“Remarkable Actions and Adventures”: The Birth of the Popular Pirate

Althea Woodiwiss

The pirate is instantly recognisable within popular culture.

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, depictions of piracy have captured the imagination of western society for centuries. But where did our fascination with high-seas criminality begin? Tales of maritime robbery, privateering, and pirate queens date as far back as ancient Greece. These stories survive in ancient histories, oral tradition and, most abundantly, within the lurid pages of early-modern pamphlets that detailed the crimes, trials and punishments of notorious figures. The depictions of piracy most familiar to us, however, tend to resemble individuals active in the Atlantic between 1650 and 1720, a period known as the golden age of piracy. The most notable early modern account of these pirates was Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, first published in 1724. Johnson’s work quickly captured the imagination of western society, and has since become the most commonly referenced account of golden age piracy within popular culture and the media. A General History provided readers with a collection of sensationalised accounts in one accessible and consistent volume, allowing Johnson’s rendition of the lives, transgressions, and fates of a number of notorious individuals to reach a wider audience than ever before. Many of those featured, including Edward Teach (d.1718) - better known as ‘Blackbeard’ - and Charles Vane (d.1720), are now household names, having gone down in history as some of the most infamous men to have sailed the Atlantic. Their piratical endeavours attained their longevity through the popularisation of Johnson's History. Most notable, however, was the inclusion of “the remarkable actions and adventures of the two female pyrates” - Anne Bonny (c.1698-1782) and Mary Read (c.1695-1721). Their courageous but ultimately inglorious piratical careers amongst the crew of ‘Calico’ Jack Rackam (d.1720) gained them places as two of the most notorious seafaring women in history.
“Remarkable Actions and Adventures”: The Birth of the Popular Pirate
Mary Read

The Historians Magazine

One of the fastest growing Independent history magazines in the UK, championing emerging historians.

Though many people engaged in piracy, very few were accurately recorded by their contemporaries in an enduring manner.

Of those who have been identified and accounted for, only a small minority of pirates are known to have been women. The scarcity of references to women like Bonny and Read only adds to the historic importance of Johnson’s History, as a unique depiction of Atlantic pirate women. That this depiction challenged conventionappealed contemporary population, with its fascination for stories of those who exist outside of the conventions of society, irreverent to moral ideals and gendered expectations. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the literary and dramatic trope of the female soldier, which grew in popularity throughout the eighteenth century in response to the proliferation of first-hand accounts of women who, disguised as men, enlisted in the military, often in pursuit of a love interest. This is perhaps what encouraged Johnson to include these extraordinary women, his depiction of whom reflects aspects of the female soldier narrative. Read, in particular, was said to have served as a foot soldier under the alias ‘Mark Read’. Under that moniker she’s purported to have seen active service in Flanders - where Johnson states she showed a great deal of bravery - prior to embarking upon her piratical career. Bonny’s narrative has more romantic undertones in comparison, though similar to the female soldier trope, her decision to leave conventional society behind was supposedly influenced by a desire to accompany her lover, Jack Rackam, to sea. The emphasis placed upon Bonny’s romantic inclinations is in all likelihood why she is the most commonly depicted of the two in popular culture. Anne Bonny has featured in many modern dramatic adaptations and popular histories, perhaps because the romantic genre is better suited to modern tastes than that of the female soldier, which satisfied the appetite of an eighteenth-century audience. Johnson’s History was enthusiastically received by his contemporaries and remains one of the most extensive accounts of the lives of golden age pirates, though it was doubtlessly embellished for dramatic effect. The names and legacies of those included have persisted through history within popular culture, and have been adopted within numerous literary and dramatic adaptations. Without their inclusion, however, the existence of these remarkable individuals may have gone undocumented, negating their pervasive influence upon popular culture. The extraordinary exploits of Bonny and Read in particular could have been lost in the annals of history, their names swallowed up by the tides of time like those of so many others. Put simply, though it did not incite major socio-political or cultural change, A General History of the Pyrates sent ripples through time, ripplesthat have shaped significant aspects of popular culture. That original tome can in large part be credited with influencing a vibrant literary and dramatic genre - one that continues to captivate vast global audiences almost 300 years following its initial publication.
Ancestry UK
“Remarkable Actions and Adventures”: The Birth of the Popular Pirate

Althea Woodiwiss

Althea wrote for Edition 3, Key Events in History.
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