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.

Before the Revolution: images of secular Iran

Notwithstanding the recent diplomatic thaw between the US and Iran, most people in the West, if asked to envisage the Islamic Republic, would likely see in their mind’s eye a country of angry religious fundamentalists, full of oppressed women swathed in black robes.

While that picture has some elements of truth, what is perhaps not so well-known in the West is that for much of the 20th century, Iran was a secular regime in which women wandered the streets of Tehran in miniskirts. This, from a country where state television currently forbids showing musicians in the act of playing instruments, as it is supposedly damaging to public morals.

This is not to say that Iran was an ideal country; far from it. The Shah of Iran was unpopular and autocratic, using the country’s oil revenues to fund his lavish lifestyle. Political dissent was not tolerated. Great swathes of the country remained poor, conservative, and illiterate – in fact, one of the current regime’s greatest achievements has been in raising literacy standards so that literacy for women aged 15-24 now stands at 97.70%, as opposed to 42.33% before the 1979 Revolution.

Yet notwithstanding these caveats, Iranian society (especially in urban areas) became modernised and westernised to an extent unimaginable today. Echoing the spirit of Ataturk’s modernising reforms in Turkey after World War One, the Iranian shahs were determined to turn Iran into a nationalistic, militaristic, secular and westernised country by hook or by crook. To that end, women were actually forbidden to wear the veil in 1936, were granted suffrage in 1963, and attained high positions in government and the judiciary.

Below, I have collected a number of Iranian photographs dating from the 1930s to 1970s which capture something of the spirit of this brave new world.

Magazine cover
Magazine cover

girls reading

POI_0298_Nevit

fairground ride

1970s-iranian-fashion-4

The board of directors of a women's rights association in Tehran (1923-1933)
The board of directors of a women’s rights association in Tehran (1923-1933)
Magazine cover
Magazine cover

25Bahman1

Iran Air hostesses
Iran Air hostesses

picnic

Female parliamentarians in mid-1970s Tehran
Female parliamentarians in mid-1970s Tehran

flares

beach

POI_0304_Nevit

 

Creole women in the British imagination

One consequence of the expansion of European colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries was that many Europeans came into closer contact with African peoples as the slave trade boomed alongside the plantations of the West Indies and the American colonies. With European planters and their slaves living in close proximity, it was inevitable that mixed-race unions should occur, the children of which were known as ‘mulattos’. For many anxious observers, this development called into question the racial and moral purity of West Indian planters. White Creoles (this being the term used to differentiate West Indians of European descent from white people living in Europe) became a much-maligned group in literature and the popular imagination, particularly in Britain.

 

18th-century mulatto women of mixed descent
18th-century mulatto women

The everyday experience of white Creoles in the West Indies was certainly very different from that of white people living in Britain, but differences in personal character were much exaggerated by British commentators. Notably, the diaries, histories and travelogues written by British people in the West Indies tended to reserve special criticism for white Creole women. A web of mainly negative assumptions and stereotypes grew up around Creole women, which deeply influenced their reception in Britain, whether in person or in literature (see for instance the treatment of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre).

“The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos”
One longstanding stereotype about white Creole women was that they were cruel and autocratic. Edward Long, author of History of Jamaica (1774), believed that Creole women developed a temper which would frighten away even the most obliging of spouses ‘whose misfortune it may be to be linked in the nuptial bonds’. Maria Nugent, wife of the governor of Jamaica from 1801-1806, said that

‘The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos; they never speak but in the most imperious manner to their servants, and are constantly finding fault. By nature they are arrogant people…and quick to anger. They give orders with great authority so that their underlings tremble and shake every time they are called and asked to do something. They are ill-tempered, harsh, sour-looking and quite severe towards anyone subordinate to then. They are nasty and lazy, which is why they call anyone a slave whom they observe being industrious’.

A white Creole plantation mistress angrily rebukes her household slaves (1837)
A white Creole plantation mistress angrily rebukes her household slaves (1837)

British observers thought that this behaviour stemmed from the way Creole girls were raised in the West Indies. Nugent explained it by the fact that Creole children were usually raised not by their mothers, but by a bevy of slaves who were ordered to obey the child’s every whim. The result, as Maria contended, was that children were:

‘…allowed to eat every thing improper, to the injury of their health, and are made truly unamiable, by being most absurdly indulged. Since the native Whites, or Creoles, have been accustomed from childhood onward to be served by slaves, as well as to give those same slaves orders, they, therefore, become aware quite early of their external superiority over those poor creatures. From there, the transition to pride and a domineering character is quick and easy. Neither does the example which they witness on all sides in the treatment of slaves by others lead to the development of humanitarian sentiments’.

