the breast of her tender companion, just having it out.
EB: Exactly, exactly.
LC: Did you read The Song of the Lioness when you were younger?
LC: It’s like a book series by Tamora Pierce, and it was all about a girl who dressed up as a boy. And that just made me think of that. Yeah, and it was like, similar but different. It was because her brother, like, really liked doing sewing and stuff. And she wanted to be a knight, and so like, it’s like a whole full book series about her pretending to be her brother. So I have a special place in my heart for young girls who dress up as boys, because of this lovely book series that I read.
EB: Yes, at least, like for me growing up that like tomboy, like, I was always considered a tomboy. Like when I was younger, because I did not like to wear a dress. And then I’m like, “Oh, well, I just am gay.” So, makes sense. Yes, but I’m excited to learn more about Anne and Mary.
LC: Yes, here is pirate historian, our friend, Rebecca Simon, with a little bit more about Anne and Mary’s backstories.
Rebecca Simon: So they’re interesting figures because the only thing we know about their early lives come from A General History of the Pyrates. That’s the only source that tells us about their life before they became pirates in 1720. So we don’t know how much of it is fact versus fiction. Now, according to A General History of the Pyrates, Anne Bonny was born in Ireland, she was a bastard daughter of a lawyer and his maid, born out of scandal, and he ends up leaving his wife, takes the maid and Anne, and they sail to the Carolinas to kind of start over. Anne’s mother dies while she’s quite young, and Anne is raised essentially by a single father. And she is known to kind of go down to the docks and sort of flirt with sailors. And then the story goes that she runs away with a young sailor named James Bonny, who promises a life of adventure. He’s thinking he’ll get a great dowry from a wealthy father, but she’s disowned. He doesn’t get the dowry, so it’s not a good marriage. They make it to Nassau, where she meets another pirate named Jack Rackham. She falls in love with Jack Rackham because at this point, she had fallen out of love with James Bonny, because he had actually decided to become employed as a pirate hunter by the governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, at this time in 1720. And so she essentially leaves him and she goes to try to marry Jack Rackham. And this is where we do start getting some historical records about her. You know, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny attempted to have her sold to Jack Rackham. Wife selling was common, but James Bonny refused to do this and so they kind of steal away. And this is how she becomes a pirate. According to A General History of the Pyrates, Mary Read was also a bastard daughter born to a widowed woman who had a brief affair with a sailor, and Mary Read was raised as a boy to be disguised as her deceased infant brother from her mother’s legitimate marriage, so she could still get an allowance from her in-laws. So Mary, according to A General History of the Pyrates did not even know she was a girl until she was essentially about 12 or 13 years old. According to this, until after the in-laws died and she stopped getting the allowance, Mary had to go into domestic service. This doesn’t work out. She escapes, she joins a Navy ship, and possibly fights in the war of Spanish Succession, and then leaves, and then she joins the British Army in Flanders. She reveals herself to a young soldier and marries him. And in A General History of the Pyrates she’s well accepted, they’re really excited for them. But then he dies, she rejoins the army, but through her grief she kind of doesn’t perform as well as a soldier. And so she leaves, joins up on either another merchant or another pirate ship. But either way she winds up in Nassau, looking for work as a pirate, the whole time she’s disguised as a man. And then she meets with Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham and she is put onto their crew still disguised as a man. And you know, there have been studies about transvestism on ships and in the army and what it was like during that time period. The idea of a woman kind of dressing as a man kind of freaked men out. It was kind of funny, it freaked them out, because they were like, “Who are these women trying to steal our masculinity?” But at the same time, they just weren’t taken seriously. It was like, “Oh, well, they’re women. So it doesn’t matter. What they do doesn’t matter. Let them do what they want.” And if men perhaps caught their wives in some sort of romantic relationship with another woman, they would let it go. Because, you know, she wasn’t cuckolding him with another man. Kind of like some people say like, “Oh, well, it’s just, you know, there’s no penis involved. It can’t be sex.” You know, kind of similar attitude back then. Can you imagine–look, you’re a tomboy. I grew up with all guys, so I was kind of a tomboy, too. But can you imagine just like, until 12 or 13, is raised as a boy and then just like, oh, psych! You’re a woman. Like when you just start growing boobs, and you’re like, “Oh, shit.”
