During the Golden Age of Pirates, two fierce and ruthless pirates stood apart from the rest, despite their brief careers. The only women in their crew, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were aggressive fighters to the end, refusing to surrender even when their captain called for quarter.
Joining me to discuss Anne Bonny and Mary Read is pirate expert Dr. Rebecca Simon, author of the new book, Pirate Queens: The Lives of Anne Bonny & Mary Read.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode audio is “Pirate Song,” written by Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry F. Gilbert; and performed by Reinald Werrenrath in July 1925; the audio is in the public domain. The episode image is an illustration of Anne Bonny and Mary Read from the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates; the image is in the Public Domain and available through the Internet Archive.
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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.
Today's episode is the first in a four part series of episodes, where we briefly detour into women's history of the British Isles. This episode features an English woman and an Irish woman, both of whom became fearsome pirates during the Golden Age of Pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. I'll talk with today's guest about the limits to what we can know about Bonny and Read and the problematic source on which much of our information is based. We do know for certain that Bonny and Read existed, and that they were tried for piracy in 1720. But much of the information about their early lives is more uncertain. Here's a brief overview of their stories as we know them. Mary Read was born out of wedlock in England in 1685. Her mother dressed her as a boy in order to claim the inheritance due to her deceased half brother. Read, still dressing as a man later join the British military, possibly during the Nine Years War, or the War of the Spanish Succession. During the fighting, she fell in love with a Flemish soldier and they married and opened an inn named "The Three Horseshoes" in the Netherlands. After her husband's untimely death, Read boarded a ship headed for the West Indies. When her ship was captured by pirates, she joined their crew. In 1720, she joined the crew of pirate captain Calico Jack Rackham, and his companion Anne Bonny. Anne Bonny was born in County Cork, Ireland, sometime around 1697 or 1700, the child of a servant woman and her employer. Bonny's father moved them first to London and then to Carolina territory to escape his wife and her family. Bonny's mother died when she was 12, and at 13, Bonny supposedly stabbed a servant girl with a knife. Despite her father's objections, Bonny married a poor pirate named James Bonny, taking his name. James Bonny may have had hopes of receiving money from his wealthy father- in-law, but instead, Anne was disowned. The couple moved to the Republic of Pirates, a sanctuary for English pirates in the Bahamas. James Bonny turned informant for Governor Woodes Rogers in 1718, reporting on pirates in the region. Meanwhile, mingling with pirates in taverns, Anne Bonny met Calico Jack Rackham and established a relationship with him. When her husband refused to divorce her, Bonny ran off with Rackham and joined his crew. She would later marry Rackham. When Mary Read first join the crew of Rackham and Bonny, it's possible that they assumed she was a man. According to legend, Bonny was attracted to the person she believed to be Mark Read. When Read revealed she was a woman, the two became friends and possibly lovers. A jealous Captain Rackham threatened to cut Mark's throat; but he changed his tune when he learned that in fact, she was a woman ,and they may have become a threesome. On August 22, 1720, Read, Bonny, and Rackham, together with their crew, captured an armed ship called "William," from a Nassau port. That raid led Governor Rogers to issue a proclamation in 1720, that concluded, "The said John Rackham and his said company are hereby proclaimed pirates and enemies to the crown of Great Britain, and are to be so treated and deemed by all His Majesty's subjects."
