It's time to enjoy the second half of CRwM's take on Anne Bonny and her lady pirate mates. Enjoy, Brethren:
There's Something About Mary
Still, during the Golden Age of Piracy, female pirates did make it onto ships. In the case of Mary Read, the female pirate whose story is tangled up in the fate of our Anne, she joined under the guise of a man. (Allegedly.) Mary Read often gets short shrift in the story of Anne and Mary. But, in fact, she was most likely kind of a total badass. Whenever we’re talking pirates, the records get questionable, but the best story arc for Read suggests a woman with astounding reserves of strength and an unquenchable drive to survive. When Mary was a child, her older brother died. In order to get a debated inheritance in an age when only males inherited, Read’s mother started to dress her as a boy and passed her off as her dead brother. Read took to it, and despite the money her drag act earned her and her mother, Read took work on a ship, still disguised as a young man. She ended up jumping ship and joining up with a British warship. Then she ended up in conflict in Holland. The tangled conflicts of the Nine Year’s War were one of those absurd and nasty slaughters fueled by royal nonsense Europe used to specialize in. The battle came to be known as “the college” among military men because it produced a generation of ambitious military men. Read, crypto-male, was one of that generation.
After the war, Read fell in love with a Flemish soldier who, one imagines, eventually figured out she was a girl. In peace time, they realized there was no way for killers to advance, so they left the armed forces and opened an inn. Her husband died young of unknown causes. Faced with widowness, Read donned male garb again and joined a commercial ship. She was captured by pirates, but unlike most women captured, she could offer combat experience. She joined with the pirates. Then, during yet another absurdly complex squabble between kings, she became a privateer. Legitimacy didn’t suit Read and her mates, so they mutinied and went criminal again. In 1720-ish, she - still under guise of manhood - joined the crew of John “Calico Jack” Rackham. It was on that ship that she crossed paths with Anne Bonny and was finally unmasked as a woman.
Mary is depicted in contemporary illustrations in terms similar to Anne. In some images, like Anne, she’s depicted wading into battle with her breasts exposed. However, the most famous image of her depicts her fully clothed, running a man through with a sword. At the risk of sounding sexist, there’s something about her legs that strikes me as essentially feminine. And, of course, there’s the notable lack of face fuzz, a coded gender reference in pirate images. Still, this depiction of Read shows that there’s not the technical demand that an artist depict a female pirate with her breasts exposed.
And, more notably, why is Read’s iconic depiction fully clothed, but Bonny’s depiction has her breast exposed?
My evidence for this is completely circumstantial, but I’ve always seen the iconic image of Anne Bonny as a sort of nexus of all the ideologically potent imagery associated with piracy. First, she strikes me as an image of class struggle. Specifically, the image of her with tits rampant reminds me of French class struggle imagery. To get even more specific, she seems like some prototype for 19th Century imagery of Marianne at the barricades. Marianne is, to France, something akin to a cross between Uncle Sam and Athena, at once a nationalist image and a critique that suggests what the nation should be at its best. During the French Revolution, artists often depicted the abstractions of Liberty and Reason as female characters. These eventually fused into a single figure: Marianne, the avatar of the Triumph of the Republic. Why should the symbol of republican government, rule by the people, be female? French historian Maurice Algulhon gave an intriguing answer. The ancien régime was all about the rule of kings. It was, at its core, about the rule of a line of aristocratic men. Marianne was their opposite: the queen of the masses.
For me, the quintessential image of Marianne appears in Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” This 1830 painting features a woman armed with a rifle and carrying the tricolor French flag leading a working class mob over a barricade. Like Anne, she strides somewhat towards the viewer with the same X dynamic motion. But, unlike Anne, her attention is drawn over her shoulder towards the men behind her. She advances over the bodies of the fallen revolutionaries. Like Anne, her breasts are exposed. I have no evidence that Delacroix knew of the images of Anne Bonny, but the odd visual link is there. Exposed boobs as a blow against the rulers and a symbol of working class revolt. Who knew?
Another odd connection is the visual of Jesse Jane in Pirates, the 2005 porno adventure flick that, up to that point, was the most expensive pornographic film ever made. (Ironically, part of the goal in producing the film was to fight “pirates,” the low-budget porn producers and content thieves that are draining large porn producers’ coffers.) The plot of Pirates involves a crew of pirates attempting to harness a mystical South American supernatural power source for reasons unclear, but certainly diabolical. They are pursued by the world’s least competent pirate hunter. And there’s lots and lots of sex. ‘Cause it is a porn flick. In said flick, Jesse Jane plays Jules, the oversexed first mate of the pirate hunter. The details of her debauchery are not entirely pertinent to the story, but it is important to understand the porn function of Jesse Jane. Like 1970’s film stars, porn actors are hired primarily to play themselves. This pseudo-character - the pre-character setting they bring to their “role” - is their porn function. Ms. Jane’s porn function is the female predator. She growls, spits, slaps, bites, and generally acts as if the main function of intercourse is to exorcise whatever horrible things happened to you as a child through the domination of others. For the purposes of this essay, the important thing is that, in the last action scene of the film - an unembarrassed rip-off of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean - Jane appears in a fight scene, breasts unnecessarily exposed, right arm extended, shooting a pistol. She looks remarkably like Anne Bonny.
Oddly, the allure of the lascivious, with a dash of curious 18th Century proto-feminism, has always been part of the Anne Bonny story. Bonny’s origins are obscure, but the best records suggest that she married as part of plot to snag her parents’ fortune (shades of Read’s history). When that went bust, she set her parents’ plantation on fire and fled with her husband to a pirate hub. Her husband became an informer, but she started spending more time with pirates and eventually became the mistress of Calico Jack. Bonny’s husband brought her before the judge to have her whipped for adultery. The judge agreed, but made Calico Jack the offer to buy her, sparing her a flogging. Bonny, the story goes, refused to be bought or sold. She chose a whipping rather than being owned. Whipping it would be. But Bonny escaped before the whipping and joined Rackham’s crew. Then things get porny: Bonny took a liking to a crew member by the name of Read, with his girlish good looks. Eventually she pressed the issue far enough to discover that Read - who, unlike Bonny, was disguised as a man all this time - was actually a girl. When Rackham discovered that Bonny was getting it on with another man on the ship, he threatened to slit Read’s throat. Until he discovered that Read was a woman. One can practically hear the bass guitar give a bwa-bwah-bwa-bwhan-bhan lick.
That seems almost cute now. Imagine the sort of scandal that story provoked in the 18th century.
This strain of sexually charge energy speaks to the question of the difference between Bonny and Read’s most iconic images: Anne’s is ostentatiously female because Anne never hid here gender. Her being a pirate is specifically tied her rejection of her role as daughter and wife. It’s also linked to a dangerous, aggressive sexuality that scandalized her era. Her breasts are bare because she’s not just a person in revolt, she’s a woman in revolt.
Pirates were thugs, thieves, and brutal mercenaries. But the moment they unintentionally wrote themselves into history, they, like all other authors, became the property of their readers. We see our issues and concerns, our fantasies and politics in what they wrote. In the odd image of Anne Bonny - gun drawn, hair loose, breasts bared - I see the struggle of the have-nots and the allure of the sexual predator. Is that my imagination? Probably. But that’s where these pirates sail now: in the vast sea of our collective desires, theories, and needs.
Godspeed Anne Bonny.
Many thanks all over again to CRwM for the wonderful posts yesterday and today. Be sure and pop over to And Now The Screaming Starts for more of his creative takes on horror, movies, literature and the big rock we live on. My thanks to you all for your support of Triple P. Now forward, mates, into another piratical year!