EB: I mean, I guess so. I mean, yeah, I don’t know how she figured out that she was.
LC: I mean, you are naked with people when you’re a child, like in parts of your life, no, like–
EB: Yes, but also I’m like, coming from a conservative Catholic background, I also feel like they probably just like, didn’t talk about body parts. Like she didn’t realize that like, whatever her body parts were, were like, traditionally a woman, right? Like, I’m gonna tell this ridiculous story about my childhood, just because it’s funny.
EB: But like–so I am one of three. Myself, my sister, and then my brother. My brother’s three years younger. So I lived just like, me and my sister for a while, and then we had a brother, okay. And my mom decided the time for us to stop taking baths together was when my sister asked me, “What’s that in between Joe’s legs?” And I said to her, “Oh, don’t worry. We both had those too, but his will fall off.”
LC: Also that is so you, like you’re just like, “I actually don’t know the answer, but I am going to pretend that I know it, exactly like–it’s like very matter of fact. “Um, we had them, too. They’re gone now.”
EB: Yeah, exactly. And his will fall off, don’t worry, like–oh my god.
LC: But I also love that because like, without even realizing it, you’re really like subverting like Freud, because like Freud’s whole thing is women just want penises. Like because, you know, he’s a man, and that’s how he thinks. And so like, I love that young Ellie was like really turning Freud on his head, being like, “No, his will fall off.”
EB: Oh, yeah, I was like, my brother really needs to lose it, so he can be more like us.
LC: Exactly! Exactly.
EB: Yes, yes. But–so I just feel like, who knows what was taught? Who knows? Who knows what she thought or she knew? I think Anne and Mary are very interesting, because Mary was raised as a boy until she was 12 or 13, right? So we’re talking like, okay, are they gay, but also like, was Mary a trans man and just like, didn’t know the terms for that? Like there’s some really interesting play on gender, no matter what, in Mary’s upbringing.
LC: Yeah, I don’t want to speak on it, because it’s not my experience. But I think it’s an interesting difference that it was like, obviously an external thing that was on her instead of something that was like a self-identifier, as far as we can tell. But it’s definitely, yeah, a very interesting question.
EB: I mean, either way, like the two of them played with gender in such an interesting way. And like, really took on some cool things, like jumping on pirate ships with men and like being their equals. So, Rebecca is going to tell us a little bit more about what they were like as pirates.
RS: Historical documents show that Woodes Rogers issued a proclamation, specifically to capture Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, using that name, because she was known to be his wife, and the other female pirate Mary Read, which means it was likely known that there were two women on board the ship when they set off in August of 1720. They were known to be women when they fought and captured ships, they were known to their hair, they would wear men’s clothes, their long hair flying behind them, and they would have their shirts open, baring their breasts to really kind of freak out and intimidate their victims. And this is very much how they are identified. They’re very fascinating, and they’re the ones that kind of break this mold, you know, women who are known to be pirates, you know, allowing themselves be known and seen, you know, shocking their victims. Oh my god, it’s women who are swearing and cursing and brandishing weapons and being deadlier than any of the men on the ship. You know, they sometimes would lead the charge. When they captured a woman named Dorothy Thomas, who ended up being a key witness at the trial, Jack Rackham decided to let her go and Anne Bonny and Mary Read were like, “No, she’ll give us up, if you do. Got to kill her.” They were after that, whereas Jack Rackham was like, “No, let’s spare her life.” And sure enough, Dorothy Thomas ended up being a key witness in the trial. And when they were captured, Jack Rackham and all the crew, they’ve had a big success with a ship, stealing lots of wine. They party, they get very, very drunk. Well, that night, they don’t know they’re being tracked by a pirate hunter named Jonathan Barnett. And they’re captured, Jack Rackham kind of starts a fight against them, but realizes that they can’t win, and so he orders everyone to go hide below deck. Anne Bonny and Mary Read stay up on deck, try to order the others to fight, but they won’t. And so it’s just the two of them, fighting until they’re captured. The urge I had to bare my breasts. Fear tactic! My boobs are huge, I’m–I’d like to now think of them as a weapon.
