Monday 29 March 2021

Women of colour, naval men and naval wives: exploring stories of slavery and abolition

Guest blog by Mary Wills.  

Honorary Fellow, Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull

After the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Britain turned to the Royal Navy to carry out the unenviable task of enforcing an end to the still prolific trade in enslaved people from Africa to the Americas.

My book, Envoys of Abolition, explores the personal and cultural experiences of the naval officers serving on the West African coast in the nineteenth century.

This story of pursuing slavers is most often told through the lens of a male, military operation. 

However, this blog item examines some of the different ways I found that gender impacted on the lives of women and men in the course of Britain’s abolitionist campaign.

(Pictured: Mary Wills).

Women and abolitionism

Many people were involved the pressure for an end to the transatlantic slave trade (1807) and to slavery in British colonies (1833). 

Women of all classes played a significant role. 

They joined anti-slavery societies and organised campaigns, such as boycotts of slave-grown sugar produced on plantations in the Caribbean.  (The Gillray cartoon (left) shows the significance of sugar politics in women's lives). 

Writers such as Hannah More and Elizabeth Heyrick (pictured)  published works against slavery. 

Campaigners of African descent campaigned with effect. Enslaved four times, Mary Prince wrote the only known autobiographical account of enslavement in the Caribbean from a female perspective. 

Her influential account, published in London in 1831, testified to the horrors of slavery. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slavealso revealed enslaved Caribbean people’s various resistance efforts against slavery.

By the very nature of their task - intercepting slave ships and releasing enslaved people - naval officers engaged with abolitionist convictions. 

The image below shows an artist's version of the capture of a large US slave barque, the Orion, by the Royal Navy's small HMS Pluto. (Illustrated London News, 1860). There were 847 slaves aboard, and this was the Navy's biggest capture ever. 

"On seeing the naval officers look down the main hatch, the liberated slaves sent up a most hearty cheer, which can never be forgotten by those who heard it." 

Many testimonies by naval officers aboard ships like the Pluto reveal how they were driven by non-conformist religious belief, and particularly by the rise of evangelicalism. 

Some naval wives were involved with their husbands in networks of interest between anti-slavery and religious societies on one hand, and the very masculinist Royal Navy on the other.

Mary Grey (pictured) and George Grey are a good example. Sir George had been immersed in Navy life since he was 14 and served in the West Indies in the 1780s and 1790s. He was younger brother of MP Sir Charles Grey. As Prime Minister Charles oversaw the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean in 1833.

Captain George Grey was married to Mary Whitbread, whose father was the brewer and anti-slavery supporter Samuel Whitbread. George and Mary were committed evangelical Christians. They counted the abolitionist MP William Wilberforce among their friends. 

However, British women were also among the large number of owners of Caribbean slave-worked plantations identified in Britain in the 1830s. This is revealed by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database:

Britons were absentee slave owners at the very same time as the Royal Navy was attempting to suppress the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. This contradiction demonstrates the tensions and complexities regarding anti-slavery within British society at this time.

White wives in West Africa

The majority of naval officers on the West African coast were absent from home for up to three years while serving there. But others travelled to the coast with their families, particularly to the British colony of Sierra Leone. 

After 1807 Sierra Leone became the centre of British anti-slave trade operations, with a community of European officials, military representatives, missionaries, and their families. 

Waterloo Market, Sierra Leone. Illustrated London News, 1856.

Anne and Charlotte Columbine, the wife and daughter of Captain Edward Columbine, are examples of this. They died from yellow fever after going out to join him when he was governor of the colony in 1809-11. He resigned from his post
after they were struck down. 

Columbine later died on the voyage home. He wrote in his journal that he had ‘a heart broke down with grief’.

Mrs Henry Grant Foote published her recollections of life in West Africa in 1869 (see picture of title page). She was the wife of Captain Foote, who served on the anti-slave trade squadron.

Black women connecting with naval men in West Africa

Naval officers’ letters and journals from the West African coast reveal encounters and relationships with West African peoples. Naval officers met West African women in a variety of circumstances, employing washerwomen, for example. 

The sketch of ‘Officers of HM Brig Bonetta on board a Hulk, Sierra Leone, Africa in ‘37’ (see likely drawn by a crew member of the Bonetta, which was used to police the slave trade. 

An African woman depicted there seems, from her stance, to be a slave kept for the sexual satisfaction of British sailors or someone who sold sexual services. The hulk was probably the Conflict, which was allegedly used as a floating brothel for crews of British naval vessels visiting Sierra Leone during this period. 

Sailors’ letters rarely discuss specific interactions with enslaved women encountered on captured slave ships. The interception of slave vessels was their official duty, and the emotions expressed are typically pity and compassion. 

By contrast, the African women met on shore were often written about in romanticized or sexualized contexts. 

