Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Pirate's Breasts: Criminal Women and the Meanings of the Body

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Pirate's Breasts: Criminal Women and the Meanings of the Body

Article excerpt

The links between women, motherhood, the family, and natural morality may help to explain the emphasis on the breast in much medical literature. . . . While the uterus and ovaries interested nineteenth-century gynaecologists, the breast caught the attention of eighteenth-century medical practitioners who were concerned with moral philosophy and ethics. The breast symbolized women's role in the family through its association with the suckling of babies. It appeared to define the occupational status of females in private work in the family, not in public Ufe. The breast was visible - it was the sign of femininity that men recognized. It could thus be said to be a social law that sexual attraction was founded on the breast, and a natural law that women should breast feed their own children. . . . The breasts of women not only symbolized the most fundamental social bond, that between mother and child, but they were also the means by which families were made since their beauty elicited the desires of the male for the female.

- Ludmilla Jordanova1

The locus - both symbolic and real - of this new appropriation of women's bodies for motherhood and for the state was the maternal breast It was as if this organ became the site of the struggle over the maternal definition of women, staged in opposition to the sexual definition of women.

-Ruth Perry2

The first edition of Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders Of the Most Notorious Pyrates appeared in 1724.3 It included the stories of two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, attached as an appendix to the story of Captain "Calico Jack" Rackam, whose crew they had been part of. This edition includes illustrations of Bonny and Read, dressed in men's clothes with cutlasses and hatchets: it is a representation that emphasizes their ferocity and their masculine aspect (see Fig. 1). They stand with legs apart, firmly planted, brandishing their weapons, dressed in jackets and wide-legged pants, and ready to fight. Their hair is loose and flows around their shoulders, but this is an ambiguous sign of gender. Behind them lie three ships at anchor, near a promontory with palm trees, contextualizing them in the West Indies. The picture's caption identifies them by name and notes that they were "convicted of Piracy Novr 28th 1720," in Jamaica, thus immediately situating them not only as anomalous female sailors but as convicted criminals. The caption attempts to fix the ambiguity of the image - the free ferocity of the women as they are displayed has, according to this textual addendum, already been tamed and dealt with: they are now safely under the control of the law.

The History of the Pyrates quickly became popular, and spawned multiple editions and translations; only a year later, a 1725 Dutch edition of the book made a crucial change to the illustration, showing Bonny and Read with jackets open, revealing their breasts (see Figs. 2 and 3).4 The military accouterments and background of ships are similar, but their jackets and shirts are artfully unbuttoned not only to reveal but to deliberately frame and present their breasts as the first thing a viewer notices about the figures. In the 1724 British illustration, Bonny and Read occupy an ^determinate space: their clothes present their gender as masculine, while the caption names them as female. Their martial aspect dominates the image; the women's more feminine attributes - rounded figures, floating hair - do not register until after that, thus creating a teasing ambiguity that the viewer can continue to enjoy once the caption has clarified the "truth." That frisson of ambiguity remains as a pleasurable tension for the viewer; it creates a desire to know more - and thus a desire to read the accompanying text. In the 1725 Dutch images, that frisson of ambiguity is no longer possible; Bonny and Read are immediately read as female, and their masculine attire seems to the modern eye more like an erotic party costume than real clothes. …

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