EB: It’s terrifying. Honestly. It’s very intimidating to victims. But Anne and Mary in general are just so interesting in terms of gender roles. Because I also feel like this is just like the urge, like in the workplace, for women to just like overcompensate, right? You’re like, “Because I’m a woman. I’m going to be underestimated. Therefore, like, oh, no, I’m going to kill more people than you. I’m going to be an even scarier pirate than all of the men.”
LC: “And look at my boobs.”
EB: Yeah. “And I’m going to do it with my hair flowing and tits out.”
LC: Do you know what, actually? I do that because–
EB: What I just said, you do, or?
LC: –I don’t bear my breasts, but I will say–so I’m very curvy. And like, it’s been an issue for me. So I used to be in a lot of like tech startup spaces. And I would see a lot of women who would like blend into that space who were like much more up and down body types, who could like blend, and they would wear like, very, like masculine type clothes. But like, you really can’t get around my curves, like it’s really difficult to do. And so I just went in on it and like, so I’m what like five-eight. I would put on heels so I would be like six foot tall. And I would wear like whatever the fuck, just clothes that fit me, because I can’t escape these curves. And I would just be like, “Fuck all of you. I am taller than you and I’m going to stand above you. And I’m going to be like curvy and womanly, because like regardless of whatever I do, you’re going to treat me as an other anyway. And you’re going to do that anyway.” So I am channeling Anne and Mary, as it turns out.
EB: And you didn’t even know.
LC: I didn’t even realize. But that was like something that I very unconsciously did, because I’m like, you know, one of five women in this whole room of men. How am I gonna deal with this?
EB: You just got to double down. We also talked to Christopher John Farley, AKA CJ, an author who wrote an amazing book about Anne and Mary. More on that later. Here he is with some thoughts on what badasses these two women were.
CJ Farley: Anne Bonny–I’m going to paraphrase a quote. The last thing she told Calico Jack Rackham, the commander of her ship, is that, “If you’d fought like a man, you would have been hung like a dog.” And that’s tough. That’s some tough love going on there. And that’s the kind of character she was. I mean the reports of the time said that Anne Bonny, Mary Read, they were the two toughest fighters aboard their pirate ship. At one point, there was a report that Mary Read had something going on with someone else on the ship. That person got involved in a duel. And Mary Read, who knew that she was a tougher fighter than anyone on the ship, decided to schedule her duel two hours earlier with this guy, so she could take him out first. And that’s the kind of stuff that she did. I mean, if that’s not swashbuckling, I don’t know what it is. When you step in and say, “You want to duel? I’m gonna step in two hours earlier, take this guy out, because I know that you’re not up for it.” That’s the kind of lives that Mary Read and Anne Bonny led, lives full of duels, full of trials, full of fighting, full of criminality. It was an adventurous life, it wasn’t a sedate life. And that’s part of what pulled them away from land, pulled them away from London, and kind of towards this life of crime. They were bigger than life characters. They excited the imaginations back when they were living, and they still excited our imaginations years after, centuries after their passing. And historians don’t want to own up to history being fun. They’re just wrong. You know, my mom was a historian, and she always showed me that history was fun. And so the history of these two women is also really, really a fun history, too. It’s not boring. I remember when I got the actual proceedings of their trial, I read through it. And most legal proceedings are pretty dull work. This was crazy, fun stuff. People talking about the way these women were acting and the way they were fighting and people being afraid of them and people being sentenced to death and people pleading their bellies and revealing that somebody’s pregnant. Lots of twists and turns. But there’s a lot in there about race, and class, and gender. It’s also just a great adventure story that, during this time, again, a time when women couldn’t vote, couldn’t own things, couldn’t inherit stuff, that they came along and said, “You know what? We’re going to be the fiercest pirates that are out there. We’re going to fight harder than any of the men aboard our ship.” So hard that when I reviewed the actual proceedings of the trial, there are all these moments where other pirates testify that yeah, these two, they were the toughest ones out there. They were the hardest fighters. And what’s also interesting is there’s some suggestion that, yes, they did cross-dress, but they were also seen on the ship dressed as women. And that also suggested to me that they were so confident about themselves, that they could appear however they wanted. They could cross-dress when they wanted, they could dress conventionally when they wanted, they could do what they wanted aboard the ship. They had finally found their own bit of sort of identity paradise, during this very horrible blood-soaked century. So I think they’re impressive figures. Yes, they were criminals, but like Bonnie and Clyde, like all these other outlaws we embrace, these are outlaws who certain aspects of them we can embrace because I think that they send a very positive message about really claiming yourselves.
