Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lady Pirates: "...Thy Bride, Charlotte, The Female Pirate!"

So people make up stories all the time. I'm never surprised by that since I do it my own darn self (and then have the temerity to ask people to pay me for them). With this in mind, I find it kind of amusing that the piratosphere gets so huffy about the story of Charlotte de Berry. Sure, its probably pure fiction but so what? Its a good story, even if it is a little over done and heavily sauced with Victorian details. Lighten up, kids. Nobody seems to mind that Jack Sparrow is likewise fictional. Give the lady her due, will ya?

In 1836 Edward Lloyd published his "History of Pirates". Hot on the heels of Charles Ellms' "The Pirates Own Book", Lloyd cashed in on a titillating subject that the Victorians were just bonkers for. Lloyd's book is the first place that de Berry is mentioned and, though he is heavy on "facts" he leaves some pretty critical information out. All the same, here's what he has to say in a nutshell.

Charlotte de Berry was born to poor "but still most respectable" parents in an anonymous English port town in 1636. The girl was an only child and she grew up wild and free, idolizing the sailors around her and dreaming of going to sea. When she was 14 she started dressing in drag and hanging out in bars with the rock star sailors she loved. It was in one of these haunts that she met Jim Jib, whose real name appears to have been de Berry and - you guessed it - eloped with him to sea. Her parents never saw her again and Lloyd has them dying of broken hearts for the loss of their child.

Charlotte, of course, distinguishes herself aboard her husband's vessel. She is involved in multiple sea battles and no one ever suspects her for a girl. The ship's Lieutenant takes a set against Jim Jib at this point and has him brought up for court martial for some imaginary infraction. What ever the charge it must have been serious because Jim is given the brutal sentence of flogging around the fleet. In this nightmare that usually killed the prisoner, a man was rowed from one ship at anchor to another, flogged on board each ship with a set number of lashes, and then returned to his own ship for the final flogging. While this punishment was certainly carried out occasionally, it is not recorded by the Royal Navy until the late 18th century.

Jim dies a week after his ordeal and Charlotte plots revenge. Once her ship has returned to England and the sailors are paid out, she lies in wait for the Lieutenant, shoots him in the street and takes his money. She then runs off to London where she returns to women's clothing. She takes rooms, one imagines near the water. Of course, Charlotte is a beautiful woman and the local guys go nuts for her. One merchant Captain in particular won't take no for an answer and he manages to trick Charlotte into coming aboard his ship, which immediately sets sail. Charlotte is now Captain Wilmington's sex slave. Don't you love Victorian prose?

Wilmington, it turns out, is a cruel Martinet who punishes early and often aboard ship. His men can't stand him but no one wants to take the lead in a mutiny. No one, that is, except Charlotte. She kills Wilmington while he sleeps and becomes Captain of the merchant which now turns pirate. The ship is wildly successful in raiding merchants off the coast of Africa and things are going splendidly until Charlotte sets her cap for a heavily armed merchant that refuses to go down without a fight. The ensuing melee kills most of de Berry's crew, cripples her ship and sinks the prize with all hands aboard. Bummer.

Charlotte manages to limp her ship into Grenada - which at the time was not a colony of any European country, keep in mind - where she puts on her dresses once again and starts charming the local boys while the ship is being refit. She meets and falls in love with a "planter's son" who agrees to marry her and join her in her piratical adventures. He even generously re-mans Charlotte's ship with some of his Dad's slaves. And so, the pair head out for more prize taking.

The luck is not in it for Charlotte, though. The ship is beat up by a gale and blown out to sea where the crew quickly devours all available provisions. When hunger bites too deeply, the men agree to draw lots Monty Python style to see which man will be killed and cooked for dinner. The shortest straw goes to Charlotte's husband and she, understandably, tries to keep him from going in the stew pot. Fortunately, one of his faithful slaves steps up to take his place and the crew's hunger is sated... for now.

Soon, the lot drawing resumes and wouldn't you know Charlotte's husband is on the menu again. This time, another slave steps up and the crisis is momentarily averted. I know you can see this coming. A third drawing of lots turns up the Captain's mister once again and this time there is no generous slave to sacrifice. Charlotte talks the crew into eating only the hub's calves - seriously! This doesn't hold back their hunger for long, though, and eventually Charlotte's husband is killed and eaten raw while she watches. Needless to say, she goes insane.

The ship is eventually rescued and returns to pirating but Charlotte is now out for revenge on her own crew. They know what she's up to and some propose throwing her overboard. Cooler heads prevailed and she was "suffered to wander about the ship in undisturbed enjoyment of her wild ravings." I don't know. Maybe enjoyment wasn't really the right word there, Ed.

The pirates attack a Dutch ship "of large size and force" and nothing good comes of it. Charlotte kills anyone she can shoot and eventually is struck with a cutlass. Falling overboard, she calls out: "My husband! thy bride, Charlotte, the female pirate, comes to join thee!" Then Charlotte's ship blows up and everyone dies. The end.

And that's the rather sleazy story of Charlotte de Berry as told to us by Edward Lloyd. No, I don't believe it. But its still a ton o' piratical fun.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! I can't understand why no one believes that is a true story. It all sounds so plausible to me...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I think its the part with the lot drawing cannibals that just really puts it over the top. I'm just saying.