Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th-century pirates

The eighteenth century was, as any landlubber knows, the Golden Age of swashbuckling Pirates-of-the-Caribbean style piracy. Eighteenth-century pirates (as opposed to their unglamorous modern counterparts) have acquired their own roguish mystique. What is less commonly known is that women, too, had their place in eighteenth-century piracy. I remember, when I was small, being entranced by their stories in my Ladybird Book about Pirates. In a society which gave women very limited choices, there must have been a certain attraction for some young women in the thought of cutting off their hair, donning men’s breeches and running away to sea in search of adventure and fortune.

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Would-be female sailors and pirates would have to be a lot more convincing than Keira Knightley, who looks…just like a woman

Two of the most famous female pirates, who became notorious in their lifetimes, were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. The primary account we have of their lives comes from Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, which is a highly entertaining read, even if we must doubt its reliability. Johnson begins his account of the two women with a bold assertion as to the truth of his narrative, which suggests how unusual Read and Bonny would have been thought at the time:

The odd Incidents of their rambling Lives are such, that some may be tempted to think the whole Story no better than a Novel or Romance; but since it is supported by many thousand Witnesses, I mean the People of Jamaica, who were present at their Tryals, and heard the Story of their Lives, upon the first discovery of their Sex; the Truth of it can be no more contested, than that there were such Men in the World, as Roberts and Black-beard, who were Pyrates.

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Each woman led a highly unconventional life, beginning with an unorthodox upbringing. Mary Read was born the illegitimate daughter of a sea captain’s widow, some time around 1691. Mary’s life posing as a man began early, when her mother started dressing her as a boy after the death of her (legitimate) older brother, Mark. This deception was necessary in order to continue receiving financial support from Mark’s paternal grandmother, and it does seem to have fooled the lady in question, as she gave Mary’s mother a crown a week for the child’s maintenance.

When Mary was thirteen years old, the grandmother passed away, and with her the financial assistance. Mary was obliged to find a job to support herself, and began working life by waiting on a French lady as a foot-boy. However, she soon grew bored of the life of a domestic servant and, still dressed as a man, ran away to join a man-of-war. She then escaped to Flanders and joined the British Army, fighting against the French during either the Nine Years’ War or the War of Spanish Succession. Although she ‘behaved herself with a great deal of Bravery’, she was unable to get a commission as they were generally bought and sold; promotion in the British Army depended more on connections and money than merit. Mary went on to fall in love with a Flemish soldier, and revealed her true gender to him, upon which:

…he was much surprised at what he found out, and not a little pleased…that he should have a Mistress solely to himself, which is an unusual Thing in a Camp…so that he thought of nothing but gratifying his Passions with very little Ceremony; but he found himself strangely mistaken, for she proved very reserved and modest, and resisted all his Temptations, and at the same Time was so obliging and insinuating in her Carriage, that she quite changed his Purpose, so far from thinking of making her his Mistress, he now courted her for a Wife. This was the utmost Wish of her Heart, in short, they exchanged Promises, and when the Campaign was over…they bought Woman’s Apparel for her…and were publickly married.

Mary quit the army, and the couple scraped together the funds to buy a public house near Breda Castle in the Netherlands, named ‘De drie hoefijzers’ (‘The Three Horseshoes’). We know little about Mary’s life as a tavern landlady, but the premature death of her husband along with a decline in her business led her to again assume men’s apparel and enlist as a foot soldier in Holland. There was, however, little chance of either adventure or advancement during peacetime, so she quit and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies, in search of her fortune. Unfortunately for Mary (though fortunately for her posthumous reputation), the ship she was on was boarded by pirates, who forced her to join their crew. Evidently she grew somewhat accustomed to the pirate life, as in 1720 she joined the crew of notorious pirate John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, which is where her story joins that of Anne Bonny.