EB: How common were women on pirate ships at this time? Here’s Ryan again, with some context.
RB: There’s a wide range of very interesting, both examples of female pirates in the Golden Age, as well as all kinds of interesting tidbits that we can only glance at–gender relations in port and things like this. So, far from home, many port towns in the Caribbean in the 17th century actually afforded better opportunities for women than places in England or in France or elsewhere in Europe. So there are plenty of examples of women who own taverns, who own brothels, who invest in pirate ventures or in other more legitimate mercantile enterprises. And the relationship between pirates and women is also kind of very complex in many ways, because women were seen as bad luck on ships in the 17th and 18th century. The presence of women was seen as basically casting an ill omen. And in the pirate codes that come down to us, say the articles on Bartholomew Roberts’s ship that every crew member had to sign, there’s a specific line that there are no women nor boys that are allowed to be on the ship at any time. And that any member of the crew who would dare bring someone on board that fit that description was to be marooned. And so you have a situation where women are simply banned, and because of that, women captives usually weren’t taken. Typically, if a pirate ship–contrary to much Hollywood legend, a pirate ship overtakes a merchant vessel and there are women on board, they’re never taken as prisoners. That’s very, very rare. But there are also examples of women pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read are the most famous. And the two of them are actually emphasized in the book, A General History of the Pyrates, as examples of the danger that piracy in general poses to the social order. So in the first copies that are published of A General History of the Pyrates, it begins with A General History of the Pyrates being the tales of–and in bold, large letters–Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and then all the other captains are printed in much smaller print toward the bottom of the title page. And so there’s a kind of sense of wonder and fascination at their life stories that I spend an entire class period in my Golden Age of Pirates class kind of discussing, because they’re such interesting characters. And unlike so many of the other depictions of pirates in A General History of the Pyrates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read’s backstories, the descriptions of where they actually came from and their early lives, are included. We know nothing about Blackbeard before he becomes a pirate, but Anne Bonny and Mary Read’s origins are laid out in hopefully reliable detail, although we don’t necessarily know.
LC: However, women pirates were probably more common than the historical record shows, considering how history consistently erases women. And one of the other historians we spoke with, Clint Jones, told us that if the Golden Age would have gone on much longer, female pirates probably would have been more widespread. And Anne Bonny might have even had her own crew, which would be dope.
EB: So what happened to them?
LC: Here is Rebecca again.
RS: They’re put on trial, they’re sentenced to death by execution in Jamaica. They only act as pirates for about two months. They’re captured in like the end of October, early November of 1720, after setting out in August, and they’re put on trial in Jamaica, because they’ve been captured off the coast of Jamaica. And they’re at St. Jago de la Vega, which is modern-day Spanish Town, where the courthouse was in Jamaica. Big twist. And this is all in the trial documents, so this is all legitimate documents here. Big twist–they’re both pregnant. They’re both pregnant. So, as per standard rule of the day, if a woman was found pregnant when she’d been sentenced to death, they give a stay of execution, meaning they will delay it until after the birth of the child. And most of the time, they honestly just wouldn’t even bother with the execution in the end anyways. Now, we don’t quite know what happened to them. It’s a little bit of a mystery, but we do know that Mary Read does die in prison, because of death records that show up, and the jail is in St. Catherine’s parish, it shows her death in 1721. So likely, she probably died of what they call jail fever, which was typhus. Possibly complications with pregnancy or childbirth, or all of the above. And Bonny, we actually don’t know. There’s no record of her actually being executed. There’s a few theories. The longest standing theory was that it was likely perhaps her father paid her ransom and she went back home to Carolina, remarried, raised a family, lived ’till she was about 80. But recently, a YouTuber, I forget his name, did find documents from St. Catherine’s parish listing an Anne Bonny having died in the earliest around 1732. So it’s possible, she may have just lived out the rest of her life in Jamaica. This just makes me think of Roxie Hart. Just like Roxie Hart, or like, Hunger Games, it’s like such a trope now of women being like, if not for the baby.
