A woman among monsters – Lucretia Parker’s extraordinary adventures as a captive of Cuban pirates in 1822
I thank Dr. Gauri Parasher for proofreading this article
Providence RI, 1825: “Unparalleled sufferings” in print
In 1825, a small volume appeared in the bookstores of New York and Rhode Island. Its title promised a most spectacular adventure: The firsthand account of an innocent woman who survived a brutal massacre by monstrous pirates. The book even included important “moral reflections”  for its readers. The last part gave even the most pious people a reason to buy and read something that was advertised to be lurid and sensational. The title read: “Piratical Barbarity Or the Female Captive. Comprising The particulars of the capture of the English Sloop Eliza-Ann, on her passage from St. Johns to Antigua and the horrid massacre of the unfortunate crew by the PIRATES, March 12, 1825”
The book was a bestseller. The printer rode a wave of success since captivity narratives were popular at the time. Men and women in the big cities of the East Coast liked stories about women being captured by Native Americans or men barely surviving encounters with pirates in the Caribbean or near the Barbary Coast in the Mediterranean.
To gain customers’ attention, the publisher promoted the book with broadsheets, advertising a tale unheard of, sensational and – as we would say today – an absolute must-read. In these adverts, the publisher informed everybody that the author of the book was Lucrecia Parker. A young, innocent woman from St. Johns who had travelled into the Caribbean. Close to Cuba, pirates attacked her ship and boarded it. All the crew fell victim to a “horrid massacre” and afterwards the pirates took Lucretia hostage for many days. Finally, she was saved and able to return home to talk about her “unparalleled sufferings.” She was, so the title card and advertisement inform us, convinced that God’s personal intervention on her behalf had saved her in this time of peril. This conviction is allegedly also the only reason she agreed to have her story printed, so that everybody might learn about the power of the Lord.
The campaign worked well, and many prints of the story survive to this day. In fact, Lucretia’s report is a standard text about the history of pirates, reprinted in almost every ‘authentic’ story collection. This includes sourcebooks for history students. But once you examine these reprints and quotations more closely, you will soon find out that they are never complete. And, of course, the missing parts are just the ones you need to understand the importance of the source and its true nature.
Since everybody quotes the text but only a few people read it completely, academic research is divided on the how to treat it. Its authenticity is open to debate. Researchers in the field of literary studies prefer a critical approach. Alexander Moudrow even lists the text in a handbook on “crime fiction.” Historians, on the other hand, seem unconvinced that the text is made up, either by Lucrecia Parker or someone using the name as a pseudonym. In fact, several works like the study on piracy in Spanish America by Matthew McCarthy take the report at face value. This might be due to a lack of counter- evidence or because it is just too dramatic and enthralling a text to be dismissed as fictional.
These diverging opinions and the gripping, vivid style of the source make it a remarkably interesting subject for a closer analysis in this Blog. Furthermore, after having examined female pirates for a while now, Lucretia Parker’s story offers a much-needed change of perspective. This is especially true, since most women in history who had anything to do with piracy were victims, not perpetrators themselves.
To analyze Lucretia’s narrative, we will follow three steps to examine distinct parts of the narrative :
- Sometimes omitted – the introduction
- Taken captive by the “wolves of the human race” – the events
- Always omitted – the conclusion of the story
- On authenticity, themes, and context
Sometimes omitted – the introduction
In the first part of the text, it is not Lucrecia Parker but an anonymous editor who writes using a third person perspective. On pages three to seven, he offers some background information about piracy in general and sets the tone before the allegedly authentic narrative by Lucretia begins.
Right from the start, the editor takes a clear shot at pirates in general. He describes them as „wolves of the human race” (p3) and leaves no room for ambiguity. He does not mention licensed privateers or romanticized, lovable rogues, but only those who make themselves enemies of all nations and forsake their very humanity in the process. The writer makes it clear that these people are a danger to everybody and says he hopes that one day the nations of the world would unite in one swift strike to root out this evil. To paint the pirates and their fate in the darkest possible light, the readers also learn that these “wolves” never get a proper funeral. Their bodies are displayed to rot between heaven and earth and their ashes are scattered into the wind. But until they are defeated, these pirates are a major threat to American seafaring in the Caribbean. The editor informs the readers that Congress had made an official estimate and considers the pirates to be between sixty and seventy thousand in number. They inhabit whole villages in Cuba and everywhere else they find shelter and support.