Mary Read, from 'A History of the Pyrates'
Mary Read, from ‘A History of the Pyrates’
Mary Read reveals her sex to a vanquished enemy (1846)
Mary Read reveals her sex to a vanquished enemy (1846)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anne Bonny was born the illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer, William Cormac, and his servant Mary Brennan. The affair estranged Cormac from his wife, who went off in high dudgeon to live with her mother-in-law. Cormac grew very fond of his little Anne and wished her to live with him, but as it was common knowledge that he had an illegitimate daughter, he decided to start dressing Anne as a boy, pretending that it was a relation’s child whom he was breeding up to be his clerk. Cormac’s wife grew suspicious, though, and found out through the enquiries of a friend that the ‘boy’ was in fact the illegitimate offspring of Cormac and his maid, with whom he was still involved. Upon the discovery, she immediately withdrew the annual allowance which she had thus far been giving her husband

In response, Cormac started publicly cohabiting with the maid. This caused a great scandal among his neighbours and led to the decline of his legal practice, eventually driving him to emigrate to the Carolinas with Mary and Anne. After a rough start in the colonies, Cormac turned merchant and became a well-to-do plantation owner near Charleston. Now raised as a woman, Anne had striking red hair and a fiery temper to match; it was later put about by her detractors that she killed a servant maid with a knife when she flew into a rage, and also that when a young man attempted to rape her, she beat him up so badly that ‘he lay ill of it a considerable Time’.

Given her now considerable dowry, Anne’s father expected her to make a good match, but she disobliged him by marrying an impecunious sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny who was ‘not worth a groat’. Bonny had probably hoped to inherit the plantation by marrying Anne, but was disappointed in his expectation when Anne’s father disowned her. The couple decided to try their luck in the Bahamas, moving to Nassau, which was a well-known sanctuary for English pirates. Disenchanted with her marriage, Anne began mingling in the local taverns, where she met and became romantically involved with the pirate captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham. He induced her to run away and take up the pirate life with him.

John "Calico Jack" Rackham
John “Calico Jack” Rackham

It is at this point that Mary Read enters the story. She joined forces with Anne and Rackham, possibly when stealing a ship from Nassau harbour. The three of them, along with a pirate crew, spent the next few years sailing around Jamaica, capturing ships and gaining much treasure thereby. From now on, the fates of Anne and Mary were to remain intertwined. Both took part in combat alongside the men, and the accounts of their exploits present them as highly competent and respected by their shipmates. It was said of them that ‘in Times of Action, no Person[s]…were more resolute, or ready to Board or undertake any Thing that was hazardous’. Their true gender was known only to each other and John Rackham. Johnson gives the following account of the discovery of Mary’s true gender:

[Mary’s] Sex was not so much as suspected by any Person on Board, till Anne Bonny, who was not altogether so reserved in point of Chastity, took a particular liking to her; in short, Anne Bonny took her for a handsome young Fellow, and for some Reasons best known to herself, first [revealed] her Sex to Mary Read; Mary Read…being very sensible of her own Incapacity that Way, was forced to come to a right Understanding with her, and so to the great Disappointment of Anne Bonny, she let her know she was a Woman also; but this Intimacy so disturb’d Captain Rack[h]am, who was the Lover and Gallant of Anne Bonny, that he grew furiously jealous, so that he told Anne Bonny, he would cut her new Lover’s Throat, therefore, to quiet him, she let him into the Secret also.

One unlucky day in October 1720, Rackham’s ship was attacked by a Captain Jonathan Barnet, who had obtained a license from the Governor of Jamaica to hunt and capture pirates. The ship was quickly disabled by a volley of fire and boarded by Barnet’s men. It seems that it was left to Anne, Mary and one other crew member to put up a fight; apparently the rest of the pirates were incapacitated by a heavy rum-drinking session, and in no state to resist capture. When Read demanded that her crewmates to come up and fight like men, and received no response, she allegedly fired into the hold in anger, killing one of the men.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Anne Bonny and Mary Read

It was of course only a matter of time before Barnet’s crew eventually overcame the women. Rackham surrendered, and he and his crew were brought to trial in Spanish Town, Jamaica, where they were sentenced to hang for acts of piracy. According to Johnson, Anne’s last words to Rackham were, ‘had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog’.