As the anti-slavery movement gained steam in Britain, the stereotype of the cruel Creole woman was exploited in abolitionist propaganda. Children’s stories such as The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale for Young People (1818) played on popular Creole stereotypes in order to evoke sympathy for mistreated slaves. In this particular morality tale, a young Creole girl named Matilda is sent to England following her father’s death. She is portrayed as a spoilt child who treats her female slave companion in a cruel and derogatory manner. Gradually, however, Matilda is transformed by the English characters into a humble and compassionate child who understands that slavery is an evil in the sight of God and man. At the end of the novel, Matilda exclaims that ‘European children know everything, but I am little better than a negro; I find what your mamma said was very true – I know nothing at all’.

“Mrs. C. is a perfect Creole, says little, and drawls of that little”

In The Barbadoes Girl, Matilda is sent to England for her education. Many planter families did send their daughters to expensive British boarding schools, primarily in order to acquire social polish and suitable husbands. Although the education offered to girls in most British schools was narrow by today’s standards, contemporary British observers felt that their system was superior to the West Indies. Educational opportunities for girls in the West Indies were in fact very limited. Every now and again, perhaps, a school would be established by a British schoolteacher who had moved to the West Indies in search of adventure, freedom or financial security. J.B. Moreton, author of the 1793 work West India Customs and Manners, thought that such schools, with ‘proper English masters and mistresses’, were desperately needed, as British visitors argued that the lack of education made Creole women vacuous, ignorant and idle. Edward Long was particularly concerned that by failing to develop their ‘excellent talents’, Creole women would not attract husbands due to their ‘gross ignorance’.

The developmental influence of black slaves on white Creole girls was thought to be particularly iniquitous. Moreton deplored the behaviour of ‘those who receive their education amongst negro women, and imbibe great part of their dialect, principles, manners and customs’; ‘cultural deterioration’ was experienced as a result of ‘constant intercourse’ with black slaves. Maria Nugent thought that white Creole women were ‘ninnies’, and claimed that she was incapable of enjoying intellectual conversation with them.  She criticised their lack of education and described a certain Mrs. C. as ‘a perfect Creole, [she] says little, and drawls of that little, and has not an idea beyond her own [plantation]’.

Lady Maria Nugent, with her husband and children
Lady Maria Nugent, with her husband and children: the model of virtuous British domesticity

Nugent found the different speech pattern of Creole women especially grating, complaining that those who had not been educated in England ‘speak a sort of broken English, with an indolent drawling out of their words, that is very tiresome if not disgusting’. She gave as example a Mrs. S. who would regularly say “dis, dat, and toder” (this, that and the other), and a lady who, in response to Nugent’s observation that the air was much cooler than usual, answered “yes ma’am, him rail-ly too fra-ish. Moreton also mocks the Creole speech pattern; he recounts dining out on one occasion, where upon asking one girl if she would like some turkey, she replied ‘tank you sir, with all my hawt’.

“Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men”

British observers commonly described Creole women as immoral, possessing pronounced lascivious tendencies. Moreton maintained that women who lived in Jamaica from their infancy amounted to little more than ‘ambitious, flirting play-things’. He was shocked at their behaviour at home and found that ‘if you surprise them [during the day]…you will find [them]…on a clumsy, greasy sofa, in a dirty confused hall…with a parcel of black wenches…singing obscene and filthy songs, and dancing to the tunes’. A common saying had it that ‘Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men [sic]’. Worst of all, Creole women were thought to completely neglect religion; Moreton said that instead of going to church, they sat at home learning ‘jilting, intrigues, and scenes of obscenity’.

Creole women engage in lewd dancing, in "A Grand Jamaica ball! or the Creolean hop a la muftee" (c. 1800)
Creole women engage in sexually provocative dancing. – “A Grand Jamaica ball! or the Creolean hop a la muftee” (c. 1800)

White Creole women were, moreover, believed to be indolent and incapable of amusing themselves in any rational manner. Bryan Edwards, author of an 1807 history of the West Indies, remarked that ‘except in the exercise of dancing, in which they [Creole women] delight and excel, they have no amusements or an avocation to impel them to much exertion of either body or mind’. Their idle disposition was thought to result from their dependence on slaves to perform even the most menial tasks. One British cartoon portrays a Creole woman sitting at an upstairs window calling to her slave, demanding that the slave come up to her room and take her head in from the window. As a result of such slothfulness, the very voices of Creole women would become ‘soft and spiritless’, with their every movement betraying ‘langour and lassitude’. Writers conjured up domestic scenes of indolence and  impropriety: ‘we may see in some of these places, a very fine young woman awkwardly dangling her arms, with the air of a negro servant lolling almost the whole day upon beds or settees…her dress loose, and without stays [without corsets – this being a signal of loose virtue]’.

