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In My Good Books

The Pretty Cabin Boy

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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 to be.
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 in her."

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 the secret.

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.

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