Mary and and Anne managed to delay their executions by ‘pleading the belly’; this was an English legal custom that allowed pregnant convicts to give birth before being executed. Mary, however, died of a violent fever while in prison, and as there is no record of the burial of her baby, she probably died while pregnant. There is no historical record either of Bonny’s release or execution, which has fed speculation that she escaped in some way. Whether she died in prison, under the hangman’s noose, or much later, what we can say for certain is that Anne Bonny and Mary Read lived extraordinary lives for women of their time.


Further reading

This was possibly the hardest blog post I’ve ever written in terms of gathering reliable information. Even discounting the obviously suspicious sites (assassinscreed.wikia.com, badassoftheweek.com), such usually reliable sources as Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Smithsonian Magazine have wildly differing accounts of the two women’s lives.

In the end, I decided to go back to the original source we have about them, namely Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. It very likely lacks reliability in itself, and so anything written about Read and Bonny should probably taken with a tablespoonful of salt, but it’s probably preferable to a version of the story which has been filtered through hundreds of websites.

So, you can find A General History of the Pyrates here at Project Gutenberg.

‘Butcher Cumberland’ and the smashing of the Highland clans

Perhaps the most calamitous chapter in all Scottish history was opened when Charles Edward Stuart, more commonly referred to as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, decided to invade Scotland in 1745 in hopes of regaining the British crown. Charles Stuart was either the ‘Young Pretender’ or the legitimate heir to the British throne, depending on whether one’s sympathies lay with the Hanoverian dynasty or the Stuarts, the latter having lost the throne to George I in 1714. Supporters of the Stuart claim to the throne were known as Jacobites. They could be found all over Europe – the Pope, for one, wished to see a Catholic British monarch – but Jacobitism was especially strong in Scotland, from where the Stuart dynasty originated. The Highlands and Islands, in particular, were full of Jacobites. It was consequently to the Highland clans that Charles first turned to for support, upon landing on the Scottish coast with just a few thousand soldiers. Perhaps out of their ancient sense of feudal loyalty, Highland chieftains sent men in their hundreds to swell the ranks of the Jacobite army, although a number of canny chieftains hedged their bets by sending men to fight both for Charles and George.

Charles Edward Stuart, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745
Bonnie Prince Charlie, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745

Initially, the Rising of 1745 seemed to be going very well for the Jacobites, with a decisive victory against British forces at the Battle of Prestonpans, and the unopposed takeover of Edinburgh. However, Charles, flushed with his first taste of victory, made the great mistake of pressing on into English territory instead of consolidating power in Scotland. Much of his Highland army was made up of farmers, not fighters, and as the months dragged on, the army experienced desertions as men slunk away to look after their farms and families. Charles Stuart and his army got as far south as Derby, but then began an ignominious retreat back to Scotland. Charles Stuart lay low in Edinburgh over the winter of 1745/46, gathering strength and waiting for his relation, the French king Louis XV, to send him desperately needed funds.

By this time, George II had put his youngest son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, in charge of the British troops who were deployed to crush the Jacobite rebels. Cumberland was of an age with Charles, but unlike Charles, he was an experienced soldier, having fought campaigns in Flanders and Germany. He recognised that one of the problems which beset British forces was the fear that set in at the sight of the infamous Highland Charge, in which thousands of wild-looking kilted Highlanders ran shrieking towards British lines. Cumberland therefore trained his soldiers to hold their ground until the Highlanders got close enough that they could be mown down by cannon and gunfire. This tactic worked to devastating effect when Cumberland’s army met the Jacobites on the field of Culloden, near Inverness, in April 1746. The British obtained a resounding victory, and Charles fled to France, never again to return to Scotland.

