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.
The Library of Female Pirates has thus far focused on historical accounts of real people. But today, let’s have a look at one of my favorite pirate stories: Queen of the Black Coast, by Robert E. Howard, featuring Conan’s brief and ill-fated romance with Bêlit.
The following pages are excerpted from The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Random House 2002, compiled by Patrice Louinet, editor, and illustrated by Mark Schultz. It presents the first thirteen Conan stories in their original versions, in the order Howard wrote them. My only criticism is the exceedingly small font size for the text, with letters so thin they practically disappear into the page. The book’s completeness and Schultz’s beautiful artwork make this a worthy paperback anyway, and I suppose you could buy the Kindle version instead of investing in a magnifying glass for the print edition.
In his Foreword, Schultz calls Queen of the Black Coast one of the “indisputable classics of fantastic short fiction, richly deserving recognition and appreciation outside the genre.” You can also appreciate it outside the printed page by listening to a reading of the entire tale, free of charge, at Librivox: Conan and the Queen of the Black Coast. (You have the options to either stream it or download the audio files so you have your own copy.)
Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan have taken on a modern comic book adaptation of Queen of the Black Coast for Dark Horse in recent years. It is not the tale’s first appearance in comics, either. The good folks at Longbox Graveyard have reviewed the Marvel Comics adaptation at Queen of the Black Coast. The review includes covers and panels like this glorious Buscema rendering of the final, tragic scene:
What is it about this story that has earned such widespread admiration? Howard’s prose certainly deserves the credit. With a plot that could easily be presented as pulp silliness, Queen of the Black Coast sings like a literary masterpiece under Howard’s pen. The world of masculine power fantasy and adventure take on an urgent, brutal, and even philosophic reality through the author’s use of language.
But what of the character of Bêlit? She is as full of the drive for savage conquest as Conan, and does not fall into the “damsel in distress” role. She is tough, and she is in charge, and her dialogue reveals a sharp mind. This makes the scene of her mating dance a bit hard to swallow, where this incredibly powerful woman suddenly throws herself at Conan’s feet and begs him to take her. This may be the one out-of-tune note in an otherwise brilliantly composed symphony of female piracy.
But Bêlit is no shrinking violet who tumbles passively into the barbarian’s arms. After an all-too brief narration summarizing what must have been an epic season of seafaring mayhem for them, she takes her brawny adventurer on a truly suicidal mission. “We fear nothing,” she says to him boldly. “Let us go and sack that city.” It’s easy to see why Conan loves her!
Other reviewers of this tale have pointed out that Bêlit is a Shemite, which is Howard’s version of Semite, and that Howard borders on ethnic stereotyping by having a Jewish character whose main love is riches and jewels. But I find this avarice very much in character with what we would expect from a pirate, regardless of ethnicity, and we should keep in mind that Howard used all kinds of warrior races as models for his imaginary civilizations. It seems far more odd that Bêlit is described as having pure white skin, despite spending her life in the blazing sun on the decks of her ships!
Bêlit has a dialogue with Conan in which they discuss their philosophies, and she makes her pledge that she would come back from the grave to save him, so powerful is their love. Along with her dance, these are her major character scenes. After a scene in which she directs her crew in the plunder of some hidden jewels, even heartlessly sacrificing a few of them to do it, Bêlit meets a tragic end off-camera. She dies while the reader joins Conan in the jungle getting his psychedelic trip on thanks to the touch of a nasty plant called the black lotus. That Bêlit should become such a memorable character and bear so much narrative expansion in later adaptations is a testament to the way she commands attention in her brief but intense screen time.
Conan’s final scene is poignant. The sea means nothing to him without her. It only mattered to him because it mattered to her, and its music is no longer a siren song for him but a lonely requiem. Not even jewels mean anything to him, as he evidences by including them on her boat with her body, which he sends out to the ocean in a blaze. Howard writes it believably, but the depth of Conan’s emotion tells us that he and his pirate love had bonded with an intensity that perhaps the short story did not have the time to fully explore. Still, it is a beautiful monument to the passion and romance female pirates can stir within us, and the loss we feel when they must take that final, fiery voyage back to the seas they loved so much.
In today’s installment of The Library of Female Pirates, we take a look at a few pages from Angus Konstam’s Piracy: The Complete History. Though we return once again to the familiar subject of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, this book is notable for questioning the romantic yet brutal tale of these two female pirates. Unlike some other texts in our series, Konstam finds fault with the “far-fetched” and “sensationalist” story passed down to us courtesy of Daniel Defoe’s General History of the Pyrates.
