- Cast Adrift With No Conclusions: New Evidence on Women Pirates and English Satire
John C. Appleby and Ashley Marshall attempt to make the most of this historic moment when more evidence is available to scholars than ever before. They offer comparative data from two surveys: Appleby’s study of women and English piracy spanning almost two hundred years, from 1540 to 1720; and Marshall’s quest to create a taxonomic survey of political satire covering a little over a century, from 1658 to 1770. Their results bear certain similarities, reflecting the respective strengths and challenges of survey methods. Because this is a maritime issue, this review will first set sail with the pirates, then navigate with the satirists to a brimming sea of pamphlets and plays.
Maritime and colonial historian Appleby explores the line between agency and victimhood as he pieces together women’s roles in piracy from evidence scattered around the globe. He cautions readers that his necessary reliance on seventeenth-century violent tales written and published for pure entertainment can make this topic notoriously difficult for historians, but he does find sufficient verification to offer trustworthy data.
Prostitution was not yet fully criminalized in the 1590s, and ambiguity as to who was and was not a prostitute had “far-reaching and contradictory consequences” for women, resulting in a “narrowing of female agency” (86). This created an increasingly hostile environment as women became accessories in privateering. Fact and fiction intermingle, for example in the case of Captain George Cusack, who was supposedly caught in bed with his prostitute sister, an account Appleby distrusts but cannot disprove. Prostitution was by no means a victimless phenomenon, as could be seen in colonial Jamaica, where buccaneering gave rise to an inherently masculine society that brutalized women. In Port Royal, a notorious pirate center and one of the largest commercial regions, African and native Caribbean women were particularly exploited, especially vulnerable servants. [End Page 111] Prostitution and its attending scandal could also lead to other allegations such as witchcraft, with women who were already deemed disreputable unable to defend themselves against vague and destructive charges.
Sometimes women escaped by becoming wives, but this exit strategy was both rare and unreliable. Marriages were often suspect, chalked up to a combination of greed and gullibility on the part of families who didn’t want to ask too many questions about a seemingly affluent man, and they often ended in abandonment, divorce, or even bigamy. Women married to pirates could find themselves adrift in mid-life, burdened with extensive family responsibilities and no longer young enough to remarry. Appleby studies the records of Trinity House, where beginning in the early 1600s women connected to pirates petitioned the monarchy and the government for financial relief. Some were wives of captured Barbary pirates, and in “moving and heartfelt” stories they begged for funds, hoping for a living or to redeem captured husbands and sons (147).
Women’s collusion was crucial to pirate success, as some fenced stolen goods for husbands, brothers, and cousins via land-based businesses that outwardly seemed respectable. In the 1580s Anne Piers was in criminal partnership with her pirate son John, and roles like hers facilitated the spread of piracy around the world. Some were unwitting accomplices, such as Margery Lambert, whose husband Peter’s pirate exploits may have been unknown to her, and who funneled his stolen goods via a possibly wiser neighbor. Most women did know, however, and only pretended not to. There was sometimes a Robin Hood aspect to this work, with women taking goods plundered from the rich and then showing benevolence toward beggars as a way to make amends or balance perceived global inequalities.
Onshore laundering extended beyond money and objects, to other aspects of pirates’ lives such as their very reputations. Sir Francis Drake is among the most famous, knighted in 1580 after spectacularly pillaging the Spanish, with parallels to the career of...