This was reflective of travel or exploration writing of the time. British middle-class women were characterized by virtuousness and submissiveness while Asian and African women were often admired for their perceived exoticism.

Lieutenant Francis Meynell touched on this allure in a letter, writing to his father from the Atlantic island of St Helena in 1846, that ‘[m]any of our officers loose [sic] their hearts here’ (letter held by the National Maritime Museum).

Pictured: Lt Francis Meynell’s sketch of Africans released from the slave ship Albanez, aboard the British naval ship Albatross, 1845

Women as gifts

A girl was dubiously presented ‘as a wife to comfort him, & to wash his clothes & cook his meals’ Captain Luce said of his Commodore, Arthur Eardley-Wilmot.

This human gift was proffered on their mission to negotiate an end to the slave trade from the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Nigeria) in 1863. They’d stayed in the capital, Abomey, for many weeks. 

Pictured: King Gezo of Dahomey, illustration from the published journals of Lt Frederick Forbes, 1851.

The story of Omoba Aina, a young Egbado princess intended as a diplomatic ‘present’ for Queen Victoria from King Ghezo of Dahomey, offers evidence of a more long-lasting, familial relationship. 

In 1850, Lieutenant Frederick Forbes brought the seven-year-old back to Britain under instructions from the King (Forbes later published his journals from the anti-slavery mission). 

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (as she was later christened) lived with the Forbes family in Windsor. Queen Victoria paid for her education. 

And Sarah‘s daughter was named Victoria after her godmother, the Queen: See images at

Pictured: Sarah Forbes Bonetta's gravestone, Madeira.


It is difficult to learn more about these encounters. Were they exploitative? Did meaningful relationships develop? 

Victorian notions of respectability prevented most officers from including detail. What we can ascertain is that many officers became immersed in their experiences of West African societies, even though they were briefly passing though.

Naval men away from home had a range of relationships with women of colour at a time when race was a complex issue. White women in Britain were vocal allies of the abolitionist movement but could also be slave-owners. 

These are just some of the countless and complex stories of the part played by gender in Britain’s history of slavery and abolition.

Learning more

Tuesday 23 March 2021

MTF seafarer tells her transition story

Transgender Pride flag, designed by Monica Helms

When even just one trans seafarer tells their story it changes global understanding of maritime pasts. It challenges oppressive normativity.

So it's useful that you can now read online, free, Michelle Clarke's interview about her transitioning. Go I wrote it.

Michelle (born 1955) was trained at Plymouth School of Maritime Studies  and became a First Officer in the Merchant Navy.Her story is just published in Nautilus International Telegraph  21 March 2021. 

Michelle Clarke today.
 Image courtesy of Michelle.

Here's an extract:  "it was not until her marriage ended in 2016 that Michelle truly became herself, changing her name by deed poll and wearing feminine clothes full-time.

"The years leading up to this had been very tough for Michelle, with many physical and mental health problems ...

"Since 2016 she has been healthier and happier. She is educating people about transitioning on a range of  courses run by her new business, National Gender Training:

And she's hopeful about the future for gay and trans seafarers.

"'There's still bullying and a masculine culture at sea,' she acknowledges.

"'But it's very enlightening to see the shipping community embracing the LGBT+ spectrum, and organisations like Maritime UK and Nautilus pushing the drive for greater acceptance. I want everyone to know that trans people are just like anybody else.'"

See From Ship to Shore and a Whole Lot More, her autobiography, which is due out later this year.

Monday 15 March 2021

Women DJs on pirate radio: pioneers' timeline

I was inspired to review some of my previous  research on women as offshore radio DJs when the National Maritime Museum put on a talk today about women in pirate radio. Speakers covered the 1980s and 90s.

Pirate radio does not, of course, mean that women maraud and swashbuckler like pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read. But working in off-shore radio does mean the crew live outside the law; their home is a mainly male vessel, out at sea; and they have a glamorous image.

Here’s my summary of the earlier history. It includes the news that – as with many areas of seafaring  women gained job opportunities at sea because of their connection with a man, and because they were prepared to take on traditional female domestic roles for a while. From galley to sound studio was not a big leap in these casual situations.

A timeline: 1960s-1970s

1960. Tineke on Veronica: the first

Dutch-born Tineke de Nooij  (1941-) was first female DJ on Radio Veronica (1960 -1974), the first pirate radio ship Norderney.  From when she was just 19 she worked here.

Picture: Radio Veronica ship Norderney at Scheveningen,1973.Picture by CH van der Niet, copyright holder Richard van der Niet

Possibly she DJ’ed from the studio on land (in Hilversum) as many pirate radio ship presenters did. Sometimes the ship was only the offshore base from which technicians transmitted the pre-recorded tapes. 

Tineke went on work to become a famous Dutch radio and TV shows. The pioneer she won  the prestigious Marconi Oeuvre Award in 2016.