Konstam points out that a pirate’s occupation was generally short-lived, due not only to its rough nature but to its being a temporary economic solution for most sailors involved. Thus, Konstam doubts Mary Read would have spent nearly 23 years at sea. He also points out we have little record, other than their trial documents, to verify anything Defoe has told us. Konstam makes these criticisms in pages 185-188, reproduced below.
Piracy: The Complete History begins in the 14th century BC, with a band of sea raiders who troubled the ancient Egyptians, and continues up to the modern time of 2008, when it was published. It’s an enjoyable read, and its modern language makes it more accessible than some of the older texts covered in this series.
“A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates and Also Their Policies, Discipline, and Government.” Nearly every book you find on pirates of antiquity will refer to the book featured in today’s installment of The Library of Female Pirates. David Cordingly, in Under the Black Flag, calls it Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, and Cordingly has provided an Introduction to at least one edition of the book under that name.
However, you will also find the book listed under author Daniel Defoe. Why? Editor Manuel Schonhorn explains in the Introduction to the edition pictured below. Based on the work of Professor John Robert Moore in 1932, academics have increasingly come to believe that “Captain Charles Johnson” was merely one of many pseudonyms for Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. Schonhorn elaborates on Defoe’s life, his interest in maritime commerce and piracy, and the nature of his sources and travels.
Schonhorn’s edition fills more than 700 pages and incorporates text from four editions of the first volume of A General History and the second volume as well. His supplementary material works to clarify Defoe’s factual claims, while the organization of the text for clarity cohesively orders material which was apparently scattered throughout the editions published in Defoe’s era. Defoe himself made corrections and changes between editions, and Schonhorn must have put in tremendous time and effort to make a single coherent text.
Compared to other texts in our Library of Female Pirates, this one has the most antiquated language. Schonhorn has preserved many old spellings (such as “authentick” instead of “authentic”) and the apparently common “anything goes” Approach to Capitalization of those bygone Days. This makes the book at once more challenging to the reader and more endearing, as if one is truly studying an historic document.
Pages 153 through 165 cover Mary Read and Anne Bonny. We would love to scan those pages for you, but the book is incredibly thick. Scanning it without destroying it is nigh impossible. However, most of the information has been recounted in the other, more modern books we have covered in this series. A General History of the Pyrates has served as the primary source, or at least the starting point, for all modern research on Read and Bonny, from the romantic retelling by Charles Ellms to Gosse’s account to Cordingly’s scholarly work.
Yet some details of their lives only appear in Defoe’s work, as far as we can tell. For example, Defoe spends nearly four pages recounting a tale of three stolen spoons. The drama between a wife, her husband, and her maid resulting from these stolen spoons leads directly to the circumstances of Anne Bonny’s early childhood. Mary Read’s various military services and her marriage resulting from one of those services also earn a bit more detail in Defoe’s history than in subsequent works. A combination of Defoe’s General History and Cordingly’s research in Under the Black Flag may well constitute the sum of all we shall ever know about these two famous female pirates.
Our seventh installment of The Library of Female Pirates concludes this week of piracy with the one book we would most highly recommend to anyone interested in female pirates or pirates in general: Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. Cordingly devotes his fourth chapter to “Women Pirates and Pirates’ Women”. We will not present the complete chapter here because, unlike some of the authors of our older texts, Cordingly is still alive and deserves your support in purchasing this incredible work.
Cordingly’s chapter on female pirates incorporates all of the historical sources our series has shared with you so far, and goes even further. For example, he expands the body of knowledge on Mary Read and Anne Bonny by researching historical documents. This provides the reader with, among other things, this notice of their trial date, complete with antiquated English spellings.
Cordingly also delves into the daily particulars of life which must have confronted females aboard the pirate ships, such as the problem of keeping their gender a secret when the only toilet aboard the ship was a large board, extending off the ship in plain view, with holes cut in it. Cordingly also notes the legendary female pirates were not the only women aboard these ships, and he reveals the conditions of wives and female captives. Finally, he puts the lives of female pirates into perspective by examining the lives of female sailors in general, favorably comparing their capabilities at sea with their male counterparts.
Ching Shih (which Cordingly spells Cheng) also appears in Under the Black Flag, receiving a far more historically knowledgeable treatment than Borges gave her in his fanciful Universal History of Iniquity. Cordingly mentions Alwilda here, essentially recounting Ellms’ brief version. However, Cordingly delves into the life of Grace O’Malley, a female pirate not covered in other texts in our series. Because she has not been given her due yet in this series, we present those pages here in their entirety.
Our sixth installment of The Library of Female Pirates returns to the pages of the 1996 hardcover edition of The Pirates by Charles Ellms. Here we receive a more complete account of the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, apparently the account drawn on by Philip Gosse in The History of Piracy.