EB: Yes, yes. I mean, I think it seems like they both were actually pregnant, but it is like–
LC: Oh, yeah, yeah.
EB: Right? Like, I think this was true. But it is like also a nice excuse to not get killed, you know, that’s great. I also love that we like don’t really know when Anne died or how.
LC: I love it.
EB: It is cool that, even now, in the same way that we keep learning more things about history, someone did find documents of her death. But I also liked this idea of like, Anne just escaping, and like living her life however she wanted to, because she was like, “Well, I guess I’m done being a pirate, but I still have all these doubloons,” shout out to the beginning of the episode. “And I’m just gonna live how I want to live.”
LC: I mean, I love that for her. And I really–one thing I really rue about like modern society is it’s so hard to just disappear and be a new person. There’s like so many ways to trace you now.
EB: I know, but Anne just flew off into the sunset.
LC: Disappeared into the night.
EB: Lucky her. We said earlier in the episode we were going to talk a little bit about CJ’s book. So I want to talk about CJ’s book, Kingston by Starlight, which is a biographical fiction novel published by Three Rivers Press in 2005, about Anne and Mary, and he’s going to tell us a bit more about it.
CF: The story that I heard as a kid–I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and so I heard all sorts of stories growing up about, you know, duppies, which are kind of Jamaican ghosts, and rolling calves, which are kind of a flaming cow. And loads of crazy stories, including the stories of these two female pirates. And when I got a little bit older, when I began to be a writer, and I am a former editor of Time Magazine, a former senior editor at The Wall Street Journal, and I’ve written a number of books–I thought, this is a story I need to look into. And to my amazement, it turned out to be true. And I went on a worldwide investigative quest to really get to the bottom of what this whole tale was about, who these women really were, getting the actual trial proceedings from London of what happened. Of course, reading the famous book by Captain Johnson, who may or may not have been Daniel Defoe, about their lives, and then making a lot of stuff up, because that’s what novelists do. But I wanted to sort of base it on reality, and really find out from the historical record–what do we know about these two women and what they did? And then write a novel about it.
LC: So how did he approach writing the story?
CF: Well, you know, whenever a dude decides to write about a woman and with a woman’s voice, you know, you have to do with some trepidation. Because you have to think to yourself, “Is this something I really should be doing? Can I do it? Is this voice going to be authentic?” Because we all know lots of books where people try to adopt the voices of people who are outside of their experiences, and it’s pure garbage. And William Styron, of course, wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner. William Styron was a white Southern writer. Nat Turner was a black slave revolutionary. And in William Styron’s telling, Nat Turner did it all for the love of a white woman. So the book was a joke, people hated it. It won the Pulitzer Prize from the white establishment at the time. And it was much praised by mainstream critics. But people who knew, black authors were like, “This isn’t us. What’s up with this?” And so I didn’t want to put myself in the camp, I thought the best way for me to do this is to really immerse myself in research, and really read a lot of books, and diaries, and newspaper articles from the period to really get an authentic understanding of what the language was, the position of women and people of color at the time. Many of the books that I write, in the end, almost end up killing me. This one also sort of almost pushed me over the edge. I went to County Cork, I went to London, I went to Jamaica, really researching this book. And I remember at one point, I was, you know, on a beach near Port Royal, by myself, late at night. And I thought I could hear Anne Bonny’s voice in my head. And I’m like, “Okay, I think I’ve pushed it too far, I think this is about as far as I should go. I don’t want to put myself completely over the edge here.” And that’s really when I sort of heard her voice in my head, is when I thought, “Okay, now I can begin writing this because I can’t really offer this like a normal book. I really have to make sure it feels like it’s being channeled, that her voice is in my head, and I’m just sort of taking dictation.” And that’s really the way it went for this book, I felt like I was just taking dictation from Anne Bonny in my head. I went all the way to the end. And once it was done, I kind of–it was weird, a lot of the information I had in my head over the years researching this just comes to back me, in the names of places and the dates and the people, because it was too much for me to hold in my head except when I was writing and channeling it and on the beach in Jamaica. You know, past that I just had to go back to being myself. You know, the first part of the book is really kind of fragmentary. And that’s really what I heard her say to me, when I was walking along the beach in Jamaica, and I just was just a scribe, I just took it down and sort of went from there. It really is a story of transformation. People going beyond the cultural and gender and racial assignments that society has given to them. And the end is not so much transformation as realization, where you suddenly realize, “No, this is who I am. It’s not a choice, it’s not a lifestyle.” It’s who you are, and you embrace that. And there’s something beautiful and heroic about that, whether you’re crossing lines of race, or crossing lines of gender, or crossing lines of class, all of which is done in this book. And I felt like okay, by me writing this book, I’m also crossing certain lines to do that. And I felt like that was in the tradition of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who, you know, crossed lines all their lives. I felt like if they could do it, maybe they’re telling me a signal that I can do it too, with this book.
