Top Tips for New Undergraduate Historians

Welcome to the University of Reading History department! If you are reading this, you are most likely a new student about to embark on their journey for an undergraduate History degree. Starting university can be overwhelming. In all the uncertainty of the past few years, you might not have had the chance to visit campus in person or are nervous how to prepare for your course.

Worry not!

We asked our wonderful staff and experienced PhD students for their top tips for incoming historians at the University of Reading….

The main thing that I would encourage any new undergraduate to do is to try new things. We’re so fortunate here at Reading to have a History department with such a fascinating variety of expertise, with modules that span the medieval period to the recent past and cover a huge swathe of the globe. It’s the perfect opportunity in your first year to encounter topics that you haven’t studied before, gain new insights, and perhaps find your own future area of expertise. I had never studied American history when I started my undergraduate degree – and frankly didn’t think it was all that interesting – and now I teach and research it! Make use of this unique time in your life to move beyond your comfort zone and see what else is out there. Find the modules that intrigue you and enjoy them! – Dr Liz Barnes, Lecturer

Follow you heart and try something new.  While you require a pass mark for the first year, the overall mark does not contribute to your overall degree classification. A such, be brave, follow your heart and delve into a topic you have never done before or even thought about. There is always a temptation to fall back on what you have done at A level and often an EPQ – try not to do that. As a student I was interested in radicalism and revolution, but rather than sit in the modern period I looked at the Peasant’s Revolt, the Interregnum alongside the French and Russian Revolutions. I am now a Modern British Political Historian but all that I studied provided a rich backdrop for my research on class and gender in parliament today. – Dr Jacqui Turner, Associate Professor

You probably need to do less than you think you do, but try and give whatever you do a spirit of very careful, focussed, attention. Notice what excites your mind and move towards that. – Dr Dina Rezk, Associate Professor

Read the introduction followed by the conclusion of any set reading before trying to tackle the middle. This will speed up your reading and set you up well for the rest of your degree! Treat yourself to a lunchtime bagel in the union, because they are literally the best. Finally, spend time perfecting your knowledge of the referencing style for essays in your first year! Try to remember that as nervous as you feel meeting so many new people, you are all in the same boat. Try to get involved if you can in seminar activities to seek out new friends and turn to trusted seminar tutors/academics for support if you need this! – Beth Rebisz, PhD Student

See the first year as a learning process where you’re figuring out how to write at undergraduate level, not A Level – and if your marks are not Firsts all the time, that’s normal! A lot of people go from being at the top of their school classes and then panic if they get 2:2s, when actually that’s just helping them learn a whole new set of skills. – Amy Austin, PhD Student

Identifying your preferred learning modality and experimenting with different methods of study will reduce stress and improve retention. This is a form of self-care. Learning to embrace criticism and negative feedback is essential for growth… and do the readings. We can tell when you didn’t. – Richard Balzano, PhD Student

Learn to skim read and that the index is your friend – you don’t need to read every single book cover to cover. – Aisha Djelid, PhD Student

Don’t be scared to ask questions! Make the most out of the fact that you actually have a specialist in the field right in front of you – ask questions and question the ideas and thoughts that are discussed in class. Make sure you enjoy your first year. Try to find ‘your’ topic in each class. Even if it’s the caricatures of politicians in a class on 19th Victorian political philosophy. Get to know the library and the people who work there. They can be the biggest help when you write your papers. – Michelle Tessmann, PhD Student

I remember being totally crestfallen when I got the marks back on my first paper, and it took me a while to realise everyone was in the same boat (& I wasn’t an imposter who’d slipped through the net). I find it super useful to read other people’s work early on – e.g. by asking module leaders for past essays that have scored well, just to get a feel for style. It’s crazy how being out of essay writing mode over the summer impacts the quality of your work in the first term of the new academic year, and reading other people’s work who are at a more advanced stage can provide a useful barometer of where you should be aiming for. Also, be to be open to seeing what other departments are up to and what events are on, and where they can add to your experience both academically and socially! – Emily Peirson-Webber, PhD Student

And last, but certainly not least….

I would recommend figuring out where the toilets are in all the random parts of Edith Morley! – Amie Bolissian

Remember, always reach out if you are feeling overwhelmed. We can’t wait to see where your journey as a historian takes you.

