Vol. 2 No. 2, Fall 1997 (#7)
Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger
Ulrike Klausmann, Marion Meinzerin, and Gabriel Kuhn
translated by Tyler Austin & Nicholas Levis
Black Rose Books ($23.99)
by Charisse Gendron
Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger compiles two German-language books on piracy published in the 1990s: Women Pirates, by Ulrike Klausmann and Marion Meinzerin, and Life under the Death's Head, by Gabriel Kuhn. The translators state that these books share "a hope that the history of piracy and sea robbery might still show to us a liberatory moment."
Women Pirates—divided into sections on the China Sea, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean—reconstructs the piratical activities of women around the globe from the earliest civilizations to the present. It also ponders the mythical associations between women and the sea, concluding that men's fear of anything "cold and wet," from a woman's body to the storm-tossed Atlantic, has given women a rare advantage when striking terror on the bounding main. Tacking back and forth between mythology and history, between ancient sources such as Herodotus's Histories and feminist scholarship such as Marina Werner's The Empress in the Dragon Tower, Klausmann and Meinzerin—a media journalist and an independent scholar—rarely drop anchor to footnote a passage. Their language is blunt, sly, poetic, and innocent of academic jargon. Meinzerin's introduction, for example, a whirlpool of associations between the feminine principle, the sea, fate, truth, and death, informs us that the "Indian Goddess of Truth is occasionally described as 'the virgin called fish-smell.'" The book also includes regional recipes; readers will want to try the Piquant Shark Schnitzel from the Caribbean.
The text itself swarms with the stories of women who have plundered other people's ships. The spirit of these pirates is most robustly embodied in the pirates of the Caribbean during the "Golden Age" from about 1690-1720. Some had commissions from European heads of state to plunder rivals in trade, but even these turned up their noses at patriotic causes and the accumulation of property. They lazed about in the tropics, feasting, drinking, and whoring. Actually, some of the women captains forbade whoring, an advance on the male pirates who, as the authors point out, for all their anti-capitalist energy, kept slaves and doled out female hostages as part of the booty. Female captains escaped the feminine position "through extraordinary toughness and cleverness." Two such women were the Irish Anne Bonny and the English Mary Read, who met as pirates in the Bahamas in the 1720s, fell in love, and subsequently worked as a team. Both are pictured in old illustrations as wearing long hair, bare breasts, and bell-bottom pants designed by Anne's gay male hairdresser, Pierre Vane. I kid you not.
Perhaps this is the moment, however, to note that Klausmann and Meinzerin may be a bit too trusting of some of their sources, including Daniel Defoe, the main authority on Bonny and Read. Defoe, both a journalist and a novelist, blurred the boundaries of these genres. Still, Women Pirates is piquant shnitzel for those who like their history marinated in oral tradition and spiced with socialist-feminist analysis.
Gabriel Kuhn wraps up Life under the Death's Head with the declaration, "I will be accused of glorification, and I don't care . . . Enemies of pirates are friends of the State, and only rarely is their any help for them." Building on Deleuze and Guattari's comparison of pirates to nomads, lords of "smooth space" unregulated by capitalist imperatives, Kuhn pays homage to piratical anarchy: "For pirates, the point is to live life to the full, guided by molecular production of desire and not by any rigid social institutions." Yet is this really the raison d'etre of nomads and other tribal peoples to whom Kuhn compares the Caribbean pirates of the Golden Age? Pirates—"free enemies of the world"—seem to me to resemble a subculture more than a tribe, and Kuhn admits as much in his comment that pirates embody a "motif of outsiderness without compromises" found also in "modern youth gangs and heroes of Italian Westerns."
Lest his argument appear shallow, Kuhn insists that pirates, though possessing "active dreadfulness," behaved better than the colonizers of the Caribbean, who maintained "'reactively dreadful' attitudes—contempt for women, hatred of Aboriginal peoples, slavery." This assertion contradicts Women Pirates, one of Kuhn's main sources, which states that pirates often held these reactively dreadful attitudes as well. And while Kuhn lauds pirates' democratic method of dividing loot (compare the distribution of capital on a British naval ship of the Period), Klausmann and Meinzerin note that with some exceptions pirates paid themselves according to their performance, rather than their need. This distinguishes them, theoretically at least, from Che Guevera's guerrillas, to whom Kuhn also compares them.
Since Kuhn believes that it is "as good as impossible" to create alternative structures outside capitalism, he places his bets on the "parasites" who "have always created relatively free spaces within capitalism." The image he projects of a social group that values leisure and despises the accumulation of wealth will appeal to many readers. But this projection, with its emphasis on the expression of bellicosity and (male) desire, leaves little room for women. Granted, even in Klausmann's and Meinzerin's representation, pirate society was a male world into which only exceptional women ventured. Still, their representation is gender-porous, whereas Kuhn's is slickly male. The Anne Bonny and Mary Read of Women Pirates would have more wit than to describe themselves messianically as free enemies of the world.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997