Picture: Tineke in the early days. Image courtesy of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

1964. Candy and Susan on Shivering Sands 

As teenagers Candy and Susan Calvert they were very early British women DJ’s on Radio Sutch/Radio City (1964-67). The station began two months after Radio Caroline in March 1964.

Their father Reg Calvert ran it, not from a ship but from Shivering Sands. This was a WW2 Maunsell army fort on stilts in the Thames estuary, 14 km from land.  

Picture: Maunsell Forts today by Hywel Williams, Wikemedia Creative Commons.

Susan recalls: The seven forts near Herne Bay ‘had narrow, very rocky, catwalks between them, some of them dangerous, high above the rough sea below ... if you fell in you would probably not survive.

“I became the first pirate female DJ.... I can remember quite well that first trip out to Radio Sutch. The station was just being set up - not professional - that came later. It was like a holiday camp and great fun. 

‘Not many DJs, just anyone who went – including me –became a ‘disc-jockey’ for the day.... There were mattresses, camp beds, sleeping bags, a makeshift kitchen which became my domain while I was there.’ 

By contrast Susan's younger sister Candy had her own show, Candy's Pop Shop. 

When Radio Sutch's became Radio City in autumn 1964 she broadcast during her school holidays. 

Candy thinks Susan  probably didn’t present live from the fort  but mainly recorded the show on land. 

Picture. Candy Calvert  being winched aloft to the radio station, 1964

Your man aboard helps

I’m interested in the way women get non-traditional work on ships.  On Radio Caroline (1964-today) Debbie England and Samantha Dubois both began their career as seagoing women had for centuries: they were living with a man aboard, did support work while they were there, and came to be trusted and given opportunities.

From as early as the 1750's ship’s steward’s wives assisted the steward did. As the man’s less prestigious half these stewardesses served the food, made the beds and helped seasick people. Eventually from c 1821 shipping companies accepted solo stewardesses, often stewards’ widows, in their own right.

Similarly captain’s wives did not act as under-captains or co-captains. But in an emergency when crew were not fit enough to carry on these wives sometimes took on leadership – and were acclaimed for their skills.

January 1973. Debbie England 

Debbie England was actually the first woman to DJ on Radio Caroline. It was the most famous pirate radio  station at sea  and initially began on a converted Danish passenger ferry anchored off Felixstowe. 

There'd been nine years of male DJs. On 31 January 1973 Debbie did three shows. She was married to DJ Steve England and they had already run a mobile disco business on land together. Debbie was on ship as a cook.

They left in 1974. Debbie now runs Electromedia,  the Cheshire providers of video production and interactive media services. Steve continues to DJ for the pirate station Atlantis.

Picture: Debbie on Caroline, photographed by Steve England

March 1973.Samantha Dubois

Samantha Dubois (1955-1992) was the most famous  of the 20th century female DJs on  the pioneering 1960s pirate radio ships. Dave Thompson’s blog about Radio Caroline described her as ‘The First Lady's First Lady.’

Picture. Left: Samantha Dubois in April 1974 onboard  a tender heading out to Mi Amigo. Picture by Onno van Buuren, courtesy of  Right: engineer Peter Chicago on Mi Amigo.

Samantha was her usual name when DJ-ing. She was born Ellen Kraal in the Netherlands, but  grew up in New Zealand.  Her boyfriend was Peter Chicago, the engineer who worked as Mi Amigo’s transmitter engineer , and occasionally made broadcasts

Samantha initially got work as a cook. But then she graduated on 3 March 1973 and began broadcasting.  The relatively ad hoc culture offshore that meant it was possible to have somewhat relaxed ideas about role demarcation.

 Her strong mixed accents made her voice memorable. She worked aboard until 1976 and returned briefly in 1977, 1978, and then in 1984 to work on Caroline’s new ship Ross Revenge

Samantha then married and lived in New Zealand.  She is remembered today on her own Wikipedia page and in pirate radio websites. 


1985. US women become Laserettes

Several US women were DJs at the all-American Laser 558, aboard MV Communicator,  a former Lowestoft trawler in the North Sea. 

See mini-biographies by Jon Myer for Jessie Brandon, Chris Carson, Jonell, Erin Kelly, Holly Michaels, and Liz West.  They're in the 1980s section of the Pirate Radio Hall of Fame at

1986. Caroline meets Caroline 

Caroline Martin was actually named after the radio station, because her father was an early fan.  She began working there after being inspired by his tales. From May 1986 she made announcements but then went on to work as a DJ on the Ross Revenge, formerly a fishing trawler. 

Maritime drama including being winched off by RAF Revenge helicopter in December 1990 after power failures. She later married a DJ, Dave Asher. 