In October, 1720, a pirate hunter named Captain Jonathan Barnet, motivated by the bounty on the crew, tracked them down in Negril Bay. Only Read and Bonny stood their ground to fight. The men were drunk below deck. The men pirates were tried first in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and they were all sentenced to hang for their acts of piracy. Bonny visited Rackham shortly before he was hanged on November 18. According to "A General History of the Pirates," Bonny's last words to him were, "If you had fought like a man, you'd need not have been hanged like a dog." On November 28, Bonny and Read were tried in court. Dorothy Spenlow served as a witness at the trial and reported the following about her experience with Bonny and Read. "Two women, prisoners at the bar, were then on board the said sloop, and wore men's jackets and long trousers, and handkerchiefs tied about their heads, and that each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands, and cursed and swore at the men to murder the deponent, and that they should kill her to prevent her coming against them. And the deponent further said that the reason of her knowing and believing them to be women then was by the largeness of their breasts." Bonny and Read were found guilty of piracy and sentenced to hang. However, both claimed that they were pregnant, and when those claims proved true, they received stays of execution. In April of 1721, Read died after a violent fever in prison. She was likely still pregnant at the time of her death. She was buried on April 28, 1721, in Jamaica. Bonny's fate is unknown. There is no record of her release, or her hanging. It's possible she returned to Charleston and married again, although that's just speculation. Joining me to help us understand more about Read and Bonny, and what we can and can't know about them, is pirate expert, Dr. Rebecca Simon, author of "Why We Love Pirates," "The Hunt for Captain Kidd, and How He Changed Piracy Forever," and the new book, "Pirate Queens: the Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read."
Rebecca, thanks so much for joining me today.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 9:14
You're welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
Kelly Therese Pollock 9:16
Yeah, it was funny. I posted on Facebook the other day as I was reading the book, I said, you know, "People are always asking me like, how do you do this? How do you have a podcast and job and stuff?" and I was like, "I'm reading about women pirates. This is not like a hardship." So this was pretty exciting.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 9:33
I'm so glad.
Kelly Therese Pollock 9:35
So I wanted to ask a little bit how you got into studying pirates in the first place. You know how you ended up writing a PhD dissertation about pirates? And now you're sort of the the pirate expert.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 9:45
Yes. So when I was doing my master's in history, I was taking a course on Atlantic history, because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to focus on: colonial America, early modern Britain, because those have just always been my favorite time periods and I was taking an Atlantic history seminar which combines all of it and it ended up being my focus. And one of the books we read was a book called "Villains of All Nations" by the historian Marcus Rediker, which is about Atlantic piracy in the 17th and 18th century. And I found it to be really fascinating because before that, everything I knew about pirates was basically like "Pirates of the Caribbean," you know, the ride the films, that sort of thing. And I had no idea that pirates were even something you could really study as a historian, and I found the book was really fascinating. And I was really interested to know like, "Okay, so if pirates were basically seen as kind of like these hardened criminals, according to what Rediker was writing, how did we get from that to Jack Sparrow?" So I really wanted to explore perceptions of piracy. So I looked, for a master's thesis, I looked at how perceptions of piracy changed. And I did that through the lens of the novel "Treasure Island" and newspaper reports of pirates. And when I decided to do my doctorate, I wanted to continue about this perceptions of piracy. And I went to England for it at King's College London. And my supervisor was like, "Great, now you have to narrow it make it really focused."And while I was doing some reading about a pirate named Captain Kidd, I saw when he was he was going to be executed for crimes of piracy, he was taken to East London to Wapping, and was hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames. And I already knew just from other research randomly, that criminals are usually hung in West London at the Tyburn Tree. So I was like, "Oh, why was Kidd taken to a different place? I'm gonna look up and see, you know, what's an article or book I can read about pirate executions?" Nothing had been written. So that became my PhD topic. So by working on this, and I presented at loads of different conferences, I was very active on social media, especially Twitter at the time, and I still am. And I made lots of contacts. And just kind of over time, people began finding me and asking me to write guest blogs, and people started asking me to come on the podcast, and it's kind of really grown a lot, especially over the last five years.
Kelly Therese Pollock 12:04
Yeah, that's really fun. I think I'm sure there's, you know, a lot of serious scholarly research that goes into this too. But it's just fun to have a topic that you can sort of really dig into and that people respond to and want to learn more about.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 12:18
Yeah, and that's what I really love about it is I've always been really passionate about bringing history to the public, history to the masses. The trends are moving away from this, but there's always kind of been like this ivory tower sort of thing with any scholarly work, you know, keeping it, you know, written by academics for academics. We've very much been moving past that, and more and more academics are engaging with the public. And this is something I've always wanted to do. And I also knew going into piracy, yes, it interested me, but I also knew it would interest other people. And luckily, of course, I love the subject. And I'm always so excited when people want to know more about it. And piracy always kind of seems to it's sort of ebbs and flows, no pun intended in terms of pop culture interest, but right now, you know, it's got a huge resurgence, which is good for me. But it's also loads of fun in general.