©University of Reading
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Pirate Legends IV: Hoist the Colours, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

I ran to the colour lines, handed down their cursed black flag, and chucked it overboard…’

-Jim Hawkins, Treasure Island (1883)

Despite the countless piratical tropes that have arisen from popular culture in the last few centuries, it cannot be countermanded that the pirate flag has emerged as the most iconic. Casting aside the parrots, peg-legs and hooks, the symbol of the ‘death’s head’ above a pair of crossed bones has become synonymous with piracy itself. At the height of the Golden Age of Piracy, a fraternity of over 2,500 men pledged allegiance to the so-called Pirate Republic, and the black and red banners of piracy symbolised a sort of identification among the various crews. Despite this, pirate flags also played a vital role in pirate tactics, as well as glorifying the captains’ own vanity as we will discuss shortly. The ‘Jolly Roger’ would only see action during hunts, as pirates often flew banners of specific nations when chasing prey. The term ‘Jolly Roger’ is believed to have derived from ‘Old Roger’, an old English nickname for the devil. On the contrary, many are of the mindset that the term actually originates from the French ‘joli rogue’, meaning ‘pretty red’, as the vast majority of early Golden Age crews in the Indian Ocean preferred the blood-red banners in leu of yet iconic black.

While the precise origins of the ‘death’s head’ remains a mystery, several authors have propositioned various theories. Marcus Rediker attests that the banner itself echoed the pirates’ own consciousness. This being, it is known that many pirates previously served in the merchant and military navies and were thus well aware of the harsh reality of life at sea, in addition to the abhorrent treatment they suffered by the hands of tyrannical captains. Thus, if a sailor was to perish for whatever reason aboard a contemporary vessel, be it from battle or sickness, the captain or ship’s surgeon would often mark a miniature skull next to said sailor’s name in the logbook. Within this interpretation, pirates seized a motif of their oppressors, and utilised it on their own banners, manifesting the skull and crossbones as a symbol of revenge against an oppressive establishment. Nevertheless, the primary aim of the skull and crossbones was to instil as much fear into the hearts of potential prey, yet this was not the only symbol that adorned pirate colours. Unbeknownst to many, pirate banners were in reality superbly diverse, with captains utilising their own ensigns to better suite individual tactics. Not only can one identify the skull and crossbones, one may observe hourglasses, spears, skeletons, and goblets among an assortment of many other items.

Despite being a simple piece of waving cloth, the Jolly Roger was an uncompromising component of pirate battle tactics. For instance, say if a pirate was stalking a French vessel, the pirates would raise a French ensign as a mark of identification, hoping to lower their enemy’s guard. When close enough, the Jolly Roger would be hoisted up, signifying the chasers’ true intentions. This was the pinnacle moment, and to paraphrase Captain Flint himself, if pirates raised the black flag too early, they would incite panic and the target may run, but raise it too late, and it will inspire fear and a greater chance of resistance. In addition, sometimes a shot may be fired across the enemy’s bow. Indeed, multiple merchant captains lamented that whilst being chased by pirates, up would go the ‘Pirate Colours, at sight whereof our men will defend their ship no longer.’ Evidently, when a gang of pirates chased the ship Eagle sometime during the Golden Age, the crew of the Eagle were ‘so much terrifyed’ that ‘no men not only refused to fight themselves but also hindered the officers’. It appears as in this case, the black banner served its purpose of inspiring sheer terror, as the men turned on their own officers and risked mutiny rather than face the pirates’ wrath. 

Let us examine a few of the patterns and identify what exactly these symbols may represent.

Henry Avery’s flag – the ‘King of Pirates’

I believe it is only right to first examine the banner of the so-called ‘King of Pirates’, Henry Avery, who reportedly flew a number of banners during his illustrious career. Avery’s banner incorporates the standard Jolly Roger motif albeit with a few notable alterations. Instead of facing forward, the skull looks to the right and bears a bandana and a large earring. In nautical superstition, sailors and pirates alike wore earrings not necessarily as a fashion accessory or to denote status, but instead the explanation is a tad macabre in nature. In some circles, if the sailor was to die at sea, the gold accessory would be taken by their comrades and used to either pay for their funeral arrangements, or to send it back to their families if applicable.  