“The best years ever were spent on that ship. Through it, I of course met Dave (who is still one of my very best friends) and together we had a son Joshua so, all in all, a lot of good came out of it. 

'Also it gave me a knowledge/ appreciation of music that I would never have found anywhere else.' She went on to work for many stations as a DJ. 

Picture. Caroline Martin on Radio Caroline  1989. Courtesy of the Offshore Radio Guide and Martin van der Ven.

Pioneering pirates

Did the women DJs feel piratical? Who knows. No woman have left account of their time onboard. Certainly long stints stuck out at sea meant boredom and seasickness.

But being offshore in an informal organisation gave women opportunities that were much harder to get in BBC national and local radio, or in nightclubs.

The exceptional nature of a ship at sea had enabled people – yet again – to transcend role restrictions and become what they fancied, however briefly.

Finding out more: 

  • Ray Clark, Radio Caroline: The True Story Of The Boat That Rocked
  • Caroline - A Story in Photos, Three Master Productions.
  • The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame:
  • Nigel Harris, Ships in Troubled Waters

With many thanks to 
 Steve England, Jon Myer, and Simon Prentice

Sunday 7 March 2021

To Marseille and beyond: avec amour and murder plans


L to R: The steward, the adulterous wife, and her husband, the
mariner's orphan whom they murdered

Sex, sea, stabbing, scented baths and ruthless day dreams. The 1922 Thompson-Bywaters murder trial at London's Old Bailey offers a new angle on the sea life, involving a ship’s steward and the daughter-in-law of a maritime family. 

The case also reveals the most scandalous exchange of letters in the gendered history of relationships between people far away at sea and those ashore who’ve barely travelled. 

In this blog I: 

  • bring out the maritime aspects of the participants' lives, which has never been done before
  • show that knowledge of a ship's timetable was nearly as central as knowledge of a railway timetables in an Agatha Christie whodunnit. 


Letters were crucial when emails and social media didn’t exist. And they’re a historian’s delight. Modern landlubbers can learn about past life on the seas partly through wives’ letters to officers, such as Fanny’s to her husband Edward, Admiral Boscawen. Migrant voyagers’ epistles to families  tell gendered tales too.

But the famously infamous correspondence - between glamourous vamp Edith Thompson and stylish Frederick Bywaters, a P&O steward, a hundred years ago this year - make very different reading. 

The couple were hanged for the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy Thompson, in 1923. Freddy premeditatedly leapt from bushes and stabbed Percy on the way home from the Criterion. 

Why? To enable the adulterous affair to bloom, as Edith wanted. Or did she really?  

Edith, fifth from left, at the wholesale milliners where 
she worked, Carlton &Weiss


Four portfolios of Edith’s hyperbolic letters – now typed up and five inches thick - were used in court. They were perused as evidence of ‘one of the most extraordinary personalities’ that courts had encountered in the history of female accomplices.  

Well, what can you expect of an adultress so shockingly unconventional that she continues to work after her marriage; of an almost-vamp who later stars under the chandelier in the ‘worlds’ most famous courtroom’ sporting ‘a black velvety hat with black quills curving forward from the left side in a scythe-like sweeping drop’. 

A vulgar older woman ensnaring an innocent mariner? An intelligent arty day-dreamer whose young lover gallantly helps her divest herself of a mismatched husband: a Presbyterian non-dancer who, ergo, had it coming to him?   

1922. Helpful sailor delivers teas to long queues
waiting outside the Old Bailey for the verdict  

No wonder that seafarers were part of the Old Bailey queues in the exciting ‘show’. 

Those heading for the public gallery members queued long before dawn in Newgate Street include two seamen.

 They told the Evening News that they had a ‘professional interest in the case’. Presumably they were P&O shipmates who’d take the gossip back on board.


Delightful melodramatic spectacle aside, there’s a bonus. People interested in the sea’s history can also use the letters to gain insight into the subjective history of seafaring labour and the emotions in relationships shaped by geographical distance. 

The milliner's letters were written alone in her rented downstairs flat at The Retreat, 41 Kensington Gardens, Ilford. They went to all points on P&O’s trek between the British Empire and the Antipodes. 

Her recipient was a lowly but cocky rating in a floating 24-7 community of thousands. He was on prestigious, not emigrant-laden, liners at a time when travel was seen as making voyagers prestigious.

It’s not just that, counter-intuitively,  these effusive, uneven torrents were so interlarded with discussions of doing away with a human hindrance: the limited Mr Thompson. (Tina Turner’s words, ‘What’s love got to with it’, could be the soundtrack for this melodrama.) 

But also it’s very interesting to see the side-story: how this woman on land knew precisely where her lover’s floating workplace would be, because accurate timetables were available, just like Bradshaw’s Railway Handbooks. 

Arrivals and departures on sea route had become a precise matter. You could set your wristwatch by them.