Kelly Therese Pollock 13:06
Yeah. So let's talk some then about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and in deciding to write a book about them, what are sort of the challenges you faced with the source material? Because I know that that that's the sort of real difficulty about writing about them. So can you talk some about what what that meant for you?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 13:26
Yeah. So source material about pirates is quite challenging because pirates themselves didn't keep records or if they did, they were they were destroyed or lost. So all the information we get is kind of tangential information or stuff kind of around the periphery, you know, trial documents for those who went on trial and newspaper reports, merchant letters, counsel letters, admiralty court papers, all that sort of thing. Now, Anne Bonny and Mary Read are quite unique because they were female pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, which lasted from the mid 1600s to the early 1700s. And although there had been female pirates before them since the ancient world, generally if a woman was a pirate, it was because she was married to a very powerful figure, whereas Anne Bonny and Mary Read, their origins are actually very mysterious. And we don't know much about them. There's really only two documents. We have to go on them. And one is the trial transcript when they were captured and put on trial, with Jack Rackham, who Anne Bonny was married to, the captain. And that's got all of like the real factual information with witnesses of who survived their attacks, and all the court proceedings. But then the only other source we really have is the book, "A General History of the Pirates," which was published in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson. It's a collection, a very large collection of pirate biographies of the most notorious pirates of the age. And the issue with this, it's very fictionalized. There are some pirate biographies that are a lot more factual, but then others where he kind of basically makes an adventure story out of it. And Anne Bonny and Mary Read each have their own chapter. And their chapters were very much most likely made up because there's no source material. And he's definitely given them kind of a very dramatic story. So my job was to basically kind of reconcile, "Okay, how can we reconcile this most likely fictitious version of their history with the trial transcript and hardly any other sources?" So I had to really dive deep. Again, no pun intended, I had to really dive deep and kind of examine, "Well, what would life have been like for them? What was life like in the maritime world for women? What was life like, for working class women?" And I had to go into this whole new field of study for myself, and to gender history and sexuality, and that whole realm of the maritime world, which was really fascinating.
Kelly Therese Pollock 15:43
Yeah, so let's pick up on that a little bit. And so for everybody who is watching "Our Flag Means Death," which is everybody I know apparently, they're they're roughly contemporary with Stede Bonnet around the same time period. So what was life like for women? What would life have been like for them? What was compelling about becoming pirates?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 16:09
Life for women during that time period in the early 18th century was pretty limited. Women pretty much only had two choices, regardless of what social class they were: get married, or if they were more working class, go into domestic servitude. And that was pretty much it. Women had very few rights, they had very few opportunities. They didn't even have very much educational opportunities. And so someone like Anne Bonny or Mary Read, being able to make it in on a pirate ship is very unusual. The maritime world was very masculine, and for the most part, women weren't allowed to work on ships. And there's this belief, it's because they say women were bad luck. That's actually more of a myth. There is mythology about female figures that caused the deaths of sailors, such as mermaids and sirens, but there wasn't an idea of women being bad luck. The idea was women would not be able to mentally, physically or emotionally handle the workload of a ship and would cause create lots of problems amongst the men. So women weren't allowed to work on ships. Sometimes they were passengers, but again, that was rare. So for a woman to work on a pirate ship, she either would have had to have some sort of special circumstance to be allowed to do so, or, most likely, disguise herself as a man. And that is where a lot of the big challenge comes from; because how are you going to hide your female body? How are you going to, you know, hide something like menstruation? That's very difficult to hide in a world of men, and all the challenges that come with that. So these are kind of the big things I kind of had to go and really deeply explore and ask. Anne Bonny was married to a pirate captain. Mary Read, we're not sure how she found them. It was somewhere in the Bahamas. Because there was a proclamation, a warrant for arrest issued by the governor for Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read, so people knew about women pirates sailing off here. But again, it's such an interesting mystery of how they were able to do this and really break through the social construct of the time, the societal expectations for women.