The historian Jon Sensbach, while eschewing the moral judgments of earlier writers, does write of the planters’ daily schedule that it:

‘…could not be said to be taxing. They slept late each morning, rose for a bit of light work – women sewed, men tended to business – then, exhausted after the midday meal, they napped for an hour in their hammocks, fanned to sleep by a slave waving a palm branch. Afternoon tea was followed by card games lasting long into the night, the men often repairing as well to a tavern for extended bouts of billiards. Observing this routine, some European writers concluded that planters, particularly Creoles, were a feeble lot, enervated by climate and luxury, torpid of spirit and physical energy except in sexual excess, indolent and cruel.’

Creole men and women being drunk and disorderly. - "Cigar smoking society in Jamaica" (1802)
Creole men and women engaging in drunken debauchery. – “Cigar smoking society in Jamaica” (1802)

 

As Sensbach remarks, many Britons attributed the supposed indolence and lewdness of Creole women to the climate in which they grew up. The idea was that while British women were as cool and moderate as the British climate, Creole women were influenced by the tropical humidity and lush abundance of the West Indies. Edward Long thought that in the West Indies, ‘women attain earlier to maturity and sooner decline, than in the Northern climates’. Moreton wrote that ‘Creole ladies, who have been properly educated and polished in England from their infancy in polite schools…[are] no doubt, as prudent, chaste and fine women as any in the world, save only what difference of climate produces’. Thus – unfortunately for Creole women – even with the best education, their propensity for improper conduct still remained, due to the exotic West Indian climate.


Further reading

Barbara Hofland, The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale For Young People (1818)
Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (1774)
J. B. Moreton, West India Customs and Manners (1793)
Philip Wright (ed.), Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801-1805  (2000)

How to find a Georgian heiress

Marriages for money, although they had been criticised on moral and practical grounds for centuries, were still very common in eighteenth-century European society, particularly among the wealthy and landed classes. Even in Jane Austen’s supposedly romantic novels, money is always a consideration when deciding whom to marry, to the point that some of her characters contract entirely loveless matches in order to escape the horrors of penurious spinsterhood.

Mercenary marriages were, however, bound to continue so long as ladies were financially dependent on men and so long as gentlemen, idle or otherwise, felt that their present income was not enough to fulfill their social ambitions. Marrying a wealthy woman was simply one of the easiest ways for cash-strapped gentlemen to indulge their expensive tastes, given that in almost all cases the wife’s money would become her husband’s to spend as he wished. This matrimonial strategy was particularly necessary for the younger sons of peers and landowners, as they were often financially short-changed by the inheritance system which favoured older brothers. Marrying an heiress might have seemed more palatable than a career in the law, the military or the Church, which were the standard options for men in their position.

Yet how were men supposed to work out how much money a potential wife really had? There was, after all, no point in wasting time and effort courting a lady who might turn out to have little or nothing to her name. Word of mouth on this matter could be unreliable. In fact, the plots of not a few contemporary novels turn on the realisation that a lady has less money than her suitor believed, thus placing the match in jeopardy (see, for instance, Catherine and the younger Tilney brother in Austen’s Northanger Abbey).

William Hogarth mocked mercenary marriages in his series Marriage à la Mode. Here, in the first painting, a marriage is arranged between the bankrupt son of Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy merchant.
William Hogarth mocked mercenary marriages in his series Marriage à la Mode. Here, in the first painting, a marriage is arranged between the bankrupt son of Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy merchant.