1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden
A very orderly 1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden

After Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland was hailed in much of England, and even in parts of lowland Scotland, as a patriotic hero. The University of Glasgow awarded Cumberland an honorary doctorate, and Parliament granted him a staggering income of £25,000 per annum. A thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral that included the first performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, composed especially for Cumberland, which contains the anthem ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’ (incidentally, the tune of the hymn ‘Thine be the Glory’). By contrast, Cumberland was seen by Jacobites and his English Tory opponents as a cruel and vindictive man, and awarded the nickname ‘Butcher Cumberland’. His terrible reputation sprang, however, not so much from the events at Culloden as from his violent reprisals in the Highlands following Culloden.

Cumberland stayed in Scotland for several months, establishing himself at Fort Augustus (which was in fact named after him). He sent out troops all over the Highlands, with orders to kill anyone suspected of having been in the Jacobite army. In practice, many Scots who had taken no active part in the Rising were targeted; even women and children were driven out of their homes and murdered. The Highland economy was ravaged, as farms were razed to the ground and thousands of cattle rounded up and stolen. Even after Cumberland left for London in triumph, Highlanders were left to suffer the ongoing depredations of British soldiers. The resultant devastation almost certainly precipitated the economic and social crises which eventually led thousands of Highlanders to emigrate to America.

'The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant'. 1746
‘The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant’. English pamphlet, 1746

In an age when long-distance communications took weeks or months, the actions of Cumberland’s army were presumably not individually sanctioned by King George, but the purpose behind them was nevertheless supported by the full force of British law. Legislation was passed to ensure that a Jacobite rising never happened again, by forcibly integrating the Highlands into the mainstream of British society. To this end, land was taken away from Jacobite rebels and given to those who had remained loyal to the Crown. The 1746 Act of Proscription outlawed the wearing of traditional Highland dress such as kilts and tartans. Repeat offenders were liable to be transported to the colonies as indentured servants. The Act also forbade the carrying of weapons; Samuel Johnson remarked of this that ‘the last law by which the Highlanders are deprived of their arms, has operated with efficacy beyond expectations…the arms were collected with such rigour, that every house was despoiled of its defence’. To a traditionally warlike society which still revered the warrior hero, depriving men of their weapons must have been a terrible psychological blow.

The Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act of 1746 had more far-reaching effect in that it abolished the traditional judicial rights afforded to a Scottish clan chief. Universal royal jurisdiction was thereby extended throughout Scotland, in an attempt to encourage closer union with England. It was argued in Parliament that to abolish the rights of clan chiefs to judge civil and criminal cases among their dependants would increase the allegiance of ordinary Scots to the British throne, as they would both depend on the Crown to obtain justice, and fear the retribution of the Crown. Clan chiefs were also stripped of their ancient feudal right to call men to arms. The cumulative result of these military depredations and punitive laws was, as Professor Rab Houston has argued, the destruction of ‘the social nexus of the clan that was at the heart of Highland society’.

"After Culloden - Rebel Hunting" - John Seymour Lucas (1884)
“After Culloden – Rebel Hunting” – John Seymour Lucas (1884)

‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is commonly remembered as a patriotic hero who fought valiantly against the Hanoverian usurpers in order to preserve Scottish independence and culture, only to have his campaign meet a tragic end at the brutal hands of the British. Brutal the British forces may have been, but the fact remains that Charles’ reckless attempt to reclaim his throne actually plunged Scotland into even deeper chaos and precipitated the death of the Highland clan system which many loyal Highlanders believed he had come to protect. This sentiment is perhaps best expressed by the Jacobite commander Lord Elcho, who, on seeing Charles fleeing the field at Culloden, leaving his troops to be massacred, apparently cursed him as ‘an Italian coward and a scoundrel’.

The remarkable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is one of the most remarkable characters of the eighteenth century, yet she remains relatively unknown outside eighteenth century scholarship. This is certainly undeserved, as she was an influential courtier, a prolific writer, and the author of the entertaining Turkish Embassy Letters, in which she wrote of her experiences living in Istanbul in 1717. The letters reveal a woman who was highly intelligent, witty, and open-minded. Her fascinating portrayals of Turkish life remain fresh due to the striking absence of popular European stereotypes and a willingness to take Ottoman elite society on its own terms.

