Fictional ‘Facts’: Pirate Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Archive

Posted on 19 February 2018

We were delighted to have the privilege of hosting Associate Professor Manushag N. Powell, from Purdue University.

Last week, we were delighted to have the privilege of hosting Associate Professor Manushag N. Powell, from Purdue University. Powell offered us a two-day insight into the world of eighteenth-century pirates. On the first day of her visit, she led a workshop for our postgraduate students on using archival materials, and gave a paper entitled ‘Mapping Piracy in Defoe’ on the second.

The workshop focused on the role of fact and fiction in relation to two female pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Based on the poor archival records that we have for these individuals, students were asked to think critically about the line between fact and fiction or rather between narrative and history. Participants were asked to consider how scanty factual evidence becomes embellished over time, causing the “historical” record to become increasing “fictional.” Works labelled as histories, and not just those relating to Bonny and Read, often display narrative tendencies, corrupting the original story and eventually being accepted as fact by the unsuspecting reader.

Boony and Read
Anne Bonny (left) and Mary Read (right) as depicted in A General History of the Pirates

Focusing in detail upon depictions of Bonny and Read, students discussed some of the practicalities of nautical dress before scrutinising the various written “sources” that detail the lives of these two figures. Developing this interest in piratical “fake news,” we explored the murky waters of pirate history more generally, discussing the myths associated with the Jolly Roger and pirate articles.

The question of truths became a topographical issue in the second session, as we turned our attention to Defoe’s Captain Singleton (1720). Again, there was a focus on the role of fiction as we charted, or more to the point, failed to chart, Singleton’s journey across Africa.

Both the workshop and seminar were organised by Chloe Wigston Smith and were particularly well attended – a testament to the interest generated by the topic. However, now that we’re well versed in pirate lore, we reluctantly conclude that a pirate’s life isn’t for us!

Dr Manushag Powell is Associate Professor of English at Purdue University in the US. She is a leading authority on periodical studies and has published also on British women writers, performance and literature, and pirates.