But lo! help was at hand to save fortune-hunting men from confusion and misery, in the shape of a 1742 pamphlet entitled A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor’s directory. Compiled by a Mr B. M–n (who, tellingly, signs himself as “a younger brother”), its purpose is made abundantly clear in the prefatory address ‘To all Widowers and Batchelors’:

“There are undeniably several Widowers, but many more Batchelors in the perplexed Situation [of finding a wife]; some want Acquaintance among the Ladies, others want Introduction; and hence it is that the poor Maidens themselves often sympathise; for I make no Manner of doubt, but Numbers are willing to meet either Widower or Batchelor half Way; now could any Method have been found more expedient to remove these Stumbling-blocks in the Road to Fortune and Matrimony than the following? […]

“Thus Gentlemen, have I in the following sheets I think, opened a fair Field for Action for you; a fine Choice, and a fine Collection of Ladies; – Open the Campaign directly then yourselves, that my next [publication] may be a new Sett. I heartily wish you all Success”.

rrr

This handy document is essentially a list of the wealthiest women in Britain, listing their names, places of abode, reputed fortunes and the amount they had in the stocks. The main body of the text is charmingly divided into ‘widows’ and ‘spinsters’, the latter category covering young unmarried women as well as old ladies. Many distinguished family names are to be seen in the lists – Byron, Cecil, Cavendish, Howard, Seymour, Walpole, Grosvenor and Curzon, among others. Even the Prime Minister’s daughter, Maria Walpole, is listed; her address is given as Downing Street, and her reputed fortune as £80,000 (circa £7,000,000 in today’s money).

Most fortunes in this list are in the thousands to tens of thousands of pounds, with the exception of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, to whom the author assigns a reputed fortune of ‘Millions’ – an absolutely staggering amount of money at the time. Incidentally, this would have been referring to the first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, who was 82 years old at the time this pamphlet was published. Not a conquest for the fainthearted, then.

In the case of there being more than one daughter, aristocratic sisters are listed separately. For commoners, the author merely inserts the number of sisters beside the family name to indicate that an address contains multiple marital targets. Thus we see the Misses Mabbott of Ormond Street, who had £15,000 apiece, listed simply as ‘Mabbott (2)’. Picking a family with many daughters might increase the odds of finding a beauty among them, but these young ladies were also less attractive to fortune-hunters as the parental inheritance was generally spread more thinly. Witness for instance the eight Misses Barker of Chiswick, or the seven Corbett sisters living in Mayfair, each of whom had the misfortune to come with only £5,000, as opposed to some of their contemporaries with tens of thousands of pounds. Indeed, having a large number of daughters posed quite a financial problem for all but the wealthiest parents, as each young lady was expected to provide a dowry and perhaps be entitled to some inheritance upon the deaths of her dear mamma and papa. Their families often got little in return, unless they managed to contract politically or socially useful alliances.

One might think, faced with all this, that A master-key is a cynical, even callous production, aiming shamelessly at the financial and emotional exploitation of women. While this is true, its author was at least more honest about the sordid material concerns which lay behind many contemporary marriages than the many sentimental novels of the time.

hgsdfCaptugfreCawerpture


Further Reading

B. M-n, A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, the widower and batchelor’s directory (1742)

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)

Infertility in Samuel Pepy’s England

I recently came across a striking passage in Samuel Pepy’s diary in which he receives advice on how to get his wife Elizabeth pregnant. At the time of writing, July 1664, he and Elizabeth had been married for eight years, but they remained childless. While attending a dinner on 26th July, Samuel asked the women present if they could give him any advice on how to overcome his and his wife’s apparent infertility. The women “freely and merrily” gave the following precautions as a certain means of conceiving:

1. Do not hug my wife too hard nor too much. 2. Eat no late suppers. 3. Drink juice of sage. 4. Tent and toast. 5. Wear cool Holland-drawers. 6. Keep stomach warm and back cool. 7. Upon my query whether it was best to do it at night or morn, they answered me neither one nor another, but when we have most mind to it. 8. Wife not to go too straight-laced [with her corset]. 9. Myself to drink Mum [a kind of beer] and sugar. 10. Mrs Ward did give me to change my plate. The 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 10th they all did seriously declare and lay much stress upon them, as rules fit to be observed indeed, and especially the last: to lie with our head where our heels do, or at least to make the bed high at feet and low at head.

Sadly for the Pepys, Elizabeth never did get pregnant. One diary entry from September 1664 reveals that when Samuel returned home after dinner with a friend, “I find my wife not well – and she tells me she thinks she is with child; but I neither believe nor desire it”. Whether this shows genuine resignation or a display of bravado, we will probably never know.