EB: I need to read this book immediately. I also want to go to a beach now and just like sit in the waves and wait for Anne to speak to me as well. I want to hear her voice.
LC: Yes. Should we plan a trip to Jamaica?
LC: Okay, once I am allowed leave the country, let’s go.
EB: Yeah. To be fair, that’s actually not a bad idea. Let’s do it.
LC: Reason for visit: channeling Anne Bonny. Sorry, continue.
EB: In his decisions about how to portray Anne, CJ responded to a pattern that we know quite well by now on our show–the erasure of women and people of color from history.
CF: Well, one thing that I found interesting is the way in which history hides this part from ourselves. Very often, when women or black people accomplish something, our identities are erased, or ignored, or it’s attributed to somebody else. For example, there was a pirate named Laurens de Graaf, who was a Dutch pirate. He was around really sort of flourished in the century before the Anne Bonny and Mary Read story. Most people at the time called him white, because if you’re such a successful pirate, people didn’t want to alarm people and say that he was mulatto, or black, which he was. And so I find it very interesting that the identities of pirates, if they’re successful, can be erased. And so when I began to find little bits and pieces of Anne Bonny’s story that suggested to me that she could be someone who was of color, I thought that was interesting, because that went against the historical record. The way people assumed that she must be a white woman, because she was from England, and because of her status, they thought, okay, this must be a white woman. But the historical record shows that her hair was wild. It was likely red, that she came from a very indeterminant kind of family background where her parent could have been a servant and she could have been illegitimate. That we know that there was some traffic between Moorish pirates and the area of County Cork that she had roots in. And all those things suggested to me that it wouldn’t be out of balance as a novelist to say, “You know what, a reason that could have driven her to sea could have been the fact that she actually had this mixed race heritage.” And so I put that in the book, as well. My mother, Dr. Ena Farley, is a professor of African American history. She’s retired now, but she was a professor of history for the longest time, at the State University of New York at Brockport, she was chairman of the department. And you know, she assumed that role back in the 70s and 80s, when there weren’t a whole lot of black women running history departments. And they weren’t a whole lot of people even studying black history. And I saw how time and time again, with her differing sensibilities, her different take on the subject, her increased level of skepticism, things that were assumed to be a certain way by the mostly white male historical community, didn’t turn out to be that way when you had a black woman professor looking at things. Things are often different. And so it’s really important, I think, to sort of adapt that kind of radical skepticism of history, because of who it’s written by and why they’re writing it. And the way they tell these stories can imprison us in their narrative. And I found that was true with Anne Bonny and Mary Read, in terms of people assuming why they did things, who they were with, who they may or may not have loved. When I went into a sort of more radical skepticism, instead of following what made sense, the story was quite different, and became the story that I had in Kingston by Starlight. Well, it wasn’t the story of two women serving under this male pirate captain, it really was a story of these two people finding their identity, and the men around them are actually kind of superfluous to this voyage of identity they were going on. So while we have movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, which sort of place, at the very beginning at least, white men at the center of the pirate narrative, the truth is quite different, where some of these pirates are women. Many of them were people of color. A lot of them were not just about simple criminality, but really were out there trying to establish some sort of new identity. And that comes when you sort of look at history from a different light.
LC: Wow, this is such an amazing take.
EB: It also could very much be accurate.
EB: We don’t know Anne’s family background, so to just assume that she’s white is like not really also accurate,
LC: Ellie, everybody from history is obviously lying.
EB: Obviously. I do love that take, and I think it’s a very valid one.