Courtesy of P&O Heritage.

Arithmetically adept, Edith understood exactly when his ships were due into Marseille and Gibraltar, Port Said and Plymouth, Colombo and Aden, Bombay and Melbourne, Sydney and Fremantle. 

Although she'd never sailed, this landlubber knew the very hour that faraway Freddy could be expected to dash off replies to catch a homeward-bound mail ship.

Also, here in the UK, to avoid her husband knowing about her adultery with their young ex-lodger, Edith physically collected the ship’s mail from the London sorting office.  

Freddy’s ship, RMS Morea, Leaving Royal Docks,London, 1911. (Courtesy P&O Heritage)

In this way we also learn about how a seafarer’s partner gains unusual knowledge of maritime mail handling. Edith explained how the system works in this letter to Freddy in Fremantle in July 1922: 

‘Darlingest Boy ... I went to the G.P.O for the Port Said Mail and encountered the first man that I saw before – he handed me a registered envelope from you 

'... and told me if I had an address in London I couldn’t have letters addressed to the G.P.O. – I told him I hadn’t – but I don’t think he believed me anyway he didn’t give me your Port Said letter and I hadn’t the patience to overcome (or try to) his bad temper.’


Professor René Weis, the author of Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson, (Penguin, 2001) has made all the information, including transcribed letters, freely available on line. (I am very grateful to him for all his kind support).

The correspondence begins just short of a hundred years ago, on 11 August 1921. It continues while the two were in Holloway and Pentonville. Only the noose ends it.

Unfortunately, what remains is mainly one-sided. Most of Edith’s letters are available because Freddy kept them safe in his ditty box, the locked wooden box in which each seafarer placed their most precious objects, and which no honourable shipmate would broach. 

Replica ditty box.

When her mother later ask Edith why she has written ‘such letters’ she replied ‘No one knows what kind of letters he was writing to me.’

 Few letters by Freddy exist because Edith had to destroy them to keep her affair secret.  

I’m familiar with the idea that early 20C ship’s stewards could be rather flashy ne’er-do-wells. 

Freddy’s beautiful handwriting, impeccable phrasing, and use of Italian and French phrases in the several extant letters reveal that this purser’s writer (a kind of ship’s secretary) and later laundry steward, was strikingly adept at giving a stylish impression. 

After all, this handsome man of ‘smouldering masculinity’ and ‘studied arrogance’ had been picking up lessons from other Merchant Navy seafarers since he was 15. 

He’d been on the Nellore during WW1, when it was under torpedo and gunfire attack.‘Seasoned’ and ‘heroic’ might be words he’d use to describe himself. 

Plus he’d taken dancing lessons. This was a man who calculates how to perform, as some stewards did.  

(Courtesy P&O Heritage)

For six years Freddy had been working for one of the most prestigious companies in the world: on the Malwa in 1920, the Orvieto to Brisbane from Feb to June 1921, then the Morea.  And white ships’ servants often adopted the swagger of elite passengers, as well as regarding themselves as immensely superior to the ‘Lascars’. 

Although his record of service was stamped VG (Very Good) Freddy had, in fact, blotted his copy book by precipitately leaving the Malwa’s tender, off Tilbury in January 1921. 

Percy Thompson’s intervention (he was friends with the Orvieto’s purser) had led to the company taking Freddy back. But the faux pas may explain Freddy’s demotion from writer: he couldn’t quite be trusted.

In Freddy's letters he is nothing like as passionate, nor as grammatically challenged, as his 28-year old lover. 

The much-questioned tale of their shared role in killing Percy is well-known, not least because of all Edith ‘over-wrought’ letters. These were read out at the Old Bailey trial, to her family’s shame.  Several were censored because they mention such scandalous subjects as orgasm and her abortion, though very obliquely.

Mainly her letters are like those of any lover made anxious by the long separations and uneven silences.  ‘Why are you so late this time – oh I hate this journey, I hate Australia and everything connected with it – it will be 109 days since I’ve seen you – and you didn’t answer my question about China and Japan next time.’ 

She mithers about whether he still loves her, and how she’s performing: ‘Darlingest boy, when you get my letters and have read them are you satisfied? Do you feel that I come up to all your expectations? Do I write enough? Just don’t forget to answer this.’

Edith also passes on the East Ham gossip, including describing her day out at the local Seamen’s Orphanage Fete. 

The Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage. Courtesy of and Peter Higginbotham
She was probably attending because the Thompsons knew maritime life and may have been helped by charities since 1901 when Percy’s mariner father, Robert Conen Thompson, died leaving three orphans.  

Percy himself worked as a clerk for Commercial Road timber shipping agents Messrs Parker & Co. His sister Eliza worked for tea merchants. Brother Richard did accounts at a City paper merchants. 

