The brave female captain seized control of the vessel using a gun: the courageous leader of the open waters who sparked a ruthless pirate saga.
Catherine Howe is not only an accomplished writer and historian, but also a devoted sailor. Therefore, the recent discovery of her great-aunt’s heroic actions in the 19th century was a fortunate coincidence. Hannah Masury, who was married to the ship’s captain, Edward Howe, played a crucial role in rescuing the ship from a mutiny. It was uncommon for women to accompany their husbands on voyages during that time, but Hannah joined Edward on his travels as they transported locomotives and workers to and from California. However, tragedy struck when Edward passed away while sailing along the Pacific coast. In the absence of a captain, the crew and passengers attempted a mutiny, but Hannah had other plans.
Howe, speaking through a Zoom call from her residence in Marblehead, Massachusetts, describes how she managed to take charge of the ship using only a pistol and raised a flag to indicate their need for help. Eventually, they were saved.
The latest novel by Howe, titled A True Account: Hannah Masury’s Sojourn Amongst the Pyrates (Written by Herself), was partially inspired by a story. It is set about 130 years before Howe’s relative became a pirate. The novel features two timelines, one following a fictionalized version of Hannah who disguises herself as a cabin boy during the 18th century’s golden age of piracy, and the other following a struggling academic named Marian who is trying to uncover Hannah’s story in the 1930s. However, this is not a tale of fantastical sea creatures and charming outlaws. Howe’s graphic and brutal writing plunges readers into a violent yet captivating time period.
Howe states that the protagonist in A True Account is inspired by Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two women who pretended to be men during the golden era. However, he chose to name the character Hannah as a tribute to his distant great-aunt, who had a remarkable encounter but did not leave any documentation of it.
Hannah escapes from her residence in Boston and unknowingly becomes a member of a notorious group of pirates. The book contains some factual aspects, including the presence of Hannah’s captain, Ned Low, who was a well-known pirate known for his cruel treatment of adversaries (the author provides graphic descriptions). Another real-life pirate mentioned is Will Fly, whose body was publicly displayed near Boston’s harbor as a deterrent. In the section detailing his execution, taken directly from a first-hand report, Will even takes charge of tying his own noose and mocks the hangman, questioning their skill.
The tale, a lively novel with a hidden meaning, also reflects on the topic of gender. In her role as a barmaid in Boston, Hannah uses her charm and wit to defend herself against unruly customers. However, when she becomes a cabin boy, she gains access to new levels of independence and advantages, which she takes advantage of at least once.
Howe has been captivated by the restrictive and dangerous restrictions imposed on women throughout history. Some of her previous books explore the events of the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. In particular, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane follows a PhD student named Connie Goodwin as she uncovers disturbing information about the witchcraft allegations against the woman mentioned in the book’s title.
Surprisingly, five years after it was published, Howe found out that Deliverance was her eight-times great-grandmother. Additionally, Howe is descended from both Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor, who were both accused in the trials (the latter being a prominent figure in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). Howe jokes, “It’s quite pleasant to be related to other stubborn, cantankerous women who dislike being bossed around.”
Salem caught her attention because it showcases regular individuals in a prominent role. In A True Account, the time frame aligns with Salem’s, representing the transition from early-modern to modern times. In both situations, it highlights how everyday people were swept into extraordinary events and may not have been remembered in historical records.
While conducting research for the novel, Howe utilized records from ships and personal recollections, some of which were compiled in a book called A General History of the Pyrates. Some experts speculate that the author, Captain Charles Johnson, may have actually been Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym. These sources provided insight into the diverse makeup of pirate crews, which differed greatly from the commonly portrayed stereotypes.
Howe, who recently curated the upcoming Penguin Book of Pirates, states that the world of seafaring was like its own country. He notes that there is a disproportionate representation of English sailors in the popular stories of piracy. Many of those who were caught or prosecuted for piracy were referred to as being “late of” a certain place, such as Barbados, but they could have come from a variety of backgrounds. Howe was intrigued by the idea that there existed a unique culture and way of life among pirates that was not necessarily tied to their place of origin. It was common for pirate crews to be made up of people from different ethnicities, languages, and even genders, although this was uncommon.
After coming back to shore, Hannah took legal action against Edward for his share of the ship’s profits. She used the money to purchase a residence in Beverly, Massachusetts. Howe often frequents the town because of her preferred Mexican restaurant. Through her investigation, she discovered that she had been parking outside the same house for many years. Despite not being sentimental, Howe decided to locate Hannah’s burial site and pay her respects. She sat down and acknowledged the truth of what happened and what Hannah did.
Katherine Howe’s A True Account is available from Magpie for £16.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may be included for delivery.