Born Lady Mary Pierrepont in 1689, Mary spent her childhood educating herself from her father’s extensive library at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire. She suffered under a governess whom she despised, but managed to teach herself Latin, and corresponded with the bishops Gilbert Burnet and Thomas Tenison, who supplemented her learning. Her literary talent showed itself early on; by the age of fourteen, she had written two albums filled with poetry, a brief epistolary novel, and a prose-and-verse romance modelled after Aphra Benn’s Voyage to the Isle of Love (1684).

By 1710, her father was looking around for a suitable match for Mary. She ended up with two serious suitors: Edward Wortley Montagu and the fantastically named Sir Clotworthy Skeffington. Mary’s father put pressure on her to accept Skeffington, but seemingly desperate to avoid this fate, she eloped with Wortley Montagu, despite the fact that she had apparently fallen in love with another man. Mary and her husband lived a secluded life in the countryside for a while. She gave birth to a son, also named Edward, and Wortley Montagu kept himself busy climbing the political ladder. Eventually he was made MP for Westminster and a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. To aid his career, the couple moved to London, where Mary’s wit and beauty enabled her to shine in the most distinguished social circles. Among her friends she could number the most celebrated men and women of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay, Mary Astell, Abbe Antonio Conti, and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, to name just a few.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, early 18th century
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, early 18th century

Lady Mary is most famous for her Turkish Embassy Letters (published posthumously), and without them it seems unlikely that future generations would have remembered her at all. However, it was actually only by chance that Mary ended up accompanying her husband on his embassy to Istanbul. While she had been lying in bed with smallpox in 1715, someone had circulated her satirical court eclogues. These were taken to be an attack on Princess Caroline, and Mary was consequently disgraced. Following this, as she was unable to return to court, Mary accompanied her husband on an embassy to Turkey. The small family set out in 1716 and travelled a long and dangerous route across Europe, reaching Istanbul after seven months.

Lady Mary with her son Edward in 1717
Lady Mary with her son Edward in 1717
Although Mary initially chafed at the fact that, as a woman, she was not allowed to move in mixed-gender social circles in Istanbul, she soon learnt how to circumvent such conventions. She came to emphasise in her letters that she, as a woman, could visit places which male travellers were not permitted to enter, such as the imperial harem and womens’ bathhouses. She used the freedom the Turkish veils gave her – the drapery entirely concealed her identity – and explored the city’s markets and mosques, visiting the Bosphorus, the Seraglio and its gardens, even managing to observe the army’s military maneuvers. Learning Turkish meant that she could actively socialise with Turkish women, which was hardly common among European diplomats’ wives. As a result, Mary felt able to mock the travel writers who were ‘very fond of speaking of what they don’t know’, and scolded one correspondent for their letter being ‘full of mistakes from one end ‘t’other’, which came from reading old, inaccurate travel accounts of Turkey. Mary wrote:

‘Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far removd from Truth and so full of Absurditys I am very well diverted with ’em. They never fail giving you an Account of the Women, which ’tis certain they never saw, and talking very wisely of the Genius of the Men, into whose Company they are never admitted, and very often describe Mosques, which they dare not peep into.

Mary was very interested in the position of women in the Ottoman Empire, frequently remarking upon it in her letters. She was impressed with what she observed of the status of (upper-class) Turkish women, finding the fact that women owned property in their own right particularly striking, given the situation of her female English contemporaries. She confided to her sister in April 1717:

Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their Husbands, those Ladys that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ’em upon a divorce with an addition which he is oblig’d to give ’em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire…’Tis true their Law permits [the men] four wives, but there is no Instance of a Man of Quality that makes use of this Liberty, or a woman of Rank that would suffer it.