Switching perspective to the victims, the editor describes how pirates – these “unfeeling monsters” (p4) kill innocent and good people without mercy. Even those on whom whole families depend for survival are not set free, but brutally slaughtered.
This statement is followed by a short report about the brig Betsy on her way to Stone Keys near Cuba. Surviving shipwreck on a reef, the crew fell into the hands of pirates. Only one man called Mr. Collins survived this day. First, the pirates rounded up the survivors and bound their hands. Then, all at once, they fell into a bloodlust frenzy and butchered their prisoners with knives, hatchets, and clubs. The author tells the story in a most dramatic way, with Mr. Collins seeing his comrades being murdered left and right before barely escaping. The story closes with the remark that the massacre of the Betsy’s crew was just one of fifty such incidents in the last two years.
After setting the mood and giving some context, the editor introduces the report of Lucrecia Parker (p7). In comparison with Mr. Collin’s story, he warns and, in a way, also promises his readers, Lucrecia’s report “far surpasses it in savage barbarity”. He introduces the following information as an unchanged full text print version of a letter sent by Ms. Parker to her brother in New York.
Taken captive by the “wolves of the human race” – the events
From here on the text switches from third to first person, as is typical for a letter. Right away Lucretia warns her brother that she is about to tell him about a “shocking incident” and “extraordinary adventures.” She even says that the tale is so intense, just the memory of it is sending her into “severest shock.” But she sees it as her duty to report everything – “without any exaggeration” (p8) – because her story serves as proof that God intervenes on behalf of the faithful. Therefore, she adds moral reflections on miracles and the good nature of God and the importance of faith at the end. She explicitly allows her brother to print her letter with the moral reflections because it might be of value for people of all denominations and especially for those who struggle to believe that God will help them in need.
Lucrecia’s story starts on February 28th, 1822, when she leaves her hometown St. John’s on board the British sloop Eliza Ann. She wants to go to Antigua where one of her brothers had bought a plantation. On the 11th day of her journey, a ship without any flag appears at the horizon. The ten-man crew of the Eliza Ann spots many people on the other ship. They conclude that these men were pirates.
As the ship comes closer, Lucretia recognizes the attackers as an unruly band of “desperados” (p9) carrying all kinds of weapons. Soon these villains come close enough to board. A short fight ensues with Lucrecia right in the middle of it watching the crew of her ship falling left and right. Closing her eyes, she still hears how the pirates beat and stabbed their victims. To her, the attackers seem like “demons” (p9) and not like men. She herself stays unharmed and falls to her knees. She begs the attackers, especially a very tall man who she thinks might be their leader, to spare her. The tall man yields her request and even takes her by the hand and guides her to the ship’s cabin (there seems to be only one). He says to her, she should not fear for “we are not barbarians to destroy the lives of innocent females!” (p10).
But after this assurance, Lucrecia must wait and listen how the pirates torture and apparently kill the crew. As the only woman aboard, helpless among all these pirates, she prays to God to help her and keep her alive. After more than an hour, the pirate leader storms into the cabin with ten of his men. Once more, he promises her safety, but urges her to tell him where money and valuables are hidden. Meanwhile, his men look through the cabin opening the chests belonging to the captain, the mate and Lucrecia herself. She learns that the crew had not told their attackers anything, so the pirates are angry and frustrated. In her letter, Lucrecia raises the tension by describing the men as being of all complexions, but similarly covered in wet, shining red blood.
Finding no money, the pirates take the Eliza-Ann as their prize and sail to a small Island near Cuba. Here, they dwell in dirty little huts. To Lucrecia who is forced to go ashore, the place looks poor and seems to be rife with all kinds of injustices. To her amazement she finds the crew of the Eliza-Ann still alive when the pirates take them ashore. Lucrecia writes that their wounds are „too horrible for me to attempt to describe” (p12).