Kelly Therese Pollock 18:10
And so Mary, at least, certainly had a lot of experience dressing as a man. You know, you mentioned the challenges of that. What what would that have been like? You know, and you talked about difference between doing that as a soldier and then doing that on a ship where you're just surrounded by other people? So what kinds of challenges is she facing or any of the women who would have been doing this facing?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 18:33
Yeah, so according to "A General History of the Pirates" Mary Read was pretty much raised as a boy and then left and actually served in the British army disguised as a man and then also disguised herself as a sailor after the fact. Again, we don't know if that's true, but it makes a really compelling case, because there were cases of women who did disguise themselves as men to fight in the armies. Now, the challenge would be to physically disguise yourself. So oftentimes, younger men could join the army and these could be adolescents, you know, taking on more menial jobs. Women, generally, generalizing here, being smaller in stature could pass themselves off as adolescent young men, which could also explain for clean shaven face because you know, women don't grow facial hair. In terms of clothing, they would have to bind their breasts, you know, so that's not going to show and a lot of clothing was usually quite baggy or could be quite loose. And so that could also help kind of hide their figure. In terms of something like menstruation, one of two things would happen. The extreme physical work that it takes in order to train as a soldier or work on a ship could possibly cause menstruation to stop, as it does with extreme athletes sometimes; or women, were going to find ways to kind of just hide it and work around it, you know, using rags or sponges and that sort of thing. And, you know, if someone finds blood on clothing, it can easily be passed off as an injury or if you're wearing darker clothing, you could hide it. And in terms of going to the bathroom, you know, sometimes what women would do is they would put a funnel in their trousers, so that way it could look like they were peeing standing up alongside the men. So they did have to really kind of maneuver their way around. But the reality is, these situations would also be very busy, lots of work, could be chaotic. But you know, whether it's the battlefield or on a ship, so it's likely that people probably wouldn't be paying too much close attention.
Kelly Therese Pollock 20:26
So then it's so interesting at at the end of life, and we should mention that there are only active pirates for two months. And despite the how large they loom in our imaginations, this is a short period of time. But the the descriptions we have of them then are that they are no longer trying to hide, or maybe they're sometimes hiding, but you know, at least when they're fighting as pirates, they are clearly women. And so they're sort of playing against all sorts of gender expectations and gender notions. So what what are these descriptions what is the way that they are actually presenting themselves as fighting female pirates?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 21:08
So according to eyewitness testimony at their trials, particularly those by Thomas Spenlow and Dorothy Thomas, who had both been held hostage briefly by them, during battle, Anne Bonny and Mary Read wore men's clothing, and they would fight harder, curse more, swear more, and they were way more brutal than any of the men and they were known to kind of bare their breasts or to at least show them off. And this is kind of an intimidation tactic that male pirates would use as well showing some form of nudity in order to kind of shock their victims into submission. And this would definitely work. No one's going to expect two women to rush full rush forward at them, with weapons brandished, swearing and cursing. It's going to freak people out. So while they did dress in men's clothing, they were not hiding the fact that they were women. If anything, it was probably beneficial for them to help subdue the other side. But what's also quite interesting is that according to these witnesses, when they were not in battle, they were wearing standard women's clothing. So this kind of suggests that the two of them before they were pirates lived as women, including Mary Read, despite what Captain Charles Johnson speculates, and they were most likely wearing men's clothing in battle for practical reasons. And this honestly wasn't too unusual. Women who worked on in farms and heavy labor jobs sometimes might wear trousers. And although most of the time of course, they would wear your standard female clothing, in public. So it was probably for practical reasons.