Though not as historically complete as the next book in our series, this may be our favorite telling of their tale. Ellms’ old-fashioned language gives us a sense of these long-gone days and creates an atmosphere of both shock and sympathy for these hard-fighting women who, if truth be told, appear no more or less cruel than their male counterparts. Ellms portrays them as capable of both passion and savagery, sailors one would rather fight beside than fight against. Anne receives a shorter chapter, but much of her life overlaps with Read’s chapter, where their meeting is revealed.
Our fifth installment of The Library of Female Pirates features a brief account of the life of Alwilda from the pages of The Pirates by Charles Ellms. This 1996 hardcover edition presents material Ellms published anonymously as The Pirates Own Book, which is now available in many editions from Kindle to Audio Book.
Though Western readers tend to think of the buccaneers of the Caribbean when they think of pirates, Ellms includes Alwilda’s story in a chapter on the Danish and Norman pirates which came long before. Like Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Alwilda dressed as a man and went to sea, eventually leading a band of pirates. Ellms’ account reads like the stuff of legends, with Alwilda furiously battling a prince of Denmark whom her voyages had allowed her to escape becoming married to.
It is hard to say with certainty how accurate Ellms’ narratives are, as they make no attempt at citation, nor distinguishing historical record from anecdote. However, his charmingly old-fashioned language and sympathetic portrayal of female pirates does much to create a romantic yet savage vision of their life and times.
Our fourth installment of The Library of Female Pirates returns to the pages of The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse for a more detailed account of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Gosse ends this section with a brief verse he credits to the anonymous author of The Pirates’ Own Book. We now know the author was Charles Ellms, and the book was published anonymously in numerous editions as Ellms compiled material. We will explore the pages of a 1996 edition later in this series. Strangely enough, this fragment of verse did not make it into that edition, giving Gosse’s 1932 account a bit of uniqueness.
Our third installment of The Library of Female Pirates presents a more in-depth look at the Chinese pirate Ching Shih from The History of Piracy by Philip Gosse. Due to her code which prohibited certain forms of rape of female captives, some recent writers have attempted to paint Ching as a kind of feminist hero. Gosse’s account demonstrates otherwise.
Despite the initial goodwill these codes brought her in some villages, Ching eventually left a legacy of murder and broken families all along the coasts of Chinese rivers, taking hundreds of women captive. Gosse does not tell us what happened to these captive women, but it takes little imagination to know they must have been sold into slavery. Whatever her crimes, however, one thing is clear: Ching was not a woman to be trifled with. Though not as well-known as Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the Western world, she has appeared as a character in several movies and video games.
Gosse’s pages include a lesser-known female pirate from China: Hon-cho-lo. Also a widow of a pirate, she assumed command of her dead husband’s forces. Commanding sixty ocean-going junks from 1921 to 1922, she also participated in capturing women to sell into slavery. Though we enjoy romanticizing the pirates of the past as much as anyone, it would be a mistake to characterize these women as feminists concerned about the rights of women. It would perhaps be more accurate to say they proved themselves the equal of men in tactical leadership, the application of force, and barbaric cruelty.
Our second installment of The Library of Female Pirates showcases a brief narrative from Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Translated into English by Andrew Hurley, this tale appears in the Borges collection A Universal History of Iniquity. It covers the exploits of Ching Shih, perhaps the most overwhelmingly successful female pirate of all time. A widow of a Chinese pirate, she assumed control of her deceased husband’s forces, terrorizing the Eastern seas and coastlines until the government offered her a truce.
Borges’ account contains elements of fantasy, which he admits in his introductory material, as it was published in a somewhat sensationalized “tabloid” paper. Too factual to be fiction, and too fictionalized to be factual, it is best viewed as a light form of literary entertainment. Our series will share other, more authoritative texts about Ching Shih, none of which substantiate Borges’ scene entitled “The Dragon and the Vixen.” However, Borges’ flowing and descriptive language does capture the sense of brutality and beauty we have come to associate with the lives of female pirates, whether true or not.
Our first installment of The Library of Female Pirates showcases seven pages from a pirate coloring book called Blackbeard and Other Notorious Pirates by Peter F. Copeland. Copeland gives us the highlights from the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, perhaps the best-known female pirates in the Western world.
Though not as in-depth as other texts we will explore in this series, Copeland’s renderings of weapons, ships, and clothing do much to make the world of Bonny & Read come to life in our imaginations. His portrait of Mary Read, standing with her pistol before a cloud-covered mast bearing the jolly roger, truly captures the romantic vision time has bestowed on these reportedly tough and brutal women of the sea.