(The under-funded Snaresbrook-based institution housed many child victims of P&O and British India Line shipping disasters, just as the Liverpool and Southampton seafarers’ orphanages were evidence of the shipping lines based there, such as Cunard and White Star respectively.  

Most of all Edith discusses novels with Freddy including Bella Donna, about a woman who slow-poisons her husband. (Edith had tried smashed lightbulb glass in Percy’s mashed potato – or was that just her fantasy?).

The 1911 film Bella Donna, based on the book that Edith 
discussed, as a model murder method, with Freddy far
away across the seas

Like so many millions of relatives of seafarers thinking ‘There but for the grace of God goes my man’ Edith feels alarm at the maritime fatalities that might befall him:‘Darlint I had a terrible shock when the Egypt went down Imagine what I felt can you?’

 (The Egypt was another P&O liner, but on the Tilbury-India route. It had sunk in just 20 minutes after fog caused a collision, causing some Asian and European crew to be lost).


The extracts that follow show that the structure of Edith and Freddy’s lives was created by the ship’s predictable schedule in 1922. By then steam ship voyages were so reliable that you could set your clock by them. 

Hopeful emigrants went out. Refrigerated cargoes, such as meat, came back, along with emigrants who'd made good. 

On 28 January Edith writes ‘Darlingest boy, its Wednesday now, the last for posting to Marseilles.I’ll be thinking & thinking, wishing such a lot of things tomorrow – late – when I shall know you have arrived.

‘Darlint is my letter to Bombay awaiting you on arrival, or do you have to wait a week for it, I believe you do,’ she enquired on 15 February. 

Marseille docks, P&O vessel and mail sacks.
Courtesy of P&O Heritage

To Freddy in Marseilles on 6  March she rejoices : ‘I was pleased to get letters from you last Monday I hadn’t expected any – as I got that note – after the Port Said letter & thought it must have been posted at Aden. Darlint if you were 1 ½ hour out from Port Said how did you post it?’

 ‘Will you tell me how many letters you have got at Marseilles. Wed. the last day for posting was fearful here – gales and now storms, and I believe the next day no Channel boats ran at all. I hope nothing went astray. I wrote three letters and one greeting, posted separately ... Altho’ it’s Monday darlint, the mail from Marseilles is not yet in, I’m expecting it every moment, I wish it would hurry up and come.’ 


Today’s e-correspondence is so virtually cost-free and instant that people contacting seafarers don’t usually have to think about communication methods in the way Edith did. 

For example, usually she put on five penny-worth of stamps.  But in Exhibit 17 she’s concerned: ‘I believe I insufficiently stamped the first Marseilles letter I sent. If I did darlint I [am] ever so sorry, I hate doing anything like that. You know don’t you.’

Long delivery delays brought worrying gaps, but also accumulations (which could impose oppressive duties on recipients).  You can see this in Edith’s letter to the Morea in Marseille in May:

‘By now darlint you will have heard from me several times. Yesterday [Sunday 14 May] you passed Suez and got my Port Said letters. I’m so sorry it’s a long time from Marseilles to Bombay, when you hear from me, but I can’t do anything to help it can I darlint? 

'You’ll be able to talk to me a long time this week to post at Marseilles because you’ll have all my letters to answer.’ 

(Courtesy P&O Heritage)

Infrequently cables are used instead of letters. She writes: About the Marconigram – do you mean one saying Yes or No, [that I have killed him?] because I shan’t send it darlint. I’m not going to try any more until you come back.’ 

Edith’s letter of 20 June reveals the classic obstacle to communication in the period: money. 

‘I have been looking at the mailcard and see you do not arrive in Australia until July 22nd – I’m so sorry – I wish I could afford to cable you a long long letter to somewhere before Sydney, or better still, to be able to phone to you and hear you say “Is that Peidi?”'

And the problem that besets seafarers’ digital communications today – signal range – beset Edith too. 

On Freddy’s 20th birthday she sends birthday greetings to Melbourne via Marconigram: ‘I sent you greetings by cable this time it was the only way I could celebrate darlint I wanted you to receive it on the exact day but I’m afraid you won’t it’s not my fault darlint its the fault of that ship of yours not being within radio range of either Aden or Bombay on the 27th [June].’

When autumn begins and Captain Garwood’s team is homeward bound again, on 21 September, Edith writes yet another date-aware letter:

 ‘I’ve not sent a wire to Plymouth to you ... I see you left Gibraltar on the 19th and perhaps you will get in Saturday morning – then I shall send you a wire to Tilbury to meet me in the afternoon – if it’s at all possible for you.’


Within ten days of landing back in England, on 3 October Freddy commits the murder of Percy Thompson that Edith had – sort of – longed for.  (People still argue that she had only been fantasising.) 

 The couple would exchange no more letters across the seas.  On 9 January 1923 Edith and Freddy were hanged, and then placed in separate graves. 