While this next flag is attributed to Blackbeard, it is a probability that this banner is purely a work of fiction, although we cannot know for certain. The incarnation of the Death’s Head incorporates the skeleton of a devil, or perhaps the devil himself, stabbing a pleading heart with a spear. The object in the skeleton’s right hand remains a topic of discussion, although there are two possibilities to what the item in question might be. Firstly, some believe that the item is an hourglass, which symbolises that the target had a certain amount of time to surrender before no quarter was to be given, nautical speak for ‘no mercy’. As you can see on the flag guide, several other pirate captains made use of the hourglass symbol, including John Quelch, whose flag bears a striking resemblance to Blackbeard’s, in addition to the banners of Emanuel Wynne, Walter Kennedy and Christopher Moody.

The banner most associated with Captain Blackbeard.

On the other hand, others believe that the item is a chalice, and that the devil, and thereby Blackbeard himself, is toasting to the victim’s damnation. This would be in keeping with Blackbeard’s theatrical nature, as on the day of his death, Lt. Maynard attested that Captain Thatch ‘drank damnation to me and my men, whom he stil’d cowardly puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take quarter.’ However, despite the uniqueness of this flag, it is evidently not an 18th century design. Indeed, the true origins of the banner dates back to a 1912 article of the Mariner’s Mirror, and the images thereon do not corporate with 18th century designs. Point of fact, it was only attributed to Blackbeard much later. A 1718 newspaper article reporting one of Blackbeard’s raids harbours the only known contemporary account of what Thatch’s flag may have looked like: “…a large Ship and Sloop with Black Flags and Deaths Heads in them and three more Sloops with Bloody Flags all bore down upon the said ship Protestant Caesar…the Ship had 40 Guns and 300 Men called the Queen Anne’s Revenge.’ Hence, it is likely that in actuality, Blackbeard flew standard black flags adorned with a skull, or the bloody red flags used by his predecessors.

Jack Rackham’s legendary banner.

Next in line is the banner of Captain John Rackham, who roved the Bahamas in defiance of Woodes Rogers’ royal pardon in 1718. Though not nearly as successful as some of the other Golden Age captains, Rackham is best remembered for two reasons. The first is his involvement with female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who we discussed in the third edition of Pirate Legends. The second being his flag, and the impact it has inflicted upon the popular perception of piracy. Rackham’s banner incorporates the classic Death’s head design, while changing the traditional crossbones for a pair of cutlasses. Rackham, also known as ‘Calico Jack’, due to the fashionable calico clothing he frequented, clearly had a love for the dramatic, and this is shown evidently in his flag. Indeed, in the final episode of Black Sails (2014-2017) Jack lamented that ‘what’s it all for if it goes unremembered? It’s the art that leaves the mark, but to leave it, it must transcend. It must speak for itself. It must be true.’ Though this statement is entirely fictious, it accounts perfectly for Rackham’s flag, and perhaps the history of the Jolly Roger itself.

Black Bart Roberts’ flag

Finally, let us take into consideration the flags of Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts, a fellow Welshman and known in Wales as ‘Barti Ddu.’ In life, Roberts was known as a flamboyant and sharply dressed pirate captain, though he was inherently cruel and committed many atrocities despite his highly successful pirating career. It is said that in times of action, Roberts would don himself in crimson regalia, coupled with an ostrich-plumed tricorn and a magnificent gold chain decorated with a cross adorned with green emeralds. In consequence, his French enemies labelled him as ‘l’homme en rogue’ or, ‘the man in red.’ Evidently, Black Bart’s first flag is rather vain in nature, as it depicts himself and a skeleton (likely an embodiment of Death) sharing a toast.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the dreaded black and red banners of piracy would inspire fear of death and a promise of violence. From the 20th century however, for lack of a better phrase, the Death’s Head has fallen from grace. Indeed, pirate flags are now used as bunting for children’s birthday parties. The Jolly Roger, while maintaining its legendary status, and devolved into a staple of popular culture above all else, while genuine historical agency has been somewhat cast aside, laid bare by the many fictional flags that are now considered by many as authentic. Once the Jolly Roger was cursed by captains and feared by kings, yet now it has best remembered with fondness is inherently recognisable, which is arguably the wrong reasons. Above all, the Jolly Roger personified one thing only… terror.

Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in Early Modern maritime history. Catch up on the rest of the Pirate Legends Series by scrolling back through our blog!

Further Reading:

Breverton, Terry. Welsh Pirates and Privateers. Llanrwst, 2018.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice. Potomac, 2005.

Rankin, Hugh. The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina. Raleigh, NC, 1965.

Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Cambridge, 2010.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.

Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.

Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates. London, 2016.

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Pirate Flag Challenge – Full Gallery

Thank you to everyone who got involved with Captain Jackdaw’s Pirate Flag challenge! We were blown away by all the submissions, from pirate enthusiasts aged 3 – 10! It has been a joy to see at all the creativity on display and the clear love for pirate history still abound.

A small panel has selected a lucky winner and two runners-up, soon to receive their prizes!

Winner: Pirate Cotty

Runner-Up One: Pirate Amelia

Runner-Up Two: Pirate Evie

Also highly commended is Pirate E. Lewis! It was extremely hard to choose as all the entries were detailed and highly impressive. You can view the full gallery of submissions below.

If you enjoyed being involved, please keep an eye out for the next University of Reading History Challenge, and don’t forget – 19 September is ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’…

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Draw a pirate flag!

A fun children’s challenge with a pirate treasure prize…

Are you looking for a summer holiday activity for the kids? Do you know any young pirate enthusiasts? Do you want the chance to win a bundle of pirate-themed goodies? Then Captain Jackdaw has a challenge for you!

Remember: A good pirate flag needs to be fierce and creative!

This competition is open to all children under 10. Please send your submissions to our Twitter account @UniRdg_History, or email f.baldwin@pgr.reading.ac.uk.

All submissions must be sent by Friday 26 August. A small panel from UoR will then decide the winner and send out the treasure…

Get to it, shipmate! Captain Jackdaw is counting on you!

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Pirate Legends III: The Reign of the Pirate Queens, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

Thus far in the series, we have discussed some of the Golden Age of Piracy’s most prominent pirate captains. The first issue examined the tragedy of Captain William Kidd, who in reality was a far cry from the infamous and fearless treasure hoarder that he is so often associated with. In the previous issue, we lunged forward, deep into the heart of the Golden Age, and visited the Pirate Republic of Nassau during the mid 1710s. It was in this most unique of settings that we visited Captain Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard, and uncovered his sinister machinations in North Carolina. Besides laying bare the fruits of Blackbeard’s labour, we also briefly examined Captain Charles Vane, a pirate loyalist who violently refused King George I’s most gracious offer of a pardon by sending a fire ship into the heart of a British fleet. It was aboard Captain Vane’s ship where our next pirate legend begins.

Scholarship in recent decades has begun to explore a new branch of Golden Age piracy that had long since been shrouded. Previously, pirates had been depicted within four primary stereotypes: aristocratic, heterosexual, Caucasian and above all else, male. One only needs to look to immortal characters of Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood (1935) or even Captain Hook to observe this trend. Evidently, both captains are depicted as being men of fine standing and of illustrious education, with Blood peddling his trade as a physician prior to being accused of treason, and Hook’s biography stating that attended Eton College.

Eton’s crest can be seen alongside several depictions of Captain Hook in the media. In Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), the crest can be seen on the back from Hook’s ship, while in Peter Pan (2003) Hook, as portrayed by actor Jason Isaacs, has the crest tattooed on his upper left arm. In the original play, Hook’s last words were ‘Floreat Etona’.
In the hit television series Black Sails (2014-2017), Captain Flint, as portrayed by actor Toby Stephens is identified as adhering to bisexual tendencies throughout the series.

In actuality, pirates were primarily of poorer, working-class backgrounds, and were for the most part completely illiterate. There were many reasons why sailors went to sea. Chief amongst them, England’s pitiful holdings offered few opportunities, while many others were cohered into naval service by the notorious pressgangs. Far from the clean-shaven and handsome or even incongruously dressed pirates that the media has produced for centuries.

Hence, if pirates were not the proud aristocratic seamen, let us move forward to our next stereotype. This being, the portraying of pirates as primarily heterosexual. Historians Hans Turley and Barry Burg are amongst the influential voices on this subject, and both have even gone as far to suggest that the vast majority of Golden Age pirates were at least prone to homosexuality. Emphasising the ‘deviant homosocial world’ of the pirate, Turley suggested that piracy and homoerotic imagery are conjoined.

Thirdly, pirate ships had traditionally been characterised as possessing an exclusively Caucasian crew. In reality however, it is likely that African pirates held a large minority. On the other hand, during the Napoleonic Wars that would come decades later, African sea rovers occupied the vast majority of pirating crews. Concurrent to the Golden Age of Piracy was the height of the African slave trade, and the horrors it brought in its wake.