European print of a Turkish woman, early 18th century
European print of a Turkish woman, early 18th century

She was keen to expose the common travellers’ myth which maintained that Turkish women spent all day engaged in amorous dalliances. She insisted that the female bathhouse, so often viewed by European men (who had never entered one) as a haven for sordid sexual practices, was merely ‘the Women’s coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc’. Although the ladies were ‘in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked’, she found nothing improper about the scene, saying that ‘there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them’.

Mary recounts a particularly amusing incident in the bathhouse in which a group of Turkish women, horrified by the sight of the corset she was wearing, exclaimed that ‘the husbands in England were much worse than in the East, for [they] tied up their wives in little boxes, the shape of their bodies’. She could not, however, entirely avoid confirming some European prejudices when describing a dance performed by the maids of a high-ranking official’s wife, which she was invited to watch:

Nothing could be more artfull or more proper to raise certain Ideas, the Tunes so soft, the motions so Languishing, accompany’d with pauses and dying Eyes, half falling back and then recovering themselves in so artfull a Manner that I am very possitive the coldest and most rigid Prude upon Earth could not have look’d upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.

Jean Paul Flandrin's 1842 work, Odalisque with a slave, was based on a description which Lady Mary Wortley Montagu gave of a nude Turkish woman, but he exaggerates the erotic elements which Lady Mary was so keen to downplay, in her rejection of one-sided traditional European portrayals of voluptuous Turkish women.
Jean Paul Flandrin’s 1842 work, Odalisque with a slave, was based on a description which Lady Mary Wortley Montagu gave of a nude Turkish woman, but he exaggerates the erotic elements which Lady Mary was so keen to downplay, in her rejection of one-sided traditional European portrayals of voluptuous Turkish women.

Yet notwithstanding her considerable rehabilitation of Turkish women from their dubious reputation in Europe, Mary was neither naive nor overly romantic about the situation of even upper-class women in Turkey. She recounts incidents of honour killings committed when a wife was found to be unfaithful, and describes the immense social stigma attached to women who could not conceive. She wrote that ‘in this country ’tis more despicable to be marry’d and not fruitfull, than ’tis with us to be fruitfull before Marriage’, and describes the ‘Quackerys’ which Turkish women resorted to in order to ‘avoid the Scandal of being past Child bearing’. Mary was herself pregnant while in Istanbul, and she quipped to Anne Thistlethwayte that although she was rather worried about her approaching confinement, she was ‘in some degree comforted by the glory that accrues to me from it’.

An embassy such as Wortley Montagu’s would generally last around twenty years, but due to a combination of national and international problems, and Wortley’s own incompetence, he was recalled prematurely in 1717. Upon the family’s return to England, Mary divided her time between the education of her children and producing a considerable literary output of letters, essays, poems and fairy tales. Having seen the benefits of smallpox inoculation as practiced in Turkey, she inoculated her own children and worked vigorously for the introduction of smallpox vaccination in England. After some initial success, the campaign faltered due to widespread distrust of the practice among the medical establishment. Meanwhile, she and Edward drifted apart, and in 1739 she left England, purportedly to travel, but in reality in order to meet a certain Count Algarotti. Though never formally dissolved, the marriage effectively ended at this point, and Mary lived abroad for most of the rest of her life, writing to her children and friends from Italy and France.
Mary Wortley Montagu, pictured in Turkish dress in 1756
Mary Wortley Montagu, pictured in Turkish dress in 1756

 

In January 1762, tired and ill, she returned to England, and people rushed to see ‘that extraordinary Phenomenon’ whose reputation had preceded her. Mary was suffering from the advanced stages of breast cancer and was living in somewhat straitened circumstances, but Horace Walpole told friends that she was still very lively. Her last months were spent in receiving friends and admirers, and she died in August 1762. Her letters from Turkey were published in May 1763 and met with immediate success. However, the publication was unauthorised, and Lady Bute, Mary’s daughter, was furious and concerned about the effect this publication might have on the family’s position. To avoid any further possibility of such scandal, Lady Bute burned all of her mother’s diaries, which stretched from her marriage to death. In doing so, Lady Bute robbed posterity of what would have been a fascinating collection of sources.

Further Reading

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763)