On the shore, the pirates first share the spoils and then plunder their captives. They even take their shoes and undress them down to their shirts. Then, they massacre the helpless, wounded men. Lucrecia writes that she stood right in the middle of it when the pirates stabbed and hacked their victims to death “with the ferocity of Cannibals” (p12). No matter how hard the victims pleaded for mercy, the pirates kill them all. Even though Eliza-Ann’s captain tells them that his family’s survival depends on him, they show no mercy. As the captain dies from a knife to his heart, his blood spurts out and covers Lucrecia’s dress. He dies right at her feet.
She falls to her knees in shock, praying for salvation. Now the pirate leader comes closer to her with a “savage smile” (p14) and Lucrecia once more describes him to be more like a monster than a man. She paints a scene by giving a close description of her captor. He was of swarthy complexion – a term that leaves it unclear if he was of mixed race or sunburned – and had piercing dark eyes. He towered above her six feet tall with weapons hanging on a broad leather belt wrapped round his waist. The belt holds a multitude of weapons. Again, he promises that Lucrecia would be safe, but only if she would be “subservient to his will” (p14).
After this ominous threat, he leads her to a hut where she spends the night, praying of course. In the morning, the “ruffian monster” (p16) comes back to her. Completely silent, he sits in a chair and smiles at her. In her letter, Lucretia writes that she is sure that he had the most diabolical thoughts – implying he was about to rape her without mentioning it. Suddenly, he rises and starts to pace up and down until he is ready “to destroy my happyness forever” (p16).
But once again, a higher power intervenes on her behalf. A signal sounds over the island, calling the pirates to arms as the lookout spots two ships as easy targets. Only four of the men remain on the island, while the others sail and row out to the two ships.
Since no one guards her closely, Lucrecia decides to leave her hut and climb on the roof. From there, she watches the following events unfold. She witnesses how one of the two ships suddenly breaks its disguise and presents itself as a fully armed British sloop of war. Gunshots echo over the water and the pirates are in disarray. Immediately, the British dispatch rowboats with soldiers who take the pirates captive. Some of them try to escape by jumping into the water, but they get shot by the marines (p17). Lucrecia approves of this: In her opinion, the pirates deserve no mercy, because they have shown none themselves.
Remarkably, no one cares about the pirate’s island. The British just take their captives aboard and then sail off. On the island, one of the remaining four pirates takes charge. He is very friendly and polite towards Lucrecia and assures her that he means her no harm. In the following days, the men dig up some treasure, destroy the huts, and prepare to sail away in a small boat. All this time, the new pirate leader protects Lucrecia who likes his gentleness and politeness. She loses her fear, especially when he promises to set her ashore at a safe spot in Cuba.
While they are getting ready to leave, Lucrecia spends some time with the pirate, and he tells her the story of his life. Lucrecia relates this in a long quote, so the perspective of the narration switches and the pirate leader becomes the narrator himself. His name remains a mystery, but through Lucrecia he tells the readers that he was an Englishman from a respectable family. It was only desperation and need that led him to become a member of the pirate crew. But even among them, he only cared for the money and never took part in any slaughter or cruelty. So, he distances himself from the “bloodthirsty barbarians” (p19). He reveals to Lucrecia how they attacked and plundered many ships, amassing a fortune over the years. No one opposed them, and so the others could keep on killing and feed their victims to the sharks. All their loot went to a Cuban harbor where an agent of theirs made sure to sell it unnoticed. The gentle pirate tells Lucrecia that she was the first woman ever captured by the pirates and that the giant leader was indeed about to harm her. His promises were just lies to lure her into a false sense of security before he „could effect your ruin!” (p19). But the almighty providence – as he allegedly said – had saved Lucrecia at the last moment. He also attributes his protection of her to this higher power whom he must obey. Lucrecia takes this as an opportunity to end her quote of the pirate’s narration and tells her brother that this is proof of God’s love and readiness to help those who believe and trust in him. (p21).
After eleven days – in which no other ship appears – the pirates set sail and leave the island. They carry with them some bags full of US cash money. Another proof of how successful they had been in their crimes and how much of a threat they were to US-shipping especially.
Lucrecia is set ashore on the coast of Cuba at midnight, a mile away from a house. There, as the pirate promises, she would find help. In such a situation, Lucrecia says, “many of my sex” would have fallen into despair, but she completely trusts in the divine providence. She prays all night and gives thanks for her deliverance. Several quotes from the bible accompany this passage. In the morning she walks to the house and finds a helpful elderly couple that brings her to the harbor of Matanzies (p24).
At the port she meets many Europeans and even Americans. They all help her to quickly get a passage to Jamaica, from where she can easily catch a ship back to St. Johns or on to her original destination Antigua. But before she leaves Jamaica, she encounters her terrible captor one last time.
While she waits for passage on a ship, the local authorities approach Lucrecia. As the only witness, she is asked to identify some captured men and help convict them for piracy. Lucrecia complies and enters the fortress, accompanied by several gentlemen and young ladies who want to support her. There she meets the “savage monster” (p25) again. He and his crew are shocked to see her, because they know they are doomed for with a witness they would never escape justice.
Lucretia describes it as a result of her own effort, that the pirates are convicted in a “fair and impartial” trial and sent to the gallows. Though, the terrifying leader tried to escape his fate as he vainly attempted to take his own life after meeting Lucrecia. Friends of hers who visited his execution told her about this because she herself could not bear to watch his death. Her friends told her that the savage pirate leader was mocking God and the priests at the scene and did not regret his terrible deeds till the end. Lucrecia closes her report on him with the statement that the man will now face God’s judgement. She is sure he will find no hope or mercy in front of the Lord. (p27)
After nine days, Lucrecia takes a ship back to St. John’s and can finally write to her relatives. Interestingly, she talks about them as “my aged parents” and “a beloved sister” never as ‘our parents’ or ‘our sister.’ This seems a bit strange since the text is supposed to be a letter to her brother. After eighteen days, she returns home safely. Then, she finally must take on the burdensome duty of informing the widows and orphans of the terrible fate of the Eliza-Ann’s crew. Here, her narration stops.
Always omitted – the conclusion of the story
Although the narration is over, the letter still goes on for another seven pages. Pages that are missing from all modern reprints and editions. These are the “moral reflections” promised in the title. Lucrecia starts this passage by presenting her story as an absolute, unmistakable proof of a higher being not only existing but willing to intervene in the events on earth (p29). Until now she had never mentioned God explicitly, describing him only as “higher power” or “divine providence” or “heavenly protector.” Finally, she reveals them all to be the “blessed God”. To praise him for his miraculous workings, she cites a complete church hymn called “God is good” (p31).
After the lyrics of the song Lucrecia writes at length about the joy of praying and the happiness that comes from believing in God. She praises piousness as a key virtue in life. Not only will prayer give all believers strength and happiness, but it can also make God intervene. In fact, it is impossible to thank and pray too much, she writes. After this statement, she attacks people who consider it to be a fully Christian life to only help others and give to the poor. Lucrecia warns her readers that such good deeds are meaningless in comparison to daily intensive prayer, piousness and showing love and devotion to God (p32-34).
All these insights came to her through suffering, which means that they came from God himself. Lucrecia states that times of need and danger make people see God and the importance of religion and prayer much more clearly. Another Church hymn follows. Finally, Lucrecia calls on her brother to join her from afar in prayer and in praising the Lord.
On authenticity, themes, and context
Generally, it seems like the researchers who doubt the authenticity of the text are right. At least eight things do not add up for this to be a printed letter by a young pirate captive to her brother.
- First, her way of traveling does not match the way women actually travelled as passengers on small sailing ships. Lucrecia Parker would have to have a male guardian, someone to watch over her and protect her honor. If no male relative could play the part, she could have been under the captain’s protection, sure. But it seems very unlikely that an unmarried woman would just share a cabin with the captain and his first mate – as suggested by the fact that all their personal belongings were in the same room. People would have considered this to be highly inappropriate.