The cause celebre is the focus of books and films, including Another Life (2001) with Natasha Little playing an un-sultry Edith. Should the lovers have been hanged? Was justice miscarried?

Pola Negri, marketed as Hollywood’s most smouldering and exotic vamp, starred in Bella Donna three months later. Lookalike Edith would have been writing Freddy rapturous letters about it.

Until scrapped in 1930 the Morea kept ploughing from Tilbury to Australia, regular as clockwork.

 Outbound, Freddy’s former colleagues were busy with holidaying passengers using the summer season to explore beyond P&O’s mail routes. Increasingly P&O was marketing tours or broken journeys to passengers, while still sticking to the Mail schedules.

Stewards must have found passengers’ curiosity wearing: ‘Bywaters, your shipmate. What was he like, eh?’ 

But surely the jute sacks full of love letters to and from P&O crew were never again laden with murder plans. 

Friday 5 March 2021

Counting BAME women into piracy: 9 FAQs

Women’s History Month at the National Maritime Museum this month brings a focus on women’s piracy.

Piracy has been told as a largely white and male story. 

But were there actually any brown or black female pirates, like Anamaria (Zoe Saldana)? (PIctured above, telling off Captain Jack Sparrow [Johnny Depp], in The Curse of the Black Pearl.)

Certainly women on land were (and are) involved in the wider piracy business. But few, if any, were at sea like Anamaria, whose celluloid character was based on white pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Women's support is crucial to the infrastructure of these organised criminal activities. 

If they live on coasts where black and brown people predominate then yes, the women in supportive roles in ports will be black and brown. 

The actual seagoing perpetrators were almost entirely males, because piracy is violent crime involving hyper-masculine sea-rovers. 

By contrast women’s presence is hidden, which means solid proof is rare. But we can piece together BAME women’s probable roles using circumstantial evidence and lenses that see both gender and race.



Piracy impacted on BAME women from Madagascar to the Spanish Main and Nassau to New England. The gendered patterns varied with period and location. 

For example, in 2000-2018 Somalia, women were affected by high levels of piracy. Women were not involved in heists at sea, not least because it is a Muslim culture and because so many pirates were ex-military, and therefore male. But they were aboard as carers for the captives awaiting ransom.   

Brittany Gilmer writes in ‘Invisible Pirates: Women and the Gendered Roles of Somali Piracy’, (Feminist Criminology, 14: 3, 2019) that they were were care workers, resource dealers, relationship facilitators and financial investors.


Proportionally the greatest number of BAME women were probably in piracy’s so-called Golden Age, 1650-1730. 

The Caribbean was one of the main areas. If you’d been a brown or black woman in Jamaica or Tortuga,  needing to earn a living, you’d have been mixed up in piracy, and certainly mixing with the visiting male seafarers.  Some men were BAME. 60 out of Captain Blackbeard's 100 crew were said to black and brown.

As a woman you might have gained your main earnings as a consequence of piracy, if you could supply what the needy incomers required. 

Gender, race and class: Racially mixed crews with white captains were reportedly the norm: Image courtesy of Disney Studio Motion Pictures.

9 FAQs.

1.What did women do in this Golden Age Caribbean world?

Their five main roles were surely these:

  • As wives and girlfriends, and even mothers and daughters of pirates, giving domestic support including shelter and listening
  • As paid providers of goods and visitor services, such as laundry, nursing care, lodgings 
  • As partners in casual sex, including paid sex, not necessarily willingly  (see the picture of  Madagascan pirate's' 'native wife') 
  • As captives and victims
  • As fences distributing stolen goods, as well as suppliers of intelligence about ship movements and impending crackdowns 

And this pattern was similar with non-piratical seafarers too. For example, in Jamaica in 1780 a formerly enslaved black women, Cubah Cornwallis (c1750-1848), nursed Royal Navy hero Horatio Nelson.

2.How many? 

Surely tens of thousands. Estimates say that one-third of the 10,000 pirates of this period were former enslaved men (some escapees). 

If this statistic is correct then at least 33,000 BAME men were pirates. If you were the blood relative of a pirate you would be domestically implicated in piracy. These women were not inevitably brown or black but most would have been. 

Just before the start of the eighteenth century roughly 6,000 people were in Port Royal, the most infamous of all the West Indies pirate havens. If women were approximately half the population this suggests that at least 2,000 women may have been involved in profiting in some way from the 200-odd ships visiting the port in 1688. 

3.Were black and brown women in piracy beautiful ‘co-stars?

It’s unlikely that they were a sort of moll for a Johnny Depp figure. This is mythology. Women who counted as ‘beautiful’ could command the highest prices in the sex industry. This meant that the richest pirate men (captains, who were white) were in a position to attract or buy the trophy women, who were white. And you might not have wanted anything to do with these marauders of the high seas anyway.

