The tale of cross-dressing pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read continues to fascinate. They enter history as part of Calico Jack Rackham’s piratical band and were spared their lives after being found guilty of piracy in Santiago de la Vega, Jamaica, in 1720, after they “pleaded their bellies.” Pregnant pirates . . . that’s a notion.
There have been numerous novels, plays, poems, songs, and films about them throughout the year, and I have just come across a new title: Christopher John Farley’s Kingston by Starlight. Farley, a native Jamaican, is a senior editor at Time magazine. Jennifer Mattson, writing for Booklist, had this to say about the novel when it was originally published a couple of years ago:
Aboard the eighteenth-century pirate sloop William, officers routinely berated underlings as “sea-bitches” instead of “sea-dogs.” For crew members Bonny and Read, the insult was technically more accurate. History knows them as Ann Bonny and Mary Read, both of whom served in disguise under an iconic pirate of the Caribbean, Calico Jack Rackham. Guided as much by his imagination as by historical fact, Farley adopts the perspective of Bonny in her dotage, recounting her peculiar path from Ireland to the Bahamas, where she boldly opts to plunge into the “churning cauldron of manhood stirred by Poseidon’s staff.” There are stretches of surprisingly dead water despite the swashbuckling subject; Farley’s portrayal of the tedium of the seafaring life is realistic but not particularly exciting, and he overindulges his interest in the social history of outsiders, dwelling particularly on how Bonny’s extra-dark skin (an invented detail?) intensified her alienation from mainstream society. Seaworthy, if not particularly fleet, this will gratify fans of maritime yarns, while the subversive protagonist and homoerotic themes–they are, after all, sailors–should attract an even broader readership.