- Second, the switch of perspective from her to the gentle pirate’s story is odd. It is unusual to give the role of the narrator in one of your own letters to another person. A form of indirect speech combined with remarks on the information would be more typical.
- Third, the fact that the author only speaks of “my parents” and “a sister” and “a brother” never of ‘our parents / sister / brother’ and does not use their names is also unfitting for a letter to a relative.
- Fourth, descriptions of a lot of people mentioned in the text, like the utterly evil, pirate leader or the gentle pirate who fell into bad company when his luck ran out seem to be too much of a trope to be real. We see in this text the most clichéd categorizations of good and evil that remind one more of a fairy tale, than a factual report.
- Fifth, like a character in a novel, Lucrecia is always there to witness everything, even if it makes no sense. Why does the crew not hide her in the cabin when the pirates board the Eliza Ann? How can the crew just have her stand in the way of attacking criminals? On the other hand, why does not one of the pirates guard her in her hut? Why can she just climb on to the roof to conveniently watch the end of the pirates herself? The text is full of such unlikely events.
- Sixth, Lucrecia’s testimonial would not have been necessary to convict the prisoners for piracy. They attacked two sailing ships – one of them being a disguised sloop of war – under the eyes of his Majesty’s naval officers. This would have absolutely sufficed for a conviction. But if, by any chance, the authorities did need her statement it would not have been enough for her to just identify the pirates in prison. Lucrecia would have had to appear in court and make an official statement on record.
- Seventh, it is obvious that the text has been (re)designed to have a tension that builds, foreshadowing and other literary rather that one would not expect in a young woman’s personal letter to her brother that is allegedly not meant to, but only allowed to be printed.
- Eighth, the text was not printed in New York, where Lucrecia’s brother allegedly lived and where many publishers resided, nor at St. John’s where Lucrecia lived herself – but in Rhode Island. Also, we never get to know who wrote the introduction and presents the letter to the readers. The text has no signature.
All these points are of course just indicative and not a definitive proof. But, taken together, they reveal that it is highly unlikely that we have an unaltered story in front of us. Still, one could argue that the story may be based on the real experiences of a young woman but was edited and revised by her brother and/or the publisher. Either way, we should not take this report at face value. All in all, it seems much more convincing to count it among the fictional crime literature of the age.
Luckily, we do not need to know if it is based on true events to understand the context and significance of the story and its themes. At first, we should take a short look at the literary context. When the book appeared in print, captivity narratives were popular and commercially successful. The very fact that broadsheets with advertisement, pictures or lyrics for a song accompanied the publication prove that the publisher hoped for financial gain. So, it is not surprising that the text follows the themes of the genre. This includes an innocent, young female heroine fearing for her survival and her virginity. The prototypical evil villains that have already lost their humanity surely reminded the contemporary readers of stories about women being kidnapped by Native Americans, people that had already been described as cannibals, monsters, and savages for a long time. Accordingly, when we look closer at how the report mentions race, we see that whiteness is the norm. Neither the crew of the Eliza-Ann, nor the gentle pirate’s complexion are mentioned, so they must be white. But the pirate crew as a whole is a mixture of people from all complexions – and depicted as barbarous and monstrous. But nobody is worse than the pirate leader with his swarthy complexion. A word that leaves it ambiguous if he was just sunburned or a person of color. Either way, he is uncivilized and a monster that had forsaken his humanity. Something surely underlined by his darker complexion in comparison with the good characters in the story.
Looking at the political context, it is quite interesting to know that the Cuban pirates where actually an important topic in the American political debates in the early 1820s. The foreword rightly states that there were many attacks, and the US government was talking about how to react to this threat, since the Cuban colonial government was unwilling to do something.  After the successful wars of independence in many South and Meso American colonies, Cuba was the biggest remnant of the formerly vast Spanish Empire in the Americas. The local government needed money. Therefore, they turned a blind eye towards pirates and their economic partners and even licensed privateers to hunt down ships from the newly founded independent states. The men for these illegal and semi-legal activities were mostly refugees from the colonies who feared persecution under the new regimes and their rising elites. So, the text recalls a well-known problem to any audience interested in seafaring and trade.
Furthermore, the report appeared in a political climate in which people were agitated against piracy. The US-Navy had just completed its second intervention in the Mediterranean against the Barbary pirates in 1815. So, there was another reason for this text to find an audience, and another tradition of reports to follow. After all, captivity narratives by Christians who had been enslaved by the North African corsairs are a genre in itself and a quite successful one.
In the end, we have of course to talk about the elephant in the room. The moral reflections that all modern editors omit. By ignoring them, they over-emphasize the political context and make it impossible for their readers to fully understand the text.
When we include these reflections, the text becomes an argument for piousness, prayer, and Christian belief. Everything that happens to Lucrecia is presented as being influenced by God’s will and her unharmed survival as the Lords’ miracle. Even if the text were a mere fiction, the writer and publisher must have seen quite some merit in these passages. If not, they would not have dedicated 20% of the book to them and included two full church songs. After all, paper costs money. But why did the publisher and author include these reflections? There are two ways to interpret this, and both do seem plausible for the time and could be equally valid.
The first one is that a certain amount of morally correct reflections helps to sell a bloody shocking narrative that may have been considered unfit for some audiences. Surely, daughters of middle-class families and pious people would not have bought obviously lurid and sensational pieces, but with the extensive reflections the text became interesting to them and acceptable to their community.
The second one is, that the editor and author genuinely believed that this story had a spiritual benefit for its readers. It is possible that they wanted to encourage people to go to church and pray more regularly due to their own convictions. This would fit perfectly with the context of the second Great Awakening. A movement of spiritual reform in the early 18th century that was especially prominent in the Northeast United States. So, it seems quite likely, that the reflections must be seen in the context of the spiritual debates of their time and are actually important to understand the text.
But we will not be able to give a final verdict on the importance of these two aspects without finding new sources about this remarkable publication.
So, what does the text tell us then?
Regardless of its authenticity, it is a remarkable narrative that was extraordinarily successful in its time. It therefore opens a window into the mindset as well as the literary, spiritual, and political contexts of the period. We learn how authors presented victims of piracy in public discourse and how piracy was perceived by people at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In fact, it helps us understand why the US started an expedition to root out piracy in the Mediterranean a few years before. The story of Lucrecia Parker also offers us an important counter narrative to all the glorification und ‘heroification’ of pirates in public history. In a way, the story of how this report was cited, quoted, and used by the following generations is an amazing case of public history. It is one of the most prominent, standard sources about pirates from the early 1900s. A text whose authenticity should be questioned but goes unquestioned quite often. Therefore, it influenced countless publications and depictions of the time even today. To fully understand this source without any omissions means to better understand the very basis of historical knowledge about piracy. It deserves our attention.
 A digitalized version of the original is available at the digital archive of Haithitrust. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951002351573u&view=1up&seq=3&skin=2021 It is strongly recommended not to use any modern reprint, but to consult the complete version if you want to look deeper into Parker’s story. As place of publication, the printer gives “Providence” without a state name. But since there is no Providence in New York, it probably had been printed at Rhode Island. If you happen to know anything more about this or disagree – please leave a commend.
 If not stated otherwise, all quotes in the introduction are from the title card.
 Although nothing is known about the number of reprints and editions, see Moudrow, Alexander: Early American Crime Fiction: Origins to Urban Gothic. In: Charles J. Rzepka (Hg.): A companion to crime fiction. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell (Blackwell companions to literature and culture, 66), 2010 p128–139.
 French, Joseph Lewis: Great pirate Stories. 18 True and Fictional Pirate Adventures 2018; Musaicum Books: The Jolly Roger Tales: 60+ Pirate Novels, Treasure-Hunt Tales & Sea Adventures 2017; Brennan