Elizabeth Pepys
Elizabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys in 1666
Samuel Pepys in 1666

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But how typical were the remedies suggested to Pepys in the wider context of 17th century England? The womens’ recommendation that the couple should have sex whenever they both feel like it is unsurprising, as contemporary opinion held that it was necessary for both partners to enjoy sex in order to conceive. Supposed aphrodisiacs were therefore touted as helpful in overcoming infertility. Not only did aphrodisiacs stir up lust; they were also thought to have physical effects on the body which made both men and women more fertile. Many more foods were considered aphrodisiacs than today. Aristotle’s master-piece (1684) listed:

…among such things as are inducing and stirring up thereto, are…Hen-eggs, Pheasants, Woodcocks, Gnatsappers, Thrushes, Black Birds, young Pigeons, Sparrows, Partridge, Capons, Almonds, Pine-Nuts, Raysons, Currants, all strong Wines moderately taken; especially those made of the Grapes of Italy; but Erection is chiefly caused and provoked by Satyrium Eringoes, Cresses, Erysimum, Parsnips, Artichoaks, Turnips, Rapes, Asparagus, Candid Geinger, Gallinga, Acorns buried to Powder, and drank in Muscadel, Scallions, Sea Shell-Fish, &c.

Still life with oysters ~ Osias Beert (1610). Oysters and olives were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs in 17th century England
Still life with oysters ~ Osias Beert (1610). Oysters and olives were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs in 17th century England

Aphrodisiacs aside, infertility treatment was strongly influenced by the reigning humoural theory. It was commonly held that all disorders proceeded from an imbalance of the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Consequently, much advice was focused on balancing the humours in the womb, by avoiding excessive cold, moisture, dryness or warmth.

Of course, medical practitioners of dubious quality peddled secret elixirs and the like, which were supposed to provide sure-fire remedies for infertility. These were frequently advertised on handbills (advertisements of one or two sides). Remedies were, however, not left to the quacks alone. Women shared knowledge amongst themselves; many recipes for concoctions to cure infertility can be found in accounts and recipe books of the period.

These remedies may seem laughable now, but apparent infertility was extremely distressing for women in 17th century England. Pepys’ experience would seem to bely the common view that infertility was always believed to be a woman’s problem; in the diary, he recognises that the problem could be his as well. Yet women often bore the brunt of the blame. If a woman failed to have children, she had failed her primary purpose in life. Seemingly infertile women risked being mocked and even shunned by their contemporaries, and some women must have at times empathised with Rebecca when she cried to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1).


Further Reading

Anonymous, Aristotle’s Masterpiece (1684)
Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Foot binding in imperial China

There are many legends about the possible origin of foot binding. One story relates that during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-c.1046 BC), the concubine Daji, who was said to have clubfoot, asked the Emperor to make foot binding mandatory for all girls so that her own feet would be the standard of beauty and elegance. Another story tells of a favourite courtesan of Emperor Xiao Baojuan (483-501), Pan Yu’er, who had delicate feet, dancing over a platform inlaid with gold and pearls and decorated with a lotus flower design. The emperor expressed admiration and exclaimed, “lotus springs from her every step!”, a possible reference to the Buddhist goddess Padmavati who is often portrayed sitting on a pink lotus.

This may have given rise to the terms “golden lotus” or “lotus feet” used to describe bound feet, though there is no evidence that Pan Yu’er ever bound her feet. A more generally accepted explanation is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang Dynasty, 937-976). The story goes that Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon and perform a ballet-like dance on the points of her feet. Yao Niang was described as so graceful that she “skimmed on top of golden lotus”. This was then emulated by other upper-class women who wished to follow court fashions, and the practice spread throughout China.

Woman with bound feet in Tsingtao
Woman with bound feet in Tsingtao
Woman with bound feet, 1900
Woman with bound feet, 1900

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever the truth of its origins, by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), foot binding was common practice among all but the lowest classes. Bound feet had become a mark of beauty and status and were a prerequisite for finding a good husband. Women, their families and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, being about 3 inches long. Bound feet were a sign of high status because they indicated that the woman did not need to engage in manual labour – this would have been near impossible with very tightly bound feet. Moreover, bound feet limited a woman’s mobility to such an extent that she was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without the help of watchful servants.  She was rendered almost totally dependent on her menfolk, which appealed to male fantasies of ownership. A woman with bound feet was also seen as a desirable wife because she was assumed to be obedient and uncomplaining.

In Chinese culture, bound feet were considered highly erotic. When walking, women with bound feet were forced to bend their knees and balance on their heels; the resultant unsteady, swaying movement was attractive to many men. It was also believed that the gait of a woman with bound feet would strengthen her vaginal muscles. Although Qing Dynasty sex manuals list 48 different ways of playing with womens’ bound feet, many men preferred not to see uncovered feet, so they were concealed within tiny, elaborately embroidered “lotus shoes” and wrappings. Feng Xun is supposed to have said that “if you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever”. This concealment from the man’s eye was considered sexually appealing in itself, though it had the practical grounding that an uncovered foot would give off a foul odour due to chronic fungus infections and potential gangrene.