In 1995, historian Kenneth Kinkor exerted that pirates of African descent occupied a vital component within the operations of a pirating vessel, naming Samuel ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy’s Whydah as a prime example of this. The ships’ pilot, John Julian (c.1701- possibly 1733) was of indigenous Miskito heritage, and he was reportedly amongst the purported 30-50 non-Caucasian crewmen on board Bellamy’s ship. Kinkor goes on to argue that between 1715 and 1725, as much of 20-30 percent of all pirates were of African heritage.

In Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-present), Mistress Ching, a reimagined version of Madam Cheng appears in At World’s End (2007) and much of the extended media. Ching appears as a member of the Brethren Court, the ruling council for pirates of all nationalities.

Thus far we have fractured three previous pirate stereotypes. Although these archetypes have long been cast aside by modern historians, these conventions influenced the impression of Golden Age pirates for generations, and it is only relatively recently that public perception has shifted towards the true reality of the pirates’ life. One stereotype, long since abolished, was that pirate ships were male-dominated, and while this was certainly the case, there are instances of women finding liberty aboard sea roving vessels. One such individual was Jeanne de Clisson, who in attempting the avenge the death of her husband, commanded a fleet of ships bearing black sails. Next, there was the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley, who terrorised the coasts during the reign of Elizabeth I. Laskarina Bouboulina is another notable female queen, who commanded a fleet of warships during the Greek War of Independence (1821-29). During the 19th century, roved Madam Ching, who dominated the China Seas and was one of the only confirmed pirates to have comfortably retired.  In the eighteenth century, ‘civilised’ seafaring gave to the world the fascinating stories of Mary Anne Talbot and Hannah Snell. Pirate subculture however, bequeathed the legends of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Despite there being over 2,000 confirmed pirates roving the Caribbean in 1720, this number would decrease exponentially in the coming years, and there remained only half this number three years later, and there remained only a few hundred stragglers by 1726. Indeed, out of over 2,000 pirates, in truth there are only four confirmed female Golden Age pirates. One such pirate was Martha Farley, who along with her husband very briefly occupied Blackbeard’s old stomping ground near Ocracoke Inlet, before being acquitted in 1727. Next, there was Mary (sometimes referred to as Maria) Critchett, whose very brief pirating career was brought to an abrupt close after being caught by a navy patrol ship in the Chesapeake Bay, and ended her short stint as a pirate with a hangman’s necktie. However, none have attained Bonny and Read’s legendary status.

The front cover for Johnson’s General History, as you can see Bonny and Read reign supreme, while their male counterparts remain blow in much smaller font.

Before we delve into the histories of these most infamous of pirate legends, it is important to note that while their stories are ones of intrigue and pure fascination, their histories may in fact be somewhat, or even entirely, fictional. As per usual, the only contemporary evidence we have of their upbringing is Johnson’s General History, which has garnered an increasing level of criticism over the course of three centuries.

But for now, let us examine the legends of Bonny and Read, at least according to the General History. Anne Bonny, the future redheaded hellcat of the Caribbean was supposedly born in County Cork, Ireland in the late 1680s, the product of an affair between the attorney William Cormac, and a maid employed in his service. After a very confusing fiasco involving a set of silver spoons, to which Lady Cormac believed were being stolen by the maid, she proceeded to sleep in the maid’s bed to prove her guilt. Her husband then entered the room, and it was there she discovered the affair. Despite Lady Cormac summoning a constable, and the unnamed maid being held for a short period, it was discovered that she was pregnant and gave birth to the new-born Anne while still in prison. In an initial attempt to hide his daughter’s true parentage, Cormac disguised her as a boy and passed her off as a clerk in his employ.

Anne Bonny, as depicted in the General History (1724), note the number of weapons she carries. These include a boarding axe, several knives, a cutlass and a pistol.

When Anne was still a child, Cormac and his wife divorced, and he relocated his practice to the Carolinas and brought Anne along with him, with the intent of purchasing a plantation. In Johnson’s own words, Anne possessed ‘a fierce and courageous temper’, and it was claimed that she had once killed an English serving girl with a knife, though even Johnson claims this story may be baseless. It was also claimed that when a young man attempted to assault Anne, she beat him within an inch of his life. Despite her father’s efforts to find a good match for his daughter, Anne eloped with a hapless young sailor named James Bonny, and was subsequently disinherited.