Kelly Therese Pollock 22:35
So let's talk then a little bit about when they're captured and in the trial that happened. So you write about how they're trying to encourage the captain to be a little smarter. He's not really listening to them as you know, men sometimes do. So what what is going on there, you know, to do they just sort of have good instincts, are they less likely to be kind of cocky the way the captain maybe is, is being like what what's happening during this time that they're active pirates?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 23:08
So what's interesting about Anne Bonny and Mary Read is that it appears that they were pretty savvy in terms of how sailing should work, how pirating should work, and they were often giving suggestions or even trying to give orders to Captain Jack Rackham, who, Captain Jack Rackham was interesting because he was a very good strategist, but he wasn't actually a very good pirate. They didn't they only sailed together for about two months. And they only made really one major capture and a few minor captures. So it wasn't super successful all the time. And Anne and Mary and along with a lot of the other crew would often get frustrated. And sometimes he would make decisions they didn't agree with. For instance, when they came across the woman at the trial, who testified against him at the trial, Dorothy Thomas, Jack Rackham wanted to let her go ,and Anne Bonny or Mary Read, one of the two, insisted that they needed to kill her because if they let her go, she could speak out against them. And Jack Rackham said, "No." He didn't want to kill a woman. So it's interesting that it's the women who wanted to kill the woman. They would ultimately end up being right. Dorothy Thomas did speak out against them. But kind of everything comes to a head at the end of this their two month pirating journey, because they're being pursued by a very skilled pirate hunter named Captain Jonathan Barnet. And he's sort of partnered up with a guy named Jean Bonadvis, who was also a pirate hunter. And they both happened to be looking for Jack Rackham, because they both had separate commissions to do so. When they came across Jack Rackham, they, Jack Rackham and the crew, they were all very drunk. They just kind of had a pretty decent prize, you know, they stole a lot of wine. And they started to engage Barnet in a fight when he cornered them off the coast of Jamaica and Negros Bay. But Jack Rackham ends up ordering everybody below deck rather than fighting; whereas Anne Bonny and Mary Read are the ones trying to keep people on deck to fight But it ends up it doesn't end up happening that way. All the men go below deck, leaving just Anne Bonny and Mary Read alone to defend the ship. And sure enough, they're unable to defend the ship against an entire crew of pirate hunters. So even though they put up a brilliant fight, they ultimately end up getting captured.
Kelly Therese Pollock 25:17
And then when it comes time for the trial, there's two trials. There's all the men are tried together, and Anne and Mary are tried separately. Was that would that have been common that you know what, what's going on there?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 25:29
I'm not sure if it necessarily would have been common in general for men and women to be tried separately. But I imagine this was probably quite a special case, since you know, two women as pirates. The jury and the lawyers had to kind of figure out like, were they acting of their own accord? Or were they forced into it? Were they manipulated into it? Was it possible Anne Bonny was kind of coerced and manipulated by her husband, because she didn't know any better? So they're kind of a really special case, and also two women as pirates was so socially abhorrent that it was felt that they really had to have their own attention put on to them. You know, how would a jury react to two women? So they very much did treat them as a special case. Now, in terms of how the trials played out, the trials played out very similarly, you know, there's always the standard procedure. But it is true, all the men were tried first, and then after those who were found guilty were executed after that is when Anne and Mary ended up being tried it together. And ultimately, they would also be found guilty. But as kind of a big plot twist, it's revealed that they're both pregnant on the stand. And this is a very big deal because a pregnant woman will not get executed. So they get what's called a stay of execution, which means that they won't be executed until after the children are born; although in reality, nine times out of 10, a woman with a death sentence actually would not receive the death sentence in the end. She would probably be transported for labor in the colonies.