Interestingly, Rachel Pringle Polgreen (1753–1791), who kept a Barbados brothel and is the best recorded Caribbean women in seafaring life, is not portrayed as attractive by today’s standards. But she was very popular.  

4. Did black and brown women get rich if they were connected to a pirate?

Possibly. Any newly-arrived ship was an island’s vital opportunity for dirt-poor people to earn in a range of ways. Gain could be substantial, especially from  men newly paid off after a successful venture.

For example when the 300 pirates who’d taken part in legendary Henry Morgan’s raid on Portobello in 1688 went back to their Port Royal base they each had prize money of over  £60. (This was £15,000 in today’s money) or roughly the price of an enslaved human being.) Such prize money was usually spent lavishly, so nearby women gained.

If your pirate was black or brown your situation would have partly been a consequence of the racial attitudes on his particular pirate ship. 

Some radical pirate captains were notably fair.But BAME men generally had lower status than white men. They typically worked as cooks. 

In these commune-like situations officers shared out the bounty according to status. For example. a captain might get five shares to the ship’s boy’s half-share.  

So BAME pirates’ lack of high-paying roles meant they gained less money than white people. But earnings were often better, if less regular,  than the low wages they could command in legit work on land. 

The legendary ‘Black Caesar’ was West African-born and operating around 1710 on Blackbeard’s Queen Anne's Revenge. He is the exception to this pattern. He gained wealth, temporarily.  See imagined version of him here). 

5. Was it better to have a black and brown pirate than a white pirate as your man?

In some ways. He was less likely to be hanged than a white man, if apprehended by the law.

Instead a black or brown pirate would be returned to his ‘owner’ or re-enslaved. This might mean he was forcibly located far away from you, in a situation you didn’t want if you had been a relatively high-earning woman in port.  

6. Why were BAME women less involved in actually sailing on pirate vessels?

In Golden Age piracy only captains – but not lower crew –sailed with their female partners. (and very few at that).

Captains were usually white, and chose white British women as partners.  For example in the 1710s Calico Jack Rackham on the Kingston sailed with Anne Bonny, a white Irish-American woman who was regarded as his wife. She is said to have had two children by him.  (See artist's idea of Anne, and Mary Read: the tw most famous women pirates.)

7. What about being captured by pirates?  

BAME women in the Golden Age were less likely to be travelling than white women. The few were mainly servants.  

Servants of any colour were seen as of less value, not least because they could not be ransomed for a high price. Black and brown women servants would probably have been at the bottom of the chain, and more likely to be raped and discarded. 

Black Caesar was rumoured to have had a harem of 100 women captives from ships c1710.Their ethnicity is not recorded.

8. Who were the black and brown women who best enjoyed pirate life?

They would be light-skinned, conventionally beautiful, freed women, who were based in ports and prepared to meet white men's needs. The most successful had enough capital and entrepreneurial ingenuity to profit from the more high status men (meaning whites) in visiting ships. Doctoresses and brothel operators were probably the highest earners; it could be a seller’s market. 

Women were best off mixing with pirates who were needy after a long voyages . It was most profitable to meet quite soon after the men  had landed, consequent to successfully plundering a vessel. If the women knew how to avoid pregnancy - and in Jamaica they did - so much the better.

9. Who were the worst-off  black and brown women in the pirate world?

Probably all of them. Pirates were only sometimes gents. They were, and are, men habituated to violence. That could spill over into domestic violence too. For a modern take on it see Shukria Dini’s article ‘Ten reasons why Somali pirates are bad for women’ (

But women needing the support of a male relative who would remain securely present as a steady earner were especially badly off.  A pirate is part of what is now called the precariat. So you would be in a relationship of feast and famine, and have to tolerating a lot being left behind.

 Being morally opposed to the business would bring loneliness and ostracism. BAME women might be the least economically able to survive such difficulties, depending on the sisterly support available and their own resilience.


To my knowledge, there is no solid information on BAME women in Golden Age piracy. But we can deduce a lot from reading histories of piracy in conjunction with modern analyses of BAME and gender. 

In relation to what were called the West Indies these include:

  • Hilary McD. Beckles, ‘Sex and Gender in the Historiography of Caribbean Slavery,’ in Engendering History, ed. Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton, and Barbara Bailey (London: James Currey Publishers, 1995) 

  • Lucille Mathurin Mair, A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica 1655-1844 (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006)

  •  Verene A.Shepherd, ed. Women in Caribbean History: The British-Colonised Territories (Kingston: I. Randle, 1999)

  • Barbara Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650-1838 (London: Heinemann Publishers, 1990). 

See also my article on Cuba Cornwallis:  
'Questing for Cuba Cornwallis',Trafalgar Chronicle, Autumn 2018 pp24-33.