Tuesday, February 3, 2009
The following is the introduction to my latest work about the infamous pirate, Anne Bonny entitled Memoir of a Pirate Queen
I first became fascinated with pirates as a six-year-old while living in all places, the land locked and neutral nation of Switzerland. The whole family moved there from the states when my father was transferred on a three year business assignment with Union Carbide. We lived in Geneva (the French speaking part of Switzerland) where our house overlooked Lac Laman and the city’s inescapable icon, the Jet D’eau. My days were spent going to Ecolint, the International School where English was the predominating language so as far as speaking or understanding French was concerned I was completely lost.
Television was one of my main escapes in this foreign world and I would sit up at night with my dad watching the old movies that played on the few available channels. My favorites were the Pirate movies like Captain Blood with Errol Flynn, The Crimson Pirate with Burt Lancaster and the one I could mostly identify with: Treasure Island. They were dubbed in French and although I didn’t understand a word they said, the action and adventure got me hooked.
When we returned to the states I never lost the opportunity to see a pirate movie and finally got to re-watch all my old favorites, this time in English. For Halloween I dressed up as Long John Silver, or as Peter Pan’s nemesis, Captain Hook. But when I entered high school I quickly forgot about pirates and became more interested in girls, and music, and more girls.
After college I started my career in publishing and wrote on the side, publishing collections of short stories and selling a script to the infamous Roger Corman. I was wondering about what to write next when my interest in pirates was rekindled first with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies starring Johnny Depp, then with the more recent attacks by the Somali Pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The latter were different kind of Pirates using ak-47s instead of cutlass and pistol, high jacking oil tankers, military supply ships and the like and holding them or their crew for ransom. They are not my kind of pirates, but pirates just the same and it was enough to make me want to know about the pirates I grew up with.
I read the histories like Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, David Cordingly’s many books including Under the Black Flag, Colin Woodward’s The Republic of Pirates, and discovered that pirates were the first democracy of the modern world and it didn’t take me long to realize there was a far distance between real pirates and the ones of the cinema. I also kept coming across a very intriguing character in the pirate lexicon: Anne Bonny.
To acquire additional background material on my new project, I decided on making a trip to Nassau in the Bahamas, the home base and stomping grounds of the 18th century pirates cruising the Caribbean. Prior to leaving I called my father, now retired in Boca Raton, Florida, and told him about my plans. The following week he called back with news that his neighbor Lars maintained a home in Nassau and one of Lars’ good friends, Orjan, was a pirate buff and co-founder of the Pirate Museum there. Lars agreed to arrange a meeting with Orjan once I finalized my itinerary. I couldn’t believe my luck.
At the start of November 2008, I was off to Nassau for a week with my plucky research assistant and photographer, Kim (who as it happens is possibly related to one of the pirates that served with Captain Jack Rackham). We spent the first few days getting a feel for Nassau by exploring the back streets, the old homes, taverns, forts and the docks, swimming in the turquoise water and drinking copious amounts of rum. On Wednesday of that week Lars and his lovely wife Karen picked us up at our hotel for our meeting with Orjan who lives on the outskirts of town in a private community overlooking a tranquil bay.
I came to discover Orjan is a real estate developer and his father was the caretaker of Hog Island (now Paradise Island, home of Atlantis). Orjan’s house stood at the end of a narrow palm tree lined driveway and rose three stories tall, clad in a marble that betrayed its coral ancestry. We entered and found Orjan, barefoot and jovial asking Lars if Kim and I were “the pirate kids he had talked about” and invited us in to sit while his servants brought us Rum Dums and lemon cookies. He told me what Nassau was like back in the 18th century, showed me some of the earliest water colors of the island, and let me handle an authentic pirate cutlass. An artist friend of his had done a triptic of Nassau’s most notorious pirates including Calico Jack, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. There she was again. It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? I told Orjan I was thinking about making Anne Bonny the main character of my project and he gave me a wink and said “then there’s something I should show you.”
It turned out the Pirate Museum was closed for repairs during the off-season but Orjan agreed to give us a personal tour the following afternoon once the workman had left for the day. As promised, he delivered on his word and we met Thursday. On first entering the museum we discovered a 1/3 scale model of a French Corvette, one of the many ships that pirates would commandeer and outfit for their missions. The tour took us through its decks with life sized dioramas of crew quarters, cargo holds and a carpenter acting as ships doctor amputating a leg. I could smell the wood, and felt the ropes these sailors would have pulled. A reel played the sounds of crewmen calling to each other and of waves lapping against the hull. The aural illusion was so complete I felt as if the ship were actually rocking back and forth. Did I mention I get seasick?
While many of the information plaques conveyed what I had already researched on my own, the immersive environment helped to drive it all home. When we finished the tour a big smile came on Orjan’s face as he led us down some stairs and took a set of keys out of his pocket. At the bottom of the steps was a massive door which he had a little trouble opening. “Now for the piéce de résistance.” Orjan exclaimed. He explained that many of the items in the room were used for a rotating exhibit in the main museum and that there were too many to display at once so they were kept safe here.
The door creaked open and Orjan turned on the overhead fluorescents to reveal a treasure trove worthy of any pirates den. There were sea chests against the walls, swords, axes, pistols and rifles hung on the walls, to my right was a dusty old three corner étagère. The top four shelves contained old coins and necklaces similar to what is on display at Max Fishers museum in Key West. Next to it was a glass covered display table which caught my attention for all it held was a raggedy covered book. It was about four by six inches encircled by a faded pink ribbon.
I asked Orjan about the book. He unlocked the case, took out the book, dusted it off and handed it to me. “Me hardy” he said in his best pirate voice, “this be the diary of the most infamous female pirate ever seen by the seven seas: Ann Boney. It be found nay five years ago in Port Royal, Jamaica when my team was renovating an 18th century tavern.
I sat down at a nearby table and opened the book. The pages were yellowed, dry and crumbling at their edges and it smelled of old leather and salt. The handwriting was faded but legible script. Orjan said the book was too precious and delicate for me to borrow or to photocopy, but he allowed me to visit over the next few days to read it and take copious notes.
What follows is the true story of Ann Boney cobbled together from her own words and historical documents.