Kelly Therese Pollock 27:00
So they're both pregnant, which would indicate that they're having sex with men. But there has long been speculation that they were lesbian lovers. Do we have any evidence of that, you know, or they were just close friends, or we just can't really know?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 27:17
This is kind of where a lot of complication starts to come in with history is you there has been so much erasure of LGBT history. And there's a few reasons for this. One is because homosexuality as a concept, as we know it, did not exist in the early modern period. What we think of homosexuality, that didn't really start to become a concept until the 19 century. Beforehand, same sex relationships didn't really see as something that existed. Sexual activities between men was illegal and referred to as buggery or sodomy. And that is a criminal offence. Women, when it came to women, the entire concept of two women being lovers did not exist whatsoever. There wasn't even any terminology for it. Because the idea was, even if a man found out his wife was having a relationship with another woman, it still wasn't seen a big deal because there's no penis involved. And the idea is, that is when adultery happens. Now, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, there's always been the big question that and the belief that the two of them were lovers together. There actually is no evidence for this whatsoever. Now, I'm not trying to erase the history at all. But this is the problem we as historians face, is that you know, in order to make a claim, just like any researcher, we have to have evidence to back it up. What we do know is that the two of them were pregnant, Anne Bonny being married to Jack Rackham, and she had met him before sailing. Of course, that's probably how she became pregnant. Mary Read was actually known to be partnered up with one of the sailors on the ship, which could be how she wound up on the ship as well. So it will kind of make sense that they would both be pregnant together. Now the idea that the two of them may have been lovers sorta comes from "A General History of the Pirates" because according to Johnson, Mary was disguised as a man and Anne Bonny tries to seduce her, and is, quote, "very disappointed" to find out that Mary Read was in fact a woman. And Jack Rackham was very jealous of the attention Anne was giving to Mary Read because he didn't know that Mary Read was actually a woman. And so he almost kills her in a fit of jealousy until he finds out otherwise, and then it's fine. Now, the concept of the two of them actually being lovers is a 20th century invention. And that is because of a feminist writer, I forget her name off the top of my head, but she wrote an essay basically saying Anne Bonny and Mary Read were lesbian lovers and this very much took off. And it's kind of become sort of the standard lexicon now that we very much believe the two of them are lovers, although there's no evidence to actually substantiate this.
Kelly Therese Pollock 29:48
So let's talk then a little bit about the the legacy, their legacy. And we've mentioned there were other women pirates that you know, maybe not a lot of them but but the they're not the only two women pirates ever. So why is it that we still have their story, that we hear more about them? And then even more why we hear more about Anne Bonny than Mary Read.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 30:09
So there's a few reasons for this. So one of the reasons why the two of them were so much more notorious than a lot of female pirates who came before them, is because the origins are just so basic. You know, they weren't coming from powerful families. They weren't married to powerful men at all whatsoever. So it's very interesting that the two of them could have actually made a career as pirates. But the real big thing is that when Captain Charles Johnson wrote "A General History of the Pirates," he made sure that Anne Bonny and Mary Read's name was mentioned within the title on the title page. And part of this is because when this book was being sold, it was marketed as kind of a novel in a way, and novels were just starting to become popular at the time. And they knew that a story like Anne Bonny and Mary Read would help make it sell because this would be something so outside the norm, that people would have like a morbid fascination. And so this really kind of spun them into a lot of infamy. Not only that, subsequent writers would have female characters very possibly very much inspired by Anne Bonny and Mary Read, such as Daniel Defoe, who is sometimes believed to have actually been Captain Charles Johnson. But that is a whole other discussion, and we don't actually know if he was, but he wrote "Moll Flanders," which is about a woman who might have been based off Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the book, or the play "Polly," which is a sequel to The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, that may have, Polly may have been inspired by Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And so since the "General History of the the Pirates" never went out of print, their stories still continued; but the legacy that kind of really came into play in the 20th century as kind of pirate media became very popular thanks to "Treasure Island," and we do see some female characters of pirates a bit later in the game, such as with films like "Cutthroat Island," and then of course, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. Now what's interesting is that in a lot of media, Anne Bonny is the pirate that is, Anne Bonny is the one of the pair that tends to get more attention; such as Anne Bonny was Irish and she was known to have red hair and in the film "Cutthroat Island," Geena Davis has red hair and plays someone who's clearly based on Anne Bonny. The television show "Black Sails" has Anne Bonny as a main character, but Mary Read is absent throughout the entire show except for the very, very, very last episode. My argument, the reason for this, is because the way she was written in Captain Charles Johnson's book was that she became a pirate out of love; whereas Mary Read became a pirate out of a masculine lifestyle she was living that was deviant to what was expected of women at the time. Mary Read actively chooses to become a soldier. She actively chooses to live as a male sailor and then become a pirate; whereas Anne Bonny does not try to disguise her gender. She falls in love with a sailor then she falls in love with a pirate. So her story is a love story, whereas Mary Read' story is one of deviance. And I personally believe that this has even subconsciously kind of played out into the media and this is why Anne Bonny is the one that gets the fascination for it versus Mary Read, because no matter what, even in our modern 20th century time period, the idea of a woman living in such a masculine way is still looked upon unfavorably in a lot of ways; whereas Anne Bonny takes the popular female trope of following her heart, which is much more of a popular trope today.
