Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lady Pirates: Bonny And Beyond

Well, it's official Brethren: Triple P has been up and running for exactly one year. That's right; it was July 28, 2009 when your humble hostess began this little experiment in all things afloat. To mark the occasion and to thank each and every one of you for your continued support, a special treat is in order. Allow me to offer a guest post from one of my favorite writers on the web or anywhere else. Check out the sometimes funny, sometimes thought provoking and always masterful CRwM at his wonderful blog And Now The Screaming Starts at your leisure. But today and tomorrow, I proudly encourage you to check him out right here:

The Naked Breast of Anne Bonny

The most famous image of Anne Bonny is an etching created sometime in the 18th Century. It’s possible that the image was created during her lifetime, but it was most certainly created after Bonny’s career as a pirate was over. The date is important to understanding the picture. Even if Bonny was still alive when this picture was created, the artist was capturing a vibrant, violent Anne who had passed into the pages of history decades ago. The picture isn’t a representation of Anne Bonny. It’s a representation of what the artist imagined when he thought about Anne Bonny.

In the etching, she stands in awkward mid-stride. The artist has trouble with rendering depth (no doubt this was a fairly down and dirty quick rendering for some disposable bit of scandalous proto-pulp writing) and, without paying close attention, it appears as if she’s not in a contraposto stance. Though her left leg is forward, it looks at first like her left arm is forward as well. In fact, after some close study, one comes to the conclusion that her left arm is slightly behind her and her raised right arm is shooting at someone positioned at her one or two o’clock. Viewed from the top, the dynamic lines of her motion would form an X, with her top and bottom halves going in opposite directions.

Bonny is depicted in the middle of some piratical action. She’s well armed: a drawn sword; two pistols, one drawn and firing; and a hatchet. She’s advancing towards the viewer, but not directly. Her attention is on a theoretical figure to the viewer’s left. Given the angle of Bonny’s arm, we have to position this target somewhere in the extreme foreground. Or, more curiously, we can imagine that, like the viewer, this target is supposed by the author to be outside of the frame of the picture, looking in just as the viewer is. It’s a pop trash version of the the depth of space play one finds in Velasquez’s Las Meninias.

Her curious X-stance isn’t the only awkward thing about Anne Bonny in this picture. Her head and chest are curiously too small for the body. This is especially notable because Bonny’s chest is exposed to the viewer. We’re meant to believe that Anne Bonny - specifically this in-the-middle-of-combat Anne Bonny - runs into violent activity with her boobs hanging out. If Russ Meyer had directed Pirates of the Caribbean, you might have ended up with a female lead like the Anne Bonny depicted here. The simple fact that Bonny’s breasts are visible often distracts from the oddness of their size and placement.

Here’s the point where I apologize to Pauline for being the first writer to stain her site with the term “underboob.”

To get a sense of the weirdness of Anne Bonny’s breasts in the picture requires audience participation. Don’t worry: you don’t have to send in pictures. In the famed image, Bonny’s arm is extended straight out from her torso. So take your right arm and extend it perpendicular to your body. Now draw a line from the bottom of your chest. Go ahead and trace your finger across to get a sense of how high up on your chest the line extends. Now look back at Anne Bonny. Her underboob (so sorry Pauline) lines up with the bottom of her sleeve, which means that parallel line you traced across your own chest falls just above that. Even on the gents in the audience, you’ve got to admit that falls a bit high on the body. Though, curiously, her head is in proportion to her chest. It’s everything else that’s out of whack. It’s as if the artist decided that all the things that made her female were one statement and all the things that made her a pirate were another, legitimate but incommensurable, statement.

What makes this particular discontinuity even stranger is that it is based on the odd decision to have Bonny’s breasts hanging out. Why did the artist decide that Bonny would wade into the heat of battle with her chest on display?

When I first saw this image, I came up with a technical theory that explained this odd choice. Given Bonny’s mannish clothing, an absurd display of femme flesh was an easy (and arousing) way to solve the problem of showing that the artist’s subject was a woman. After all, the unbound long hair is no hint: representations of Blackbeard show the infamous pirate with longer, wilder hair than Bonny is depicted with. And that, dear reader, was where I was going to end this post. But on further research, I decided, as we Southern boys say, that dog don’t hunt.

Let’s talk lady pirates.

She Pirates

Women occupy a curious place in pirate history: Female pirates are rare creatures, but the single most successful pirate in the history of piracy is a woman. It’s an odd situation which has, as far as my limited intelligence can encompass, no equivalent. To imagine a parallel, create in your mind an inter-gender boxing league where a random handful of women appear in the sports history books here and there - mostly because they do “pretty good for a girl” - but the unquestioned Ali of the sport is woman. That’s how odd it would be.

