Dr Ruth Starke
Meg Caddy, Devil’s Ballast, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2019; pp: 312; RRP $19.99 Paperback.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that Meg Caddy's Devil's Ballast, an action-packed pirate adventure set in the Caribbean of the 18th century, is just an amusing tale of love on the high seas, written for a YA readership. Yes, it involves a romance between a swaggering captain and his runaway lover-disguised-as-cabin boy, and nothing could sound more Mills-and-Boonish, but it takes only the first chapter to suggest a deeper and darker story.
The first person narrator is Andrew Bonny, cabin boy on the pirate ship Ranger, and we are with him in the thick of the action as he daringly convinces his captain to pursue and capture the rich merchant vessel Kingston. When they do it is Andrew who, unbidden, shimmies up the rigging to fasten their black flag with the white skull above two crossed cutlasses: 'I wanted everyone to know. We were the crew of the Ranger. We were Calico Jack's people. I wanted the whole damned ocean to be afraid.'
It's a pity that the cover blurb has to let readers know that Andrew is really Anne (there are also small clues in the first chapter) because the reveal, when it properly comes, is a beauty, even more so when you consider that all these characters were real, the ships were real, the first flying of the 'Jolly Roger' was real. Anne Bonny was a renowned female pirate best known for being the partner of the even more famous Captain John 'Calico Jack' Rackham, and their buccaneering around the Caribbean earned them a reputation long before another pair of outlaws, Bonnie and Clyde, captured the public imagination more than two hundred years later.
Caddy has taken these historical characters, and others, and cleverly blended fact and fiction and tweaked chronology to write a feminist version of Bonny's colourful life. Born in Ireland in the early 1700s, her Anne is a red-headed, rough and ready tomboy with a temper to match. The family migrate to Charles Town (Charleston) where she eventually flees her father's tyrrany to Nassau, where at sixteen she marries James Bonny. Constant flashbacks provide glimpses of her domestic hell before, after two years, she escapes his abuse and, disguised in her husband's clothes, persuades the pirate Calico Jack to let her join the crew of the Ranger – this at a time when women on board a ship are regarded as the 'devil's ballast', or bad luck.
The two manage to keep her identity secret from the crew (and think how difficult that must have been), and Jack does seem to genuinely love her. Bonny, however, refuses to reveal the depth of her feelings for him, answering his constant 'Do you love me?' with a flippant, 'Ah, Jack, I came to sea with you, didn't I?' But this is a first person narration and Bonny, we come to realise, can be unreliable, especially about her softer feelings. This is particularly so after she becomes pregnant, or gets a 'brat' in her belly to 'lug around'. 'I'll have to find a place to stay on land until the thing is born,' she tells Jack. 'Once that's done with, I'll meet up with you and we can go along as if nothing happened.'
In the meantime James Bonny has engaged the pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet to pursue his runaway wife and during a bloody engagement she is taken prisoner. She escapes with the help of a sympathetic crew member called Martin Read, and eventually joins Jack in Havana, where their son is born. But the relentless Barnet has learnt of their whereabouts and is in hot pursuit. Jack is captured and headed to Nassau to stand trial; Bonny, without a ship or crew, is determined to rescue him. She does, however, have Martin Read, who deserves a novel of his own, and alert readers may discern his secret long before Bonny does.
Bonny is a gutsy heroine, but it has to be admitted there are far too many instances of stomach wrenchings, swoopings, knottings, twistings, beatings and sinkings; her rage grinds through her bones and relief and fear lodge in her spine and sobs catch in her chest and sadness lodges in her ribcage. The violence may also surprise some readers: poor Bonny suffers the most appalling injuries, the worst when she is mistaken for a prostitute in Havana, not long after she has given birth, and is all but kicked and battered to death. In Nassau she is dragged in chains – 'kicking, bleeding, raw' – through the streets to be handed over to her husband and again imprisoned by him. In true feminist spirit Bonny gives almost as much as she gets, before she is once more saved by Martin Read, who certainly has a knack for turning up at just the right moment. But Caddy is only telling it like it was in the eighteenth century: no fun for either pirates or women trapped in loveless marriages.
Dr Ruth Starke Flinders University
Dr Ruth Starke