Fact or Fiction?


Frontispiece of "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates" by Daniel Defoe

Many people have doubts about whether the story of Mary Read and Anne Bonny is true. In fact, some argue that Captain Johnson's A General History should actually be considered a fictional novel rather than an historical work. In his book Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates, scholar Neil Rennie argues that the stories in A General History mirror the archetypical plotlines of a novel suspiciously well—they are simply too wild and fantastical to be true. Rennie argues that, instead of accurately writing down the biographies of real people, Johnson created fictional people whose lives were so interesting that the reading public simply had to buy his book and learn about them. In fact, he even writes, 

“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” (p. 117).

To achieve this level of dramatic intrigue, it is suggested that Johnson borrowed stories and techniques from popular novels of his time and wrote A General History in the style of a novel. However, instead of marketing his book like the fiction it was, he told everyone the stories were true. That way, he may have thought, more people would read his book and be shocked and excited by the things they read.

To be clear, Mary Read and Anne Bonny were real people, and they were definitely pirates. We still have historical records of their legal trials, and we know for certain that they were convicted of piracy and served jail time. The rest of their stories, however, are preserved only in Charles Johnson’s book, which may not be the most trustworthy historical source.
However, while we may not be able to treat A General History as a book of historical facts, we can still learn some things about Mary Read and Anne Bonny from it. Neil Rennie makes a compelling argument that the story of Mary Read and Anne Bonny was made up, but it is also possible that Johnson didn’t make anything up, or at least was telling the truth as he understood it (we don't know what his source was), and these two female pirates actually did have lives every bit as exciting as Charles Johnson portrayed them.

Another, and perhaps more likely, possibility is that Charles Johnson knew some facts about Mary and Anne, but he exaggerated certain details to make them more exciting. As you read the stories, be cautious and don’t believe everything you read.

For example, do you think it’s likely Mary Read and Anne Bonny actually passed as men, or did they just wear men’s clothes because it was convenient for them, as there would not have been clothes made for women sailors at the time? Did Anne Bonny and Mary Read actually fall in love, or is that love story suspiciously novelesque? What things do you think Charles Johnson exaggerated, and what do you think he told the truth about


Fact or Fiction?