Kelly Therese Pollock 33:43
Yeah, yeah. So, you know, it's easy to forget, as you're watching TV shows about pirates, movies, all this stuff that that these are villains; that they're murdering, and stealing and plundering and it was maybe a terrible life for them otherwise, without you know, like, you can understand the reasons people might go into this. But still, it's easy to sort of forget that in our romanticization of piracy. So I wonder if you could speak just to that more generally a little bit like what what it is that we're doing when we're sort of romanticizing pirates like this and, and what, what popular culture maybe gets right or doesn't get right about what the pirate life actually was like.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 34:27
The romanticization of piracy is so fascinating, because during the 16 and 1700s, you know, pirates were very much abhored, but at the same time, they still were a subject of fascination. And part of it is because pirates actually did help out a lot of colonies by bringing in smuggled goods, because of restricted trade that Britain had in order to really kind of hurt their European competitors. So there was already kind of an interesting view of piracy that had been going on. And then with the "General History of the Pirates," which was written kind of really to create a really fascinating almost adventure like story about pirates; now they're still painted as bad guys, but still adventure like, so people are really fascinated by that. But what it was it was really the book "Treasure Island" that really changed the game and how we view pirates, which was published in 1883 by Robert Louis Stevenson, the idea of going on a treasure hunt, and the pirates kind of becoming these bad guys that show up unexpectedly. And then Long John Silver, the main antagonist somehow manages to get away with the treasure. This really changed the way we view pirates, and Stevenson used the book "A General History of the Pirates" as kind of a big piece of source material. And because pirates were the they were frightening criminals, but they were so removed from people, you know, if someone was robbing on land, that's going to have a much that's gonna be much closer to the general public, and people will be much more affected. But when people are reading about pirates that are attacking ships in far off exotic places, that's going to be interesting. And people are going to kind of find this fascination, like, "Oh, my God, they're pirates. They're sailing, and all these places, and they're robbing ships, and they're getting wealthy," which was very unusual to do as a sailor. So this fascination was already there, because they were seen as being able to break through class barriers in some ways. And "Treasure Island" also really pushed this forward with the idea of going after buried treasure. And so this kind of really transforms the way we see piracy. And "Treasure Island" was a smash hit in Britain and the United States and it stayed so. It's been adapted numerous times throughout the 20th century. And even productions about pirates that are not based on "Treasure Island," are still kind of based on "Treasure Island." They all have that basis. Virtually every single thing we think we know about pirates, unless you studied it in an academic setting, comes from "Treasure Island," the idea of looking for buried treasure, these adventures kind of antihero swashbucklers, who are going against society and creating a whole new one, and fighting against corruption, et cetera, et cetera. All of this comes very much from fiction. And we naturally do find that really fascinating because here are people who are able to break away from the social mold and make a whole new life for themselves, which pirates in a way did on their ships. Their ships were their own nations.
Kelly Therese Pollock 37:11
When I was I guess, probably in like middle school, I had the biggest crush on Christian Bale in the TV adaptation of "Treasure Island" from like, 1990. He was Jim Hawkins. I don't think it's a terribly popular or well known adaptation. But it was really important to my middle school me.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 37:32
For me, I absolutely loved the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" film. I was a huge Johnny Depp fan, and I loved the character Captain Jack Sparrow. I was in high school, and again, I never thought more of it. But you know, who knew that he'd ended up being kind of a big inspiration for my studies?