Chinese girls from Amoy, all with tiny bound feet
Chinese girls from Amoy, all with tiny bound feet

How did foot binding work? The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 4 and 7. First, the toes were curled under the foot, then pressed with great force downwards until they broke. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot whilst the foot was drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken (one aim of the process was to make the foot look more like a vertical extension of the leg than an appendage which propped up the body). Following this, cotton bindings would be tightly wrapped around the foot, ensuring that the heel and the ball of the foot were drawn together. A girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound they were washed and soaked in a concoction that caused any dead flesh to fall off, and the bindings were pulled tighter each time they were reapplied. This ritual was performed as often as possible, daily or at least several times a week.

The most common problem arising from bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes for this reason the girl’s toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that circulation to the feet was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were likely to worsen, leading to infection and rotting flesh. If the infection entered the bones it could cause them to soften, resulting in toes dropping off. This was actually often seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were too fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to their feet and between their toes to cause injury and deliberately introduce infection. Disease inevitably followed infection, making life-threatening septic shock a real possibility.

19th century slippers for bound feet, 4½ inches long © Metropolitan Museum of Art
19th century slippers for bound feet, 4½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

In her semi-autobiographical work Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang describes her grandmother’s experience of having her feet bound at the turn of the 20th century:

“When my grandmother was growing up the prevailing attitude in a small town was that bound feet were essential for a good marriage. [My grandmother’s] greatest assets were her bound feet, called in Chinese ‘three-inch-golden-lilies’. This meant she walked ‘like a tender willow shoot in a spring breeze’. My grandmother’s feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inwards and under the sole. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony.

“The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life. And that she was doing it for her own future happiness. In those days, when a woman was married, the first thing the bridegroom’s family did was to examine her feet. Large feet, meaning normal feet, were considered to bring shame on the husband’s household”. (pp.23-25)

In practice, foot binding was carried out in various forms. Some non-Han ethnic groups practiced loose binding, which did not break the bones of the arch and toes but simply narrowed the foot; the Hakka people did not engage in foot binding at all. When the Manchu Qing Dynasty came to power in 1644, the emperor ordered that Manchu women were not to bind their feet. Those who dared not oppose the ban developed other ways to emulate the unsteady gait that bound feet necessitated, inventing their own type of shoe that caused them to walk in a swaying manner. These “flower bowel” shoes sat on a high platform generally made of wood, or they had a small central pedestal. Bound feet therefore became an important differentiating  marker between Manchu and Han women.

Manchu shoes from the 19th century, 9½ inches long © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Manchu shoes from the 19th century, 9½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

Serious opposition to foot binding started gaining momentum in the late 19th century. One force working against the practice was religion. In southern China, in Guangzhou, the Scottish sinologist James Legge encountered a mosque which had a placard denouncing foot binding, saying Islam did not allow it since it violated God’s creation. Many Christians also opposed foot binding. In 1874, sixty Christian women in Xiamen spoke out and called for an end to foot binding. Their cause was championed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement in 1883, and advocated by missionaries including the Welshman Timothy Richard, who hoped that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes.

Educated Chinese began to realise that this aspect of their culture did not reflect well upon the progress of the modern rising world, and social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons. Some families who opposed the practice made contractual agreements with each other, promising an infant son in marriage to an infant daughter who did not have bound feet. This was supposed to ensure that the girl would get a husband even without bound feet.

The government eventually followed suit and passed various laws which attempted to ban foot binding. The Empress Dowager Cixi issued such an edict following the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to appease foreigners, but it was rescinded a short time later. In 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Nationalist government of the Republic of China banned foot binding, but they could not hope to enforce the ban in the most isolated rural areas. In Taiwan, foot binding was forbidden by the Japanese administration in 1915. It was not until 1949, however, when the Communists came to power, that a strict prohibition on foot binding could be properly enforced even in the most far-flung areas. The ban remains in effect today.

Woman with uncovered bound feet, 1911
Woman with uncovered bound feet, 1911
Unbound and bound feet in 1902, 10 years before the ban
Unbound and bound feet in 1902, 10 years before the ban

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Further Reading

Jung Change, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2003)