We shall return to Bonny’s story presently, but next let us take into consideration the trials and tribulations of her sister-in-arms. Mary Read, the fearless raven-haired harridan also possessing seemingly impossible origins. Reportedly born somewhere in England in the 1680s, Mary’s mother’s husband was a sailor, who would frequently leave his wife alone for months on end while he was at sea. According to Johnson, Mary’s mother suffered an ‘accident’, which to quote the captain, ‘often happened to women who are young, and do not take a great deal of care’ and fell pregnant. Evidently, the baby was not her husband’s child. Mary’s mother alleged to her mother-in-law that her new-born daughter was her husband’s, and in similar regards to Bonny, Read was raised as a boy for much of her adolescence. When her ‘grandmother’ died some years later, Mary was placed in the employ of a French lady as a footboy. Ever the adventurer seeker and discontent with civilian life, after some years and employing the skills she had acquired while posing as a boy, Mary once again disguised herself and joined the army, and was at some point deployed to Flanders. If true, whilst in the army one can imagine that Mary found a sort of comradeship, as she was respected by her peers and distinguished for her commitment to her duties. Not only this, she also found love. According to legend, she and her new husband left the army and ran an inn, until he passed away a few years later.

Mary Read, also from the General History. In similar regards to the Bonny’s previous illustration, note the number of weapons present.

Heartbroken, Mary returned to sea, this time aboard a Dutch privateering vessel bound for the West-Indies. Soon after, the vessel was set upon by English pirates, and as Mary was the only ‘Englishman’ aboard, ‘he’ was pressed into service. Finally, it is here that the legends of the pirate queens finally converged. Enter John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, our next player. After leading a successful mutiny against his captain, in late 1719, Rackham limped to Nassau and bartered a pardon from Woodes Rogers, claiming that he and the remaining crew had been forced into service. In keeping with the theme of pirates not abiding by their pardons, in the summer of 1720, Rackham and his crew departed Nassau, once again flying the black banner of piracy in the sloop William. Rogers, furious about having been made a food of yet again, issued a proclamation on 5 September for Rackham’s recapture, noting the presence of ‘two women, by name, Ann Fulford alias Bonny and Mary Read’ aboard Rackham’s ship. Soon after, pirate hunters were dispatched. The game is now set, and history will never be the same.

The circumstances in which Rackham and Bonny met are unknown, but it is likely that they became involved while she was living in Nassau with her husband, James. It is said that Rackham had attempted to ‘purchase’ Anne from James in a legal practice that was once referred to as a ‘wife sale’. James, furious with Anne’s infidelity, sought the help of Woodes Rogers, who subsequently had Anne publicly flogged. There are differing anecdotes referring to when the first meeting between Bonny and Read took place. Some claim that the two met aboard the William or another of Rackham’s commands, either prior to or after leaving Nassau. According to legend, despite being Calico Jack’s lover, Bonny was taken aback by a young handsome man, and being ‘not altogether so reserved in point of chastity’, Bonny was slightly disheartened to realise the young pirate’s true gender. Of course, the pirate in question was a disguised Mary Read. It is known that the pair struck a close friendship, while some historians even claim that the two were also lovers. Another anecdote dictates that Read’s gender was known prior to their escape from Nassau, and this is the most likely as in Rogers’ aforementioned proclamation, Read was named directly.

Rackham’s banner is undoubtedly one of the most famous pirate flags of all time. In Pirates of the Caribbean, this flag is repurposed Captain Hector Barbossa aboard the Black Pearl

Rackham’s defying of traditional maritime practice and the courage and tenacity displayed by the two pirate queens set into motion one of the Golden Age’s most enduring and inspiriting legacies, and it is here where genuine historical agency takes command. Rogers dispatched a sloop of 12 guns to hunt down Rackham’s pirate band, and Rackham, likely expecting this, set a course south and harassed fishing boats near Harbour Island, and later a schooner off the coast of Port Maria. After raiding further along the coast, the pirates dropped anchor at Negril, Jamaica. This was a disastrous move. The privateer Jonathan Barnet tracked down the William, and Rackham attempted to set sail and escape. Barnet positioned his ship and fired a broadside, crippling the William in the process. The pirates, Rackham himself included, ran below decks and barricaded themselves in the hold. Bonny and Read however, refused to stand down.