LC: Absolutely. So CJ also purposefully highlighted in the book the gender fluidity of the two pirates, which he’s going to talk about now.
CF: You know, I didn’t want to conform to the trope where you know, I’m just a dude written about women geting it on, and making it into some sort of erotic adventure. I mean, there are moments of eroticism in this book. It is at its heart a love story between these two women. But it’s about much more than that. And it’s about these two people really finding their identities with each other. I love Ursula K. Le Guin, and I love her book, The Left Hand of Darkness. And if people know the book, it’s about this planet where these aliens don’t have a fixed gender. They’re both men and women. And at certain times, they go into heat, and they become one or the other, depending on the circumstance. But one of the lead characters, who is an alien, Ursula K. Le Guin, because of the language of the time, when it was written, she continually refers to the character as “he,” because of the character’s status, because of the character’s position in the novel. And to me, that never made any sense because the character was a “them” or some other pronoun, but “he” wouldn’t capture it, unless you’re conforming to, you know, the, the male patriarchy of literature. So I didn’t want to fall into that for this book. So throughout the book, it’s at one key moment, Mary Read is referred to as “him” or “he,” or with that pronoun, and the names throughout the book, the three parts of the book, are constantly changed, you know, Anne’s referred to as Bonn, if it’s Bonn or Anne, throughout the book, just to sort of show the fluidity of language, the way in which names change, the way in which we claim ourselves over time. It may make that a little confusing for some readers, but I thought it was the most authentic way to get through, and to communicate the kind of journey of these two people who were on the ship. And so I wanted to make sure that that came across, that these characters were embracing identity that they always knew was within them, and not to sort of assign them an easy identity, because it would make it an easier read for people who are picking up the book. I need to get this book. So can we hear any of it? Yes, we asked CJ to read an excerpt to us, and he is reading from the end. Anne Bonny, the main character in the book, is sort of reflecting on her adventures after the end of her trial. “Whisper to the flashing water your real name. Write your signature in the sand and shout your identity to the sky until the answer returns to you in thunder. The whole world conspires to tell us who we are. Every nation assaults us with amnesia. And so we must do those things that will never be forgotten if we are to preserve our souls. Did I do wrong? Yes. But though blood stains, it fades, and sometimes washes off. Could I have chosen another path than the one I took? Ah, but as a mariner, I’ve learned over these long years to take whatever wind blows, and then bend it to one’s will. By my faith, we steer by the stars. They do not steer us. The end comes to all of us. Whether it be governors or sailors, harlots or craftsmen, scoundrels or monks. The end comes quicker to those who do not live their lives as they choose. If your life is not your own, then in what way is it living?”
EB: I know. It’s just–it doesn’t disappoint.
LC: No. Okay, so I was really excited about this episode. Obviously Anne and Mary are just like iconic, but like, wow, I had no idea it would be this interesting and this much, and I just–I’m excited to hear about the statues next week. I’m excited for the rest of the season, but like, oh my god.
EB: I know.
LC: What an incredible story. I have to go read all of these books now.
EB: I love both of them so much. Ugh! But in the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Amanda Cotton: And it’s not just about being pirates. It’s the rest of it, like women play football, women can be electricians, women can be wherever they want to be. Why are these things lost? And if we’d known that Mary and Anne existed years ago, would we still be on the same path for today?
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on Thursday the 27th of January, which is only a week from now. So exciting.
EB: Exciting. If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
LC: Thank you to our new Patreon supporter for the whole year, Ahmed, who signed up at the Ching Shih tier. Thank you so much, and please look out for a personalized poem from Alyse in the mail.
EB: Ugh, I’m so jealous, what a great surprise to get a poem from Alyse in the mail. Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Sarah Gabrielli. Our production assistant is Thea Smith and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guests this week: Ryan Burns, Rebecca Simon, and CJ Farley. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.
LC: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com. Also, one more fun thing to add before we go. I am revamping our merch store which has been out of action. We have some T-shirts and totes, oh my! On teepublic, and we will have the plectrums and the nail clippers on our website soon, along with maybe some Sappho poem fridge magnets, so look out for that.
EB: So exciting. And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for, our sea shanty for this week, written and performed by Alyse, with production by Joshua.