The most successful pirate in the world was Cheng I Sao, a former floating brothel whore who took control of her pirate husband’s fleet after his death and turned it into the greatest pirate enterprise the Earth would ever know. Cheng I Sao - her name means “widow of Cheng,” a reference to her dead pirate husband - stepped into the role of captain in 1809. Her first move was to hand day-to-day control of her fleet over to Chang Pao, her husband’s second in command. It was a canny move. In a single swoop, she nipped in the bud any potential mutiny from Chang Pao and left herself free to concentrate on organizing a pan-fleet pirate collective. In less than three years, Cheng I Sao had unified nearly every pirate in the South China Sea into a single organization: the Red Flag Fleet. At its height, the Red Flag Fleet was the dominant power in the waters off Southeast Asia. Cheng I Sao not only organized the fleet, but she brokered deals with local governments, farmers, and merchants to establish an insanely elaborate web of logistical support that was, in essence, a shadow nation of vassals, regulation officials, and paper pushers all serving a single pirate queen.

Cheng I Sao was an effective, but unforgiving leader. She established a universal code of conduct for all ships in the Red Flag Fleet and it could be quite ruthless. Disobedience meant you were beheaded. Go AWOL and the pirates of the Red Flag Fleet would cut your ears off. Notably, the former brothel girl created a detailed set of instructions for dealing with female prisoners: Ugly women were released, without harassment, as soon as possible. Pretty women were kept to be sold. Pirates in the Red Flag Fleet got a special members rate on the pretty women, but if they bought the lovely prisoner, the Red Flag Fleet considered the pirate married. The price for cheating on your newly purchased wife was your head.

Somebody might perhaps argue that these achievements don’t, in themselves, qualify Cheng I Sao for the title of “Greatest Pirate Ever.” Their argument is insane. But, even if I grant it validity, there’s another career achievement that I think pushes her into the top slot. She managed something no other pirate managed. In the struggle between pirates and the legitimate powers of the ocean, Cheng I Sao won. In 1810, an outsmarted, outgunned, outnumbered Chinese royal government made peace with Cheng I Sao. The coldly effective queen fed more than 100 pirates to the government for execution: a sacrifice to public outrage and a peace offering to a government that needed blood to assuage its wounded pride. Another 400 men received some sort of legal sanction. The rest became the royal Chinese navy. Cheng I Sao was put at the head of the navy. Cheng I Sao retired from the pirate game. She married Chang Pao, the dangerous second-in-command she placated the second she took control, and opened a casino. She died peacefully in 1844. She was 69. She was a grandmother.

That’s why Cheng I Sao wins at piracy.

Still, Cheng I Sao is the exception to the rule. Most seem to be like Anne Bonny - oddities in the general pattern. Though this is unsurprising, if you think about it.

So, Like, Why Aren’t There More Women Pirates?

The primary reason there weren’t more women pirates, especially in the era of sea travel that Anne Bonny knew, was that pirates came almost exclusively from the ranks of disgruntled legitimate sailors, and that was an almost entirely masculine realm. Basically, the standard pirate bio goes something like this: A going nowhere laboring class (or, in the pre-capitalist days, sub-laboring class, that is to say slaves or indentured individuals) man joins the navy of some legit naval power. In a short time, they realize that life on a sailing vessel is a true hell on Earth. The food’s horrible, the living conditions are barbaric, and the power the officers wield over you is cruel and absolute. Furthermore, it wasn’t much of a meritocracy. You might move up the ranks a bit, but in all likelihood even the most dedicated member of a national naval force was going to leave the service dead, severely injured, or not much better or worse off than when he first set foot on a ship. From a self-improvement standpoint, it was like choosing to do nothing but increase the chance of violent death for as many years as your luck held out.

Hence the attraction of piracy. While it was generally no better on the economic and health fronts (few pirates retired wealthy and few retired at all), at least you didn’t have to eat the crap served up by the officer class. During the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, the highwaymen of the sea developed a strikingly democratic system of self-rule. Under combat conditions, the rule of the captain was absolute, but in most other cases, the captain could be overruled through majority rule. On many ships, the captain could be replaced through a vote of no confidence. (Blackbeard was replaced and re-elected captain several times.) They pioneered several other workplace innovations that speak directly to the class-based roots of many a pirate, including evolutionary predecessors to modern profit-sharing and workman’s comp plans.

It’s tempting to suggest that pirates were some sort of floating worker’s rebellion, aimed at redistribution of wealth the establishing of a working man’s utopia. In fact, when the academic study of piracy started to gain traction in the late 1990s, the dominant scholarly narrative was one of liberation. For example, scholars used the pirate tradition of willing belongings to male shipmates as evidence that pirates practiced and supported some primitive form of recognized gay marriage. The fact is that we have some informal wills that involve men with no connections outside of their crew leaving their worldly possessions to members of said crew. Could this be the act of gay lovers? Sure. But it just as easily could be what a straight dude who doesn’t have a friend or family outside the crew of his ship does when drawing up a will. The tendency to see pirates through the lens of modern liberal politics evoked a backlash of its own, with the most notable example being the book The Invisible Hook, by economist Peter T. Leeson. Leeson attempts to rewrite the entire liberal take on piracy, replacing it with an image of logical, rational, economically minded criminals whose seemingly liberal deeds were actually hardheaded displays of financial reasoning.