The two women fought valiantly, with Read even firing a flintlock pistol into the hold and cursing the pirates as cowards. Outnumbered, both of them were overwhelmed, and marched across the island from Davis Cove to Spanish Town lead by Major Richard James for trial. Rackham was tried first, and although he and his crew all pleaded not guilty, on 16 November 1720 they were all found guilty of ‘piracy, robbery and felony’. Legend has it that prior to his hanging on 28 November, Bonny and Rackham were permitted to meet once more, and she cursed that had he ‘fought like a man, he need not be hanged like a dog.’ Rackham’s body was gibbeted at Dead Man’s Cay, known today as Rackham’s Cay which can still be visited today. Likely due to the uniqueness of their circumstances, Bonny and Read were tried separately. It was read before the court that ‘the said Mary Read and Anne Bonny, alias Bonn . . . did feloniously and wickedly, consult, and agree together, and to and with, John Rackham . . . to rob, plunder, and take, all such person . . . which they should meet with on the high sea.’ What followed was perhaps the most theatrical pirate trial of the Golden Age, arguably even rivalling that of Captain Kidd. 

Both protested that they were not guilty, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Fisherwoman Dorothy Thomas swore that ‘the two women, prisoners at the bar, were on board the sloop, and wore men’s jackets, and long trousers and handkerchiefs tied about their heads; and that each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands, cursed and swore at the men’. Thomas continued that Bonny and Read ordered the deaths of their captives, should they escape and alert the local authorities. When asked by the arbitrator whether the accused had anything to say in their defence, Bonny and Read maintained a deathly silence. Thus, they were sentenced to ‘go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you, shall be severally hanged by the neck, until you are severally dead.’ Did they really think it would be that easy? They spoke up and played the ace of their sleeves. Both women claimed to be pregnant, a manoeuvre known under English common law as ‘pleading one’s belly’, and their executions were postponed until their children were born, yet this would only keep the reaper at bay for a few precious months.

What happens next is tragedy entangled in myth and legend. Mary Read fell ill with a particularly violent fever and died shortly after giving birth to her child. St. Catherine Parish corroborate this, naming her death date as 28 April 1721. The fate of her child remains unknown. Bonny’s fate on the other hand is more ambiguous, as she simply vanishes from history. Johnson admits that even he could not find any evidence to her fate, though he firmly attested that ‘only this we know, that she was not executed.’ Perhaps she died in prison with Mary, or perhaps her influential father somehow smuggled her out or manoeuvred her release. Some say she lived until 1782 before dying at the ripe age of 82, having lived a long and adventurous life. 

Both women embraced the pirates’ life with great enthusiasm, demonstrating immense degrees of courage, and demanded the respect of their peers in an occupation that was previously perceived as an exclusively male enterprise. Not only did they renounce the traditional concepts if maritime authority, both women were also complacent in defying traditionalist marital practices. Both women were married at separate times, Mary Read to her (alleged) spouse after serving in Flanders, while Bonny wed at least twice, once to James Bonny, and again to Rackham some years later. In doing so, both women adhered to John Gillis’ definition of ‘proletarian practice of self-marriage and self-divorce.’ Interestingly, both Bonny and Read unknowingly aided in the passing of the 1753 Hardwicke Act, which restricted the passing of marriages outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England. Thence, they defied the traditionalist practices of a notoriously oppressive establishment where women felt few rights, and commanded respect in the maritime world well into the present day. To close this issue, though the natures of their upbringings remain shrouded in mystery, the legitimate historical agencies surrounding Bonny and Read can never be countermanded, and if their legends can be summarised in a single word, I think of only one: Defiance.

Next: Sloops and Floating Fortress- The Pirate Ship

Further Reading:

Burg, Barry Richard. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean. New York, 1984.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Cordingly, David. Seafaring Women. New York, 2007.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London, 2004.

Ellms, Charles. The Pirates Own Book. Portland, 1859.

Gosse, Phillip. The History of Piracy. Dover, 2007.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.

Kinkor, Kenneth. ‘From the Seas! Black Men Under the Black Flag’ in American Visions Vol. 10, Issue 2. Washington, 1995.

Rediker, Marcus. ‘Liberty Beneath the Jolly Roger’ in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World 1700-1920 eds. Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling. London, 1996.

Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.

The Tryals of John Rackham and Other Pirates. The National Archives, Kew.

Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. New York, 1999.

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