|The Pretty Cabin Boy
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
4 March 2006
Women who go away to war are the recurrent
subject of popular ballads. Often the reason for dressing up
as a soldier is to follow the loved one, to share his danger
or seek to protect him. In "The Female Cabin Boy",
a song from about 1730, the motive is simply to see the world:
It's of a pretty female as you shall understand,
She had a mind of roving into a foreign land.
Attired in sailor's clothing she boldly did appear,
And engaged with the captain to serve him for one year.
She engaged with the captain as cabin boy
The wind it was in favour so they soon put out to sea.
The captain's lady being on board who seem'd it to enjoy,
So glad the captain had engaged the pretty cabin boy.
The captain soon finds out the girl's secret,
and gets her pregnant, but the charm of the ballad comes from
the way everyone involved - the captain, his wife and the crew
- becomes attracted to the pretty cabin boy.
The ballads reflect reality, as is attested
by Captain Charles Johnston's General History of the Robberies
and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724). Mary Read,
who has been brought up dressed as a boy to secure financial
support from her grandmother, leaves home in due course and
joins a man-of-war, on which she serves for some time before
going over to Flanders to serve as a volunteer with a regiment
of foot, in hope of a commission.
Despite her bravery no commission is forthcoming,
so she joins a regiment of horse, in which "she behaved
so well in several engagements that she got the esteem of all
her officers". She falls in love with a fellow soldier
and begins to forget herself. "Her arms and accoutrements,
which were always kept in the best order, were quite neglected.
'Tis true, when her comrade was ordered out upon a party, she
used to go without being commanded, and frequently run herself
into danger, where she had no business, only to be near him.
The rest of the troopers, little suspecting the secret cause
which moved her to this behaviour, fancied her to be mad, and
her comrade himself could not account for this strange alteration
Love finds a way: she reveals her secret to
her comrade, and he expects to take her as his mistress but
she "proves modest"; the campaign over, marriage follows,
for which Mary Read puts on women's clothes. Just as in the
ballad, the discovery of her true sex causes general pleasure
and interest: "The story of two troopers marrying each
other made a great noise, so that several officers were drawn
by curiosity to assist at the ceremony, and they agreed among
themselves that every one of them should make a small present
to the bride, towards housekeeping, in consideration of her
having been their fellow soldier."
It sounds like a ballad story, but it is clearly
drawn from the recollections of Read herself who, on her husband's
death, resumes her male attire and joins a ship bound for the
West Indies. This vessel is taken by English pirates, who spare
her life. In due course, she attracts the amorous attentions
of the rather looser-living Anne Bonny, another female pirate
in drag. Bonny's lover, Captain Rackam, grows so jealous that
he threatens to cut Read's throat until he too is let in on
Read falls in love again, and begins a liaison
on board. One day her lover is challenged to a duel, which is
set to be fought (as pirates were always supposed to settle
personal quarrels) on dry land. Rather than have her lover fight
and perhaps die, she herself challenges her lover's opponent
to another duel, making an appointment two hours earlier. She
fights the duel "with sword and pistol" and kills
the man on the spot.
The short biography reveals its direct or indirect
source in court proceedings, for Read declares she had always
abhorred the pirate's life. But other witnesses say she and
Bonny were as ruthless as the rest of them. Captain Rackam gives
evidence that he had once asked Read what pleasure she could
take in piracy, when she would be sure to die an ignominious
death. She had replied that she thought hanging no great hardship,
for "were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would
turn pirate, and so infest the seas that men of courage must
starve". Pregnant at the time of the trial, she was given
a stay of execution, but died of a violent fever soon after.