Thursday, December 29, 2011
Lady Pirates: A Lower Class Female
The above paragraph, with its period appropriate long sentences, is from James Caulfield’s Remarkable Persons. This fascinating, if questionable in authenticity, group of character sketches was published in serial form over the course of 1819 and 1820. The picture at the header, of sailor Ann Mills holding the head of her vanquished foe, caused somewhat of a sensation at the time and then the question arose; why haven’t we heard more about this woman? That inquiry has yet to be properly satisfied.
Who Mills was and where she came from remains a relative mystery. Caulfield simply assumes that “… some love affair induced this woman to assume the male character, in order to follow the fortune of a favourite lover who had gone to sea.” This was, of course, not unheard of and may actually have been more common than the lens of Victorian-written history would like us as their posterity to imagine. It was also not at all unusual for a poor girl to simply slip into the gender that was likely to make the most money. Regardless of Victoria’s imaginary world, men have always had a leg up in that area.
Caulfield lumps Mills in with other “notorious viragos” of her era including Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which may be the reason that she is often counted in modern lists of “lady pirates”. In fact, the very marginal information we have about her seems to point to her never turning to piracy proper. Although given her place aboard a Royal Navy ship in the 18th century, to call her a privateer would not be unreasonable in the least.
In his remarkably well researched book Villains of All Nations, Marcus Rediker skips the speculation about who Ann Mills might have been to dig deeper into why she and others became sailors and warriors. What drove a woman in a time of corsets and panniers to pull on pants and fight not just with men but like men? Rediker posits that it was the very nature of impoverished and often displaced women of Mills’ era and beyond to be strong, aggressive and daring in pursuit of perhaps not a better life but at the very least three squares a day. He writes that the “lower class female experience” was:
… a matter of course-bred physical strength, toughness, independence, fearlessness, and a capability of surviving by one’s wits. The prevailing material reality of working women’s lives made it possible for some women to disguise themselves and enter worlds dominated by men…
This paragraph appears in Villains on the same page as the above picture of Mills, although the general conversation focuses on Bonny and Read. The overall message is that women who chose to stand up and fight were not as unusual as modern popular history would have the average person believe. That in fact heroic acts of physical strength and personal courage – lifting bales of goods or pails of milk, giving birth at great personal risk, working long hours, fighting off assailants and so on – were practically everyday occurrences for the “lower class female” in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century. The main reasons Rediker lists for women taking the next step and dressing like men are economic necessity, adventure and, as Caulfield speculates in the case of Mills, love. Curiously the latter, which was probably not as typical as the simple need to put food in her belly, is often considered the most powerful motivator for behavior such as Ann’s.
Whatever the case, it appears that “about the year 1740” a woman possibly named Ann Mills and dressed as a man aboard “the Maidstone frigate” cut off the head of an enemy in combat. How she got to that point, and why, remains open to speculation as does what became of her from there.
Header: Ann Mills from Remarkable Persons via Corbis images