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Our Autumn Lecture Series begins with a deep dive into the world of female pirates from the 16th to 18th centuries. On September 14, Dr Elaine Murphy will be examining truth and misconceptions surrounding women involved in and affected by piracy, together with how they have been depicted in popular culture.
We caught up with Dr Elaine Murphy to find out more about what promises to be a fascinating talk.
My talk will explore some of the myths and realities about women and pirates in history. It will examine some well-known female pirates such as Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Grace O’Malley. But it will also look at the unknown women who were involved in piracy – those who aided and abetted pirates in port towns by buying stollen goods or selling supplies to pirates or socialising with pirates in taverns or as prostitutes. In port towns around the British Isles, especially in places like Devon and Cornwall, and further afield like in the Caribbean women were a vital cog in the day-to-day operation of the business of piracy.
I will also look at women who were victims of piracy either through being attacked by pirates or who lost their husbands to pirate attacks. My talk will also talk more broadly about women at sea and attitudes and superstitions about women on ships to set the context of women and piracy. I’ll also touch on women and piracy in fiction ranging from plays, books to movies including well known films such as Muppet Treasure Island, Cutthroat Island, Captain Blood and the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
The limitations of primary sources about piracy is one of the problems of studying female pirates. We are reliant on a relatively small number of archives including trial records, government orders and works such as Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates. One of the things I’ll be exploring in my talk is how the General History promoted and mythologised pirates but how it’s an unreliable and often fictionalised source.
How do we define success as a pirate – very few got rich and lived long lives spending their ill-gotten gains. Most were caught or died after relatively short careers. Bartholomew Roberts quote about pirates having ‘a merry life and a short one’ sums up the realities of pirate life. Both Bonny and Read were captured and sentenced to death – but spared because they claimed they were pregnant. As pirates with Captain John Rackam they were not noted as being particularly successful in terms of the levels of loot they captured but both women were described as fighting bravely and being ‘Forward and Courageous’.
For other women involved in piracy such as Grace O’Malley, the situation is more complicated. The people who often profited most from piracy were those on shore, often including women, who bought stolen goods cheaply and sold supplies to pirates at inflated prices.
One of the things we can take away from the experiences of female pirates is about the position and experiences of women in the past and in particular for women in maritime communities. We can see how some women like Bonny and Read also craved something different or more exciting. But we can also see the underlying poverty and hardship that most women associated with piracy faced. Looking at female pirates in the past and how they depicted today in movies can also tell us a lot about our modern society and how we try to understand the past.
Dr Elaine Murphy is Associate Professor of Maritime History at the University of Plymouth. She teaches a module on Piracy and Privateering and has published on the history of piracy and the British Civil Wars at Sea. She is currently working on a project about women and the navy in the 17th century.
The first in our Autumn Lecture Series for 2023, Forward and Courageous with Dr Elaine Murphy takes place on Thursday 14 September at 7.30pm.
You can book tickets to the in-person event in the Museum’s Lecture Theatre or buy a ticket to stream the talk online. National Maritime Museum Cornwall Members receive a 10% discount on in-person tickets. You can buy tickets here.
Other lectures in this series include: