The Assassin and the Barmaid

The Depiction of Mary Read and Ann Bonny in “Assassin’s Creed 4 – Black Flag”

I thank Dr. Sam Keeley for proofreading this article.

Introduction

This article presents a case study following up on our extensive analysis of all the primary sources about Mary Read and Ann Bonny published in the last two months. It focuses on one very prominent representation of these historical figures in mass media: Their depiction in the Ubisoft Game “Assassin’s Creed 4 – Black Flag”.[1] This video game prominently features the two pirates in its supporting cast and dedicates extensive cutscenes to its unique interpretation of the lives and death of these two women.

During the game, we see Read and Bonny in their interactions with the protagonist: Edward Kenway. “Black Flag” follows his adventures as he becomes a famous outlaw in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Assassin’s Creed – Title Cover – Ubisoft

This example is remarkable not only for the success and importance of this game and the Assassin’s Creed series in depicting history in general, but also because it features a fascinating approach. Sometimes the writers and designers follow the primary sources to the letter – sometimes they completely detour from them and invent their own story.

Going beyond the story and dialogue they also made peculiar choices in using gender markers to present their co-stars as openly female pirates or as heroines in disguise. Their depiction can therefore serve as an interesting point of comparison to the invention of a female pirate action hero in “Cutthroat Island.” It also is a showcase for an important part of public history that professional historians have begun to analyze more intensively in the last decade.[2]

To explore the history of the female pirates of the Caribbean in the game, this article will follow five steps:

  1. The game and its overarching storyline
  2. The fictional hero Edward Kenway
  3. A woman among pirates – Mary Read
  4. From the tavern to the quarterdeck – Ann Bonney
  5. Making female pirates – conclusions

One final note: This article commemorates the 15th anniversary of the first Assassin’s Creed game.

The game and its overarching storyline[3]

“Black Flag” was published as the fourth installment of the Assassin’s Creed series in October 2013 by the company Ubisoft Montreal. It appeared thus far on PC / Wii U / PlayStation 4 / PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 / Xbox One / PlayStation 5. The experienced writer Darby McDevitt, who had already worked on previous titles of the series, created the storyline, scenes, and dialogue.[4]

The game was a huge commercial success and has also won several awards.[5] Until 2020, Ubisoft was able to sell fifteen million physical copies. But the game is, of course, also available in online-stores. There is a new remastered version with improved graphics and Ubisoft also offers several add-ons including new storylines, characters, ships, or missions for download.[6] Although the sales numbers via the online store are unavailable, it is obvious that they raise the number of copies sold by far.

But to assess the importance of a media we should not only consider the number of copies sold, but also the time users spend with it. To finish “Black Flag’s” main storyline, avoiding all side quests, players need around 20 hours.[7] If they want to explore the entire world, solve all side quests, and collect all special items it would take them almost 80 hours. So, for a comparison with the cultural impact of other media – like movies – it is important to consider the huge amount of time users spend within the game’s world and also that an interactive media creates a different level of engagement for its users than a passive one. So, it seems fair to say that this game had quite an impact and deserves to be analyzed when historians want to understand cultural depictions of historical characters.

Promotional image – AC IV – Ubisoft
Noteworthy is the absence of female charakters, be they disguised or not.
On the left there is Jack Rackham, second from the right is Blackbeard

“Black Flag” is a third person action adventure. The player controls the main character Edward Kenway during specific missions and also as he freely explores the vast environment of Caribbean islands and the open sea. Wherever the player wants Edward to go, there are adversaries and challenges. It is mostly up to the player if Edward overcomes these obstacles by sheer force or through stealth. But although the player has the freedom to explore the Caribbean, the story itself is very much railroaded and leaves no way for individual choices. There is only one path to choose if you want to follow the storyline. This is due to the basic concept of the series and its in-universe technological premise.

In the game the user does not control Edward himself, instead he controls a modern-day person that controls Edward. This is possible due to a mysterious technology, called the animus. This machine allows its users to experience the memories of their ancestors via some sort of DNA analysis. Therefore, in “Black Flag” the main character actually is not Edward Kenway, but an historic researcher for a gaming company called Abstergo. His mission is to use a DNA sample and to explore the memories hidden within it. This means he must recreate the life of a historical person: Edward Kenway. This is why, the player himself must follow the path laid out for him. Any divergence, like killing civilians or entering certain key-places before the historical Edward came there will end the game.

Allegedly the gaming company Abstergo wants to use the historical information to create a historically accurate pirate game. But soon – between extensive time spent in the animus and in Edward Kenway’s life – the anonymous modern-day protagonist finds out that the company is part of a great conspiracy that spans across centuries.

It turns out, in accordance with the previous installments of the series, that Abstergo is just a front for a secret organization aiming for world domination, called the templars. These templars and their sworn enemies, the titular assassins, fight a secret war against each other. This war went on throughout all of human history. So, it is no wonder that the anonymous protagonist soon finds evidence that the pirate Edward Kenway was also involved in that fight. Understanding that the templars aim to control and manipulate humanity into submission, while the assassin’s fight for mankind’s freedom to choose its own destiny, the protagonist starts to collaborate with the assassins against his employer, the evil gaming company. And to do so, he must dig deeper and deeper into the history of Edward Kenway.

The fictional hero: Edward Kenway

As soon as the player commands the modern-day protagonist to log into the animus device, the focus switches to Edward Kenway and from modern day Montreal to the Carribbean in the Golden Age of Piracy between 1715 and the early 1720s.

The story kicks off with Edward Kenway being a castaway of shadowy origin beating a man in a duel. He takes the clothes of the dead man and finds out that his enemy had an unfinished mission that promises a high reward. Always looking for an opportunity, Edward decides to take the dead man’s place and unknowingly works with the templars for a while.

But soon, his desire for independence takes the better of him and he commandeers a ship, hires a crew, and becomes a pirate captain. Edward enters friendships and rivalries with famous pirates of the time. He meets Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Woodes Rodgers and many others, even becoming one of the leaders of the short-lived pirate republic of Nassau.

In flashbacks we learn about Edward’s past. He was born in Wales where he fell in love with a woman from a wealthy family named Catherine. They married against her family’s will, but Edward was unsteady and suffered from poverty and not being able to offer his wife a proper lifestyle. So, he decided to go to sea as a pirate and become rich. His wife objected and returned to her family, but he set out nonetheless, promising her to return soon. The memory of his wife and the hope to see her again motivate the character throughout the game even after several years have passed.

In all his endeavors as a pirate leader, Edward is repeatedly pulled back into the secret war between templars and assassins. Reluctantly at first, but later with conviction he chooses the side of the assassins and thwarts the templar’s plans to dominate all the Caribbean in the end. During his hero’s journey two female pirates cross his path and play distinct roles in his story.

A woman among pirates – Mary Read

When Kenway starts his life as a pirate, the character of Mary Read is already well established within the outlaw community – albeit in a male disguise. She has created the persona of Captain William Kidd’s bastard son James, still too young to grow a beard, but already brave and fierce enough to command a vessel of his own. Her male persona is described as: “a mere boy, but ten times the demon his father was“.

Mary Read as James Kidd on her ship – Cutszene AC IV – Ubisoft

Mary Read is voiced by a female voice actor – in English as well as in German – but presented as having a perfect disguise. No one suspects that James Kidd might be a woman. Accordingly, the game designers created this character with completely male attire and her hair hidden behind a red bandana. She wears weapons and joins the pirates in drinking, cursing, singing, and hanging out with women. Accordingly, all male pirates treat+ her as one of them.

But with the voice acting obviously contradicting her perfect disguise, the players are set up to suspect Mary’s true identity right away. This way the game gives them a chance to feel smarter than Edward Kenway and all the other pirates.

During the game, the player finds out that there is more to Mary than meets the eye. Edward learns that she is a member of the order of the assassins. During the early storyline, her character often explains background knowledge or even game mechanics to Edward, respectively the player. So, she fulfills the role of a friend, ally, and partially a mentor.

As the story unfolds, Mary and Edward first team up to plunder island plantations. Afterwards, when they drink together, she asks about his background and family. When Edwards tells her that he is married and hopes to return to his wife she advises him to keep quite about that. Obviously knowing the pirate’s mentality better than him, she says that the men would not respect or trust someone with higher goals than rum and plunder.

After they killed the Governor of Inagua – who was a Templar – Mary explores the desolated palace with Edward and explains features of the building as well as the broader context. She is the one to tell him and the players about the secret war and the plans of the templars. Mary also introduces Edward to Atabai the Mentor/Leader of the assassins and gives him missions to stop the plans of the templars or hunt for Mayan treasure. But at first, Edward prefers to go his own way and does not cooperate. In fact, he and Mary Read as James Kidd even become rivals for a short time.

Edward and Mary (as James Kidd) explore the mansion – Cutszene AC IV – Ubisoft

In one sequence, Edward and Mary chase the same target in Kingston: a dutch slave trader. Mary wants to kill the man, but Edward needs to question him alive to get information. So, both race each other, with Mary easily being able to keep up with Edward. But before they reach their target, both are discovered and must fight against the slave trader’s bodyguards. Since the slave trader is now alert and well guarded, Mary and Edward meet on the top of a windmill in the middle of the night and decide to work together. This scene is a key moment regarding Read’s character. When they agree that they need a diversion, she lets her hair loose and bites her finger, smearing red blood across her lips. After she opens her shirt and shows her cleavage Edward finally realizes that the young pirate had been a woman all along. He is absolutely astonished by this revelation, but Mary urges him to keep it a secret and threatens to “unman” him, if he ever tells anyone about her.

Mary Read after revealing her gender – Cutszene AC IV – Ubisoft

Mary then proceeds to distract the guards. Despite it being dark and Mary being fully armed and still in men’s clothing, the men recognize her as a woman and therefore cannot perceive her as a threat. When she claims to be helpless and the victim of an attack, they open the gates so she can overpower them.

This mission also introduces the players to Mary’s short backstory. She came to the Caribbean in search of money and fortune and met the Mentor Atabai. He convinced her to fight for life and liberty against suppression and tyranny. The writer keeps this part vaguely on purpose it seems, so that anybody anywhere could relate to Mary and the assassin’s goals.

From here on Edward keeps Mary’s secret. She in return– still as James Kidd – takes the key role of an external conscience, convincing Edward that he must redeem himself for cooperating with the templars and endangering the assassins. He is reluctant, unwilling to fully join the order but willing to stop the templars, nonetheless. She also warns him when he gives in to alcohol or dubious female company and tells him to focus. Through such moments she is portrayed as a better captain and pirate than he is.

She also comes to Edward’s rescue, when the pirate Jack Rackham instigates a mutiny against him. She helps him to overpower Rackham and is the one leading Rackham away in chains. But later we learn that the pirates forgave Rackham and welcomed him back amongst them. Remarkably, his historicaly close relationship to Ann Bonney and Mary Read is never shown in the game.

After a while, Edward finds out that the templars are looking for a secret, magical artifact that allows one to see through people’s eyes and to hear what they hear, using a blood sample. When trying this artifact, Edward focuses on his friend Mary.

Through the artifact he witnesses from afar, how Mary convinces the bartender Anne Bonny to join the pirates and sail with her. While Ann is worried if she can sail, because that is not a woman’s profession, Mary in male disguise assures her that many women know how to sail and promises to teach her. Ann seems almost convinced, but also asks if she will learn how to fight. Before Mary can promise to also teach her about this, Rackham aggressively intervenes. He seems angry that Mary Read – whom he obviously conceives to be a man – is talking to his girlfriend. Mary Read starts to calm him down, but Edward stops watching before we learn if she reveals herself to him.

The next time Mary Read appears in the story is after everything seems lost. The pirate republic has fallen, Edward is in prison and forced to watch the trial of Read and Bonny. In this scene Mary, whose sex is known to the authorities, is still in her male clothing, but depicted with modern feminine traits. She wears her long hair openly, has makeup and shows cleavage and a waistline.

Remarkably, the proceedings of the court of admiralty are depicted according to the published primary sources. Edward – a gun pointed at his back – has to watch how the two women are accused of conspiracy to break the king’s peace and of threatening innocent people. Remarkably, the game uses exact phrases and accusations from the historical prosecutors. Also, according to the primary sources, they are both sent to the gallows, but being pregnant successfully “plead to their bellies.” So, the judge postpones their execution.

Unlike the sources, the game depicts the two women as very rebellious in court. They loudly defy the judge and the authorities. They even claim they would get pregnant right again, so they will not be hanged at all. This quote is obviously not from the printed summary of the proceedings.

Bonny and Read on trial – Cutszene – AC IV – Ubisoft
It is noteworthy that Mary Read is depicted without her disguise. The designers use the same “look” as after her revealing her gender to Edward

The final encounter between Mary and Edward takes place a couple of weeks later. During a daring prison break the player tries to free the two women. But Mary is already sick and dying when Edward gets to her. She demands of him to leave her behind and urges him to do the right thing. Edward replies he could only do that with her and tries to carry her. But Mary dies in his arms before they escape. Edward carries her body to a boat nonetheless, so that she may be buried among other assassins.

The imprisonment and the death of Mary serve as the low point for Edwards personal story arc from which he needs to recover. In doing so he teams up with Mary’s former protégé: Ann Bonny.

From the Tavern to the quarterdeck – Ann Bonny

Ann Bonny makes her first appearance as a barmaid in the city of Nassau. At that time, Edward and his fellow pirates have just taken control of the city and turned it into a pirate republic. She and Edward know each other already, as the dialogue gives away, and she complains to him about the lack of supplies.

The designers depict Ann as a very feminine woman who obviously uses her charm and looks. She wears her shiny red hair open with flowers braided into it. Her blouse shows a deep cleavage, and she wears a corset – a piece of clothing commonly perceived to be feminine. She also wears a skirt – another obviously feminine garment – that even shows her naked legs.

Ann Bonny working at a tavern – cutscene – AC IV – Ubisoft
Here the lighting is clearly used to emphasize the character’s feminity

In comparison to Mary Read, Ann Bonny is a sexualized figure, and the male pirates react accordingly. Rackham tries to flirt with her, asking „Oh My lady, what do they call you?” She answers in a confident manner:  “Ann when they`re sober, a gilt when they’re sauced, but never a lady “. But after this witty reply she sits down and drinks with Rackham and Edward.

Over time she and Rackham develop some kind of relationship, culminating in him presenting a pistol to her, so she might defend herself against other men. After this scene we only see Ann again when Edward listens in on her talk with Mary Read through the magical ‘looking glass’ mentioned above. After this interaction, Anne must have joined Mary and Rackham at sea since she is on trial with them later.

After a while, Edward tries to break the two women out of prison. During the escape he must carry the sick and dying Mary, while Ann has to make her way out of the prison herself. This is no easy task, since the game designers decided that she should be in labor at that time. So, Anne barely makes her escape between contractions only to see that her friend Mary had died along the way. She then leaves the island with the assassins.

After a while, Edward meets the Mentor of the assassins, Atabai, who tells him that Ann had been constantly in mourning. Atabai asks Edward to help her, saying: ”She is a strong woman but not invincible.” So, Edward talks to Ann and finds out that her child had died and that she blames herself for this. She thinks that choosing a life of drinking and fighting had caused God to abandon her. She never says anything about the father of her child, but the storyline implies that it was Jack Rackham. Later she reveals that Mary was pregnant by a young fellow who did not survive their capture.

Edward aims to cheer her up and tells her about the legends surrounding her and Mary. How the two of them had challenged the whole Royal Navy. Laughing, Ann explains that they could have won against their captors if Rackham and his men had not been drunk. Unlike the rest of Ann’s story, this information is based on the report published by Charles Johnsons in his History of the Pyrates.

Over their common loss, Edward and Ann decide to work together to continue Mary’s mission to stop the templars. So, Anne joins Edward’s Crew and officially becomes his quartermaster, taking the second highest rank on the ship. She replaces the african Sailor Adewale who sets off into an adventure of his own (that appeared as an add-on). Ann takes his position on the Quarterdeck, relaying the captain’s commands, leading the men in his absence, and ensuring discipline among the crew. Edward is impressed by her ability to command and asks her how it feels to scream at the men so loudly. Ann replies: “I’ve barked louder to men twice as rough.”

Ann on the Quarterdeck – Cutszene AC IV – Ubisoft
Obviously she wears practical clothes (trousers) but is not disguised as a man

Remarkably, Ann takes her new position without any disguise. She is openly a female pirate, wearing red flowers braided in her long hair, showing a deep cleavage and female waistline with a corset. But no member of the crew or anyone they encounter comments on the fact that she is a woman. For the rest of the storyline Ann stands next to Edward whenever he is on his ship and, occasionally, accompanies him on land. If she is with Edward, she mostly follows him to the location where he receives a new mission and waits for his return.

In regarding the secret war between templars and assassins, Edward’s relation to Ann is reversed compared to Mary. Now he is the wise mentor that shares knowledge and has a deeper understanding of things. Through his explanations the game designers can put added information into perspective, making sure that the players understand key elements of the background. Finally, this allows the protagonist to explain his own goals and beliefs to Ann and therefore the players.

After he defeated the templars (at least in the Caribbean) and sealed off the powerful ancient artifacts again, Edward takes his leave. He learns that his wife has died, but that she had given birth to a child shortly after his departure. He therefore plans to go to London and asks Bonney if she wants to join him. She turns him down, saying: “London is the wrong way around the globe for an Irish woman.” Only here the players get a little information about her background.

In the final scene of the game Edward is nervously waiting for a ship that carries his child on board. Comforting him, Ann says “You are a good man. […] you will make a fine father, too.” And then she sings the classic Scottish farewell song “the parting glass.” As the song continues, Edwards walks off to meet his daughter. The game ends with Edward sailing her towards the horizon with his daughter at his side, while Ann Bonny’s song goes on in the distance.

Kenway and Ann in their final scene – cutszene AC IV – Ubisoft
For this “softer” moment the designers choose to intensivy Anns femininty by highlighting her shiny hair and the flowers she wears.

Making female pirates – conclusions

Taking a step back and analyzing the stories and depictions of the two female pirates, several aspects regarding the topics of this BLOG spring to mind.

Open and disguised – women at sea

Clothing and hairstyle serve as primary markers to identify the gender of a character in the game. This is historically accurate compared to other cases of women sailing in disguise.[8]  A new addition to this is the use or lack of make up. For example, pale lips are meant to make Mary Read look masculine and shiny red lips signal femininity. This is possibly a convention for modern viewers and media.

The other characters in the game have no chance to look beyond those markers. They only learn about Mary’s sex, if she reveals herself to them. Remarkably, this is also the case when Mary is depicted with contradicting gender markers. In the scene where she kills some guards, Mary is wearing male clothes and weapons, but the guards nonetheless treat her as a woman because of her long open hair and red lips. This is strange but maybe due to the fact that a change in wardrobe would have required more effort from the programmers.

Another contradiction to her disguise lies within the voice acting. Even though the game designers in both the German and English versions, opted for actors with rougher, sometimes even raspy voices, it was still always clearly. As said before, this decision allows the player to feel smarter and ahead of the characters in the game and possibly the writer propably designed this to be an “I knew it” moment.

When comparing the two characters it is striking that Ann Bonny is never in disguise. She is depicted with distinctly feminine gender markers throughout the game – even though she puts on trousers when she becomes Edward’s quartermaster. Considering that Mary Read kept her disguise until her trial and felt the need to appear as a man throughout her life, it seems strange that Ann is free to be a “sexy” woman pirate and experiences no debasement and not even recieves any comments from her male counterparts.

Ann Bonney and Edward Kenway on a mission – Cutszene AC IV – Ubisoft

With this differentiation the writer and producers diverge far from the sources. Charles Johnson’s book as well as the court records or other sources all describe both women as always equally in masculine disguise.

So why did the writers change this? For one it might be that the idea of two women in disguise sailing the sea independently and meeting each other by accident while sailing on the same ship would seem quite impossible. Other than that, it seems quite likely that the writer and the producers simply wanted to close the “women in disguise” storyline and bring in a “sexy female pirate” instead. This trope is after all well established.

No matter why they did it, the contradiction between the two pirate’s appearances makes this game a particularly good example for two archetypical stories about women at sea. On the one hand, there is the female heroine who has to be more masculine than the men around her and basically to become a man herself; on the other hand, the woman who can be herself and take up a man’s role and job without having to give up her femininity. From a storytelling perspective it is obviously tempting to bring both tropes together and offer gamers two different characters to sympathize or even identify with.

It is a bit unsatisfying that there is no in-world explanation for Mary and Anne’s different behaviour, though. Therefore, we do not know if they have broken the glass ceiling for all women in this fictional universe or if only Ann as an individual has earned her place as a woman among the men.

Love interest, mentor or supporting characters?

After this BLOG already analyzed a female pirate heroine and her relation to the male characters surrounding her it is quite interesting to now compare her to female pirates as part of a supporting cast.