Personally, I think both narratives are true. What liberal romantics tend to ignore is that pirates were brutal crooks who most likely never did anything out of some high-minded ideology about the common good. On the reverse, the idea that the working class rabble that made up the ranks of the pirates should be in control of their own economic destinies was, at the time, a profoundly revolutionary idea. Pirates are a lousy fit with our contemporary political spectrum, but in their time, they were doing something that turned the conventional wisdom about the rights of men upside down. Their revolutionary impulse and its limitations should be recognized.

We’ll get back to this narrow revolutionary impulse shortly, but first we need to settle the primary reason pirates were men: The almost all-male world of the professional navy was the factory of pirates. Most men became pirates when they either overthrew their captains in a mutiny or chose to join with a pirate crew upon their capture. Since no nation employed women in their navy during the 18th Century, the single largest source of pirates was utterly devoid of ladies.

The second reason actually connects back to code of the Red Flag Fleet and shines a clarifying light on the restricted liberality of pirate ideology. The most common situation in which a woman would cross paths with pirates was if she was taken hostage when pirates captured a ship. There were two was this scenario could go. If the captured ship had fought back against the pirates, then things would get nasty fast. We won’t dwell on the details, but suffice it to say that the woman in question was most likely doomed and that her end was almost certainly unpleasant. If, however, the captured craft had surrendered, then it was probable that the woman would be released unmolested. There’s an economic logic to this. Every conflict between pirates and their prey could, conceivably, lead to disaster for the pirates. They could lose key personnel, have their ship damaged in some crucial way, or get screwed in any of a million other nasty ways. Every ship they could take without firing a shot is a boon. And the best way to discourage people from firing at you is to establish a rep for slaughtering everybody who resists, but respecting the rights of anybody who comes peacefully. (In modern terms, think of it like this: The rule in airplane highjackings used to be that you played along with the highjackers to ensure that nobody got hurt, but now, after 9/11, that social contract is broken and any would-be highjacker must now account for the fact that everybody on the plane is going to assume that cooperation means death.)

This brings us back to the captured women. They are simply more valuable to pirates if they do not join the pirate crew. In code of the Red Flag Fleet, the pretty women are a saleable commodity. For Western Golden Age pirates, the strategic release or destruction of captured women helps establish the rep you need to keep potential victims in line. The alternative, make the women pirates, would have rarely made sense. Most women would have had no training in seafaring skills or combat. Adding them into the crew diminishes each pirate’s share in the take, but does not add any particularly important skills to your group’s collective efficiency.

Stunning, isn't it? But our gentleman writer is not done by half. Come back tomorrow for Mary Read, Delacroix's Liberty Leading The People and yeah, more about pirates and boobs. What's not to like?


zoe said...

wow! that was awesomely fascinating!

and congratulations on your first 'underboob' reference...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Zoe and welcome aboard! Thank you so much for joining up with the Brethren.

And as to 'underboob' references well, may there be many more to come. Love the lady pirates areound here... for obvious reasons.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! First of all, congratulations on your one year anniversary in the "blogosphere". I know that this has been and continues to be a labor of love for you, my brilliant Pirate Queen. So Huzzah and Happy Birthday, Triple P! I am proud to have sailed along with you this past year (although after 24 years together, it's probably getting pretty hard to get rid of me... at least I hope so).

Secondly, thanks CRwM for an awesome and truly fascinating post (so far)... I have long admired your work on ANTSS as well. I also greatly enjoyed the "Solomon Kane" books you sent Pauline previously. And you can never have too many boob references or discussions either, IMHO... Keep up the great work and thanks for your support of Triple P. You Rock!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee indeed! I'm lucky to have you as a First Mate.

And, as always, CRwM comes through with flying colors. Just wait until tomorrow because the wit, wisdom and boobs aren't over by a long shot (to turn a piratical phrase).

Undine said...

Happy birthday, and a terrific guest post!

(Although I don't know how even he will top the saga of Cheng I Sao. I think it was the part about her going off into genteel retirement by opening a casino that tickled me the most...)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine and many thanks for the warm wishes!

I am so pleased you enjoyed CRwM's post (so far); just wait. He's got a lot more up his sleeve.

And yes, Cheng I Sao was one of those incredible people that we (particularly in the West) hear very little about. I also like that she managed to get her husband's adoptive son promoted to Admiral by the Emperor. She honestly didn't miss a beat.