Kelly Therese Pollock 37:47
Do you think any of these movies or TV shows or anything are doing a good job at portraying you know, what it what it really would have been? Like? I mean, obviously, something like "Our Flag Means Death" is not trying for hyper realism. But you know, are there things that are maybe actually being portrayed fairly well, or is it all just like from Robert Louis Stevenson's imagination?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 38:11
Well, two things I think actually portray piracy pretty decently, despite being fiction, and just meant to entertain are: "Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl" and the television show "Black Sails." What I enjoy about "The Curse of the Black Pearl" is that they very much play on maritime mythology, superstition and lore. A lot of that tends to get downplayed in a lot of productions about sea life in general. And they do kind of make up their own versions of it, such as they mentioned a pirates' code. And they don't use the correct code in the film. But there was actually a code of rules that pirates did adhere to. So they do bring that out. There is kind of the idea of like women being bad luck on ships that's pointed out in the film, but it's also pointed out how ridiculous that actually is to kind of show that wasn't really a thing. But what I really enjoy is the diverse makeup of the pirate ships. You see, people of all colors. You see disabled people who are also pirates. Zoe Saldana plays a female pirate named Anna Marie on the ship. And of course, Keira Knightley in the franchise will eventually become a pirate herself. So I really appreciate how they've done the makeup and culture of a ship. The show "Black Sails" is really brilliant in that it shows the really rough reality not just at sea, but also on land as pirates are trying to navigate this struggle between working for themselves, also having to kind of navigate their financial backers because many pirates did have financial backers, and also the rise of the Royal Navy as it's stamping out piracy, because it takes place and 1715, at the time when there was a big Spanish treasure fleet wreck and that's what they're after. And in the meantime, the Royal Navy is really stepping up its game. They also do now, while it's fiction, and it's actually kind of meant to be a prequel to "Treasure Island," they also do bring in loads of actual historical figures into the show, such as you do have Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, and you also have Charles Vane, who Jack Rackham had sailed with before Anne Bonny. Now historically, the to that timeline does not work. But the characters are done so well. And I think that they really kind of portrayed them well, in terms of what the pirates historically were like, for the most part. So I thought that was done really, really well. And I very much enjoyed that. I think the show "Our Flag Means Death" is fun. I'm not gonna lie, it's not my favorite show. And, you know, I joke that it's like my favorite show to roast. And I know, it wasn't being done for historical accuracy at all whatsoever. I think the thing that kind of bothers me a little bit is that because it's a show not intended to have any historical accuracy, why choose two real pirates? So I think that was my, my main beef. But otherwise, like, if I look away from that, I do think it is a fun show. It's not my favorite, but it is fun.
Kelly Therese Pollock 40:52
If there are people out there listening, who are maybe going to make a TV show about pirates, you're available for hire, right to to consult on how to do it accurately?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 41:02
Yes, that is my dream. I'm not going to lie. My dream, actually is to be a consultant on some sort of pirate film or television show. So yes, I am available, and I'm very good at my job.
Kelly Therese Pollock 41:12
All right. And if people would like to learn more about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, how can they get your book?
Dr. Rebecca Simon 41:19
So my book "Pirate Queens: the Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read" is available pretty much anywhere. You could find it online on Amazon or indiebound. You can also buy it directly from the publisher's website, which is Penandsword.com. It's being sold in some bookstores with being a smaller press, it might be a little harder to find, but definitely online, you can find it as both a hardback and an ebook. And in a few months, the audiobook will be released, which was actually read by me. So that will be available on Audible in the coming months. It's almost done. And yeah, that's where you can find it.
Kelly Therese Pollock 41:52
Excellent. I love audiobooks. And it's a great read. It's a really, it's a fun read. So I think people should check it out.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 41:59
Thank you so much.
Kelly Therese Pollock 42:00
Well, Rebecca, thank you. This was a really fun book for me to read to prepare, and it was just great to talk to you.
Dr. Rebecca Simon 42:07
Thank you so much. I'm so glad you enjoyed it and it was wonderful speaking to you as well.
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode @UnsungHistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or our used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.
I am a historian of early modern piracy, Colonial America, the Atlantic World, and maritime history. I earned my PhD from King’s College London in 2017. My dissertation, entitled: “The Crimes of Piracy and its Punishment: The Performance of Maritime Supremacy in the British Atlantic World, 1670 – 1830,” examines British maritime and legal supremacy in its early American colonies in regards to maritime piracy. I use the public executions of pirates in London and the Americas as my narrative to see how the colonists reacted to increased legal restrictions by British authorities, which ultimately led to new ideas of autonomy.