At first, we need to emphasize that although Ann Bonney is presented in an openly sexualized way there is no sexual tension between the hero and her. Accordingly, there is nothing going on between Edward and Mary Read. This is remarkable since Edward clearly has affairs with women other than his wife and the series had included erotic scenes in previous instalments. Interestingly, although both female characters are no romantic partners of the protagonist, the writers depict them as sexual beings when they stand in court – pregnant. So, they are not asexual but they and Edward obviously just do not see each other as sexual prospects.This constellation leaves room for other roles for them to fill in the story. They are mentor and mentee, friends, and comrades in arms. In the later regard they are also equals to the hero. They both have their own agency and pursue their own interests within the story. So far, the game gives the two characters much more agency than for example “Cutthroat Island” gave to most of its male characters.

Especially the role of a mentor and moral conscience given to Mary Read is of high importance in the type of media we are analyzing here. In story driven games it is particularly important to explain the mechanics and lore of the world in a fluid and natural way. Weaving necessary information into the story of the game itself heightens the experience. In 2013 it was still uncommon to give this important function to a female supporting character.

Read and Bonny – sailing and fighting?

For an action game about pirates, it is astonishing how little we see Mary Read and Ann Bonney actually “pirating.” Only through other character’s words the players learn that Read is fierce and a dangerous fighter. The only time she is in action is when she assassinates unsuspicious guards after having used her femininity as a weapon. No cutscenes depict the women fighting.

With sailing it is much the same. Both women never do any physical work aboard ship. We only see Mary standing on her ship or sailing as a passenger. Anne may be quartermaster, but she only commands the men to do the work. At least, one could argue that her giving commands is proof of her own skills and expertise, but still – female pirates do not sail.

So, overall, the game depicts the allegedly tough and brutal female pirates in a very tame way – much unlike male supporting characters like Blackbeard who has an epic swordfight cutscene. In some way this contradicts the classic idea of the female pirate being tougher and even more “badass” than the men around her. In this regard the writers have decided to disobey the fundamental storytelling advice for visual media: show don’t tell.

Other women in Assassin’s Creed IV

So how do the two female pirates fit into the gender roles depicted in the game in general? The third most important woman is the romantic love interest. Catherine, the protagonist’s wife is a pure, almost “virgin” persona. She has only sex with the protagonist and promises to wait for him but dies in his absence.

Other women work in taverns, serve drinks, or sing for the men. The protagonist also has affairs and sometimes wakes up next to a conquest he made the night before. All those women do not have names or even a speaking part in the game. In their cases, the writers perpetuate stereotypical roles from older types of media.

Women singing in a tavern band – Game footage ACC IV – Ubisoft
Screenshot created by Sadie Adler – Steam Community

There is only one remarkable exception: a side character that only makes a very brief appearance. She is a female assassin who leads a local headquarter of the order. She is immediately recognized as female, not using any disguise and takes part in a fighting mission. As a female fighter and leader she acts without provoking any commentary. But she remains a striking exception to the rule and her character also fits into the same contradiction that surrounds Mary Reads and Anne Bonney’s appearances.

Finally: There is no “evil” counterpart to the neutral or heroic women. There is no female templar or killer or spy used by Edward’s enemies. This is also different from former installments of the series. As a result, the writers avoid the dilemma of having the player fighting and killing women completely. Even in the many tavern brawls Edwards can enter, there are never any women involved. The idea that a hero never fights women is also a classic topos that survived in this game.

Do sources matter? How the game depicts history

When comparing the depiction of Read and Bonny in the game with the primary sources presented in the last two articles, several observations can be made.

At first, the game’s writers obviously decided to make Mary Read “grander” in many ways. She has a higher rank, commands her own ship, which is bigger than the historical one and possesses secret knowledge about important political affairs. On the other hand, the writers completely neglected her backstory and all the reports by Charles Johnson about her remarkable achievements as a soldier.

In comparison, Bonny plays a less significant role. She has no backstory, does not find her own way into piracy and the former connections the historical Ann Bonney had to the world of outlaws via her husband are omitted together with his character. The idea to turn Ann into a one of the many barmaids, albeit one who decides to leave the tavern and make her own way in the world carries some weight from a storytelling point of view, though. Painting her this way gives at least the possibility of agency to all the female extras.

To draw the two characters, the writers widely dismissed the stories told by Charles Johnson. They focus much more on other sources like the report about their trial. Here they even quote the archival protocol, before they mix imaginary dialogue into the scene.

