Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations dedicates a chapter to female pirates. Though his account of Read & Bonny covers familiar factual ground, Rediker adds his thoughts on gender roles of the day, and their relation to the pirate way of life. He writes of other women at sea, for comparison, and analyzes how artwork depicting a female pirate in the frontspiece of Johnson’s General History may have influenced the painting Liberty Leading the People.
On the subject of the Atlantic pirates in general, Rediker examines the working conditions of sailors in those days, and how piracy was a rebellion of oppressed laborers. Rediker is no stranger to the horrors suffered on ships back then. I studied his book on the Atlantic slave trade, and he painted a grim picture of life at sea for not only the captured slaves but for the sailors hired to transport them. Villains of All Nations briefly touches on this slave trade and how the 1720s crackdown on piracy was influenced by pressure to keep slave trade routes open and profitable.
Rediker’s narrative clearly sympathizes with the Atlantic pirates for liberating themselves from intolerable working conditions, and he openly criticizes government campaigns of propaganda and public hangings used to deter piracy. He details the code of collective self-government pirate crews adopted, but he does not unilaterally glamorize them. He does not shy away from their cruelties, nor their increasingly unconscionable violence as the crackdown turned against them.
But in giving a clear picture of the harsh living conditions which compelled them to rise up and resist captains and empires, to form their own multi-ethnic and independent societies, Rediker provides a unique insight into the decision to go “on the account” and become a “man of fortune” in the 1700s. The book is scholarly but never boring, and much of it could be read as the makings of a manifesto in an age where millions of laborers continue to suffer in oppressive conditions around the world.
The Atlantic pirates may not have been the romantic heroes portrayed in theater and fiction, but many of the justifications for their rebellion echo ideas we now consider noble or even take for granted: self-determination, reasonable working conditions, respect for diversity, and a voice in our governments.