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social sciences

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In addition to Charles Johnson's history, a number of Daniel Defoe's works tell stories of pirates in the early eighteenth century. Like much of Defoe's work, his pirate novels, including The King of Pyrates (1719) and Captain Singleton (1720), blend historical truth with fiction and create an indirect glimpse into the sexuality of pirates.

Turley argues that the relationship between Singleton and his closest friend, a Quaker pirate, appears in a romantic light. The two characters end the novel by retiring to England and spending their days in "private domesticity."

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Rather than read this as an avowal of homosexual identity, however, Turley places it more cautiously in the context of eighteenth-century sexuality and masculinity. At a time when both categories were under great cultural pressure, pirate sexuality seems to have defied the strict hetero/homo binaries that we are familiar with today, allowing for any number of sexual practices and identities.

Lesbian Pirates?

Although most scholarship on pirates repeatedly claims that it is primarily a history of men, more recent writing and scholarship on female pirates shows that women also turned to piracy. For them it was a way to defy cultural and gender expectations.

The most notorious pair of women pirates was Mary Read and Anne Bonny. According to Johnson's account, Read was born in England, Bonny in Ireland. After a series of adventures--disguised as a man, Read served in the army, while Bonny grew up as a reckless tomboy in South Carolina--the two women, who had both been married, flouted convention again by dressing in men's clothes and becoming pirates.

After leaving her husband, Bonny became the lover of Captain John "Calico Jack" Rackam and joined him on his pirate ship. Shortly thereafter Read joined their crew. Read and Bonny became friends on board ship in their male personae.

From Read's point of view, Johnson describes her realization that Bonny was a woman, as well: "Her Sex was not so much as suspected by any Person on board till Anne Bonny, who was not altogether so reserved in Point of Chastity, took a particular Liking to her; in short, Anne Bonny took her for a handsome young Fellow, and for some Reasons best known to herself, first discovered her Sex to Mary Read."

As Emma Donoghue writes, even though there is no way of knowing what transpired between the two women, "Their friendship [was] so intimate as to look to an outsider like a love affair." It angered Bonny's lover so much that the pair revealed Read's sex to him, which apparently appeased him. The women remained close and undertook numerous pirating raids together.

In the end, they were captured and tried in Jamaica for their crimes. Although the judge sentenced them to hanging, they "pleaded their bellies"--that is, claimed that they were pregnant--and temporarily avoided execution. Not long after, Mary Read died in prison of a fever. Anne Bonny simply disappeared.

Even though we will never know how sexual, if at all, the relationship between Bonny and Read was, they do stand out as fiercely independent women who were committed to each other in a mostly all male environment.

The Cultural Legacy of Pirates

After the intense publicity that pirates received in the early eighteenth century, they continued to play an important role in British and American culture and literature. In the nineteenth century, works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and numerous novels about Blackbeard portray pirates as romantic anti-heroes who seek adventure with other men.

Forever outside social norms, the pirate has become, at least in a figurative sense, suggestive of gay identity in the modern world.

Geoffrey W. Bateman

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Burg, B.R. Sodomy and the Perception of Evil. New York: New York University Press, 1983.

_____. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. New York: New York University Press, 1982.

Donoghue, Emma. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

Johnson, Charles. [Daniel Defoe?] A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724-1728). Manuel Schonhon, ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1982.

Konstam, Angus. The History of Pirates. New York: The Lyons Press, 1999.

Lorimer, Sara. Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Sees. San Francisco, Calif.: Chronicle Books, 2002.

Norton, Rictor. "Lesbian Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read." Lesbian History.

Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality and Masculine Identity. New York: New York University Press, 1999.


    Citation Information
    Author: Bateman, Geoffrey W.  
    Entry Title: Pirates  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 13, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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