It is noteworthy, regarding the legends surrounding the two women, that the game never even hints at anything more than a platonic friendship between them. The writer depicts them both as heterosexual women, Anne even without a male disguise. So, their depiction is much more feminine than in the primary sources that gave both conceiving disguises and a complete history of cross-dressing. The writers even hammer home Ann Bonny’s femininity by having her be in labor during the prison break.

Another case of the writers deriving far from the source material is the women’s relation to Jack Rackham. Due to Edward Kenway taking center stage, the original lover and captain Rackham becomes an unsuccessful, dishonest pirate even working against his comrades at some time. In the game’s storyline it is completely unclear why Ann Bonney would have a child with him or why Mary Read would team up with him after his betrayal and sail under his command. After all, she is more famous and a better pirate than he is. It is obvious that Rackham is the historical figure the writer cared about the least. But this neglect fits well with the tendency to ignore Charles Johnson’s book and also gives the two women more agency.

Overall, we see the game as a creative piece of art in its own right. It transports a unique version of the two women and their role in history balanced between primary sources, classical tropes, and the requirements of the game series’ own worldbuilding. The two characters’ primary function is to bring the historical context to life. The writers also use them to complete their tableau of famous pirates with whom Edward interacts throughout his life. Each of these interactions with historical personalities known from history books and popular fiction makes the protagonist and his story more compelling and seemingly more accurate.

This fits very well with the writers and producers’ claim to present a true history. Although they do not go as far as to insert a title card that promises historical accuracy, the very concept of the overarching story is that the players uncover “real” history. It is through the concept of an almost magical animus technology that allows virtual access to DNA memory that the game perpetuates the idea of one singular true history. And if you do not follow that history, the game will punish you.

So, is there something problematic from an historian’s point of view? – Yes, but not with the fact that the creators made up a Mary Read and Ann Bonny of their own. This is nothing special. It has been done for centuries and will be done for centuries to come. The problem lies not within the creative license taken but within the claim that there is only one true history. There is no ambiguity, no contradictory evidence, and no lack of sources in history as this series presents it – an idea quite harmful to history as an academic discipline.

As explained before on this Blog, this is not meant to be an argument for an anything-goes-approach. Of course, there is right and wrong, fact and fiction in history. Read and Bonney never commanded a steamboat, and they did not kidnap the queen of England – although that would make for an awesome movie. But between the two polar opposites of fact and fiction lies a vast field of the unknown, ambiguous, and debatable. For professional historians who study primary sources and memorial culture, this is where the magic happens. It is completely understandable, but a bit sad that the game – like almost all historical fiction – leaves that out.


[1] The developers homepage: https://www.ubisoft.com/en-gb/game/assassins-creed/iv-black-flag This analysis focuses on the English version and compares the phrasing and voice acting with the German one. For the basic information on the publishers and involved designers and writers, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassin%27s_Creed_IV:_Black_Flag

[2] See for example: Classical antiquity in video games: playing with the ancient world edited by Christian Rollinger London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020; Early modernity and video games, ed. by Tobias Winnerling, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publ., 2014 and of course most importantly the BLOG of the international Workgroup on Historical science and digital games: https://gespielt.hypotheses.org/

[3] The following summary is based on a playthrough of the original PS 3 Version done by the author. Key scenes regarding the two characters are also available on YouTube in form of “Let’s play” or “Best of” videos. Due to copyright reasons those can not be linked here.

[4] For an interview with Darby McDevitt about his writing process and writing for video games in general, see: www.scriptsandscribes.com/2014/03/qa-with-darby-mcdevitt/

[5] See a list at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassin%27s_Creed_IV:_Black_Flag#Awards

[6] For a list see https://store.ubi.com/de/assassin-s-creed-blackflag-all-dlc In the selection of add ons the title “Freedom Cry” deserves special attention. It is a smaller standalone game focusing on the side character of Adewalé and his fight against the slave trade.

[7] https://www.gamepro.de/artikel/assassins-creed-4-spielzeit-von-60-80-stunden-fuer-100-in-der-kampagne,3028503.html  Der Playthrough des Autors für die Hauptkampagne, damit verbundene Nebenquests und vollständige Aufdeckung der Spielwelt ohne Abschluss von Sammelmissionen dauerte ca. 30 Stunden.

[8] As for example analyzed in the articles: Nach Quebec und Kalkutta – ein Kabinenjunge namens Miss Arnold and Die Soldatin und die Ehebrecherin – Frauen an Bord der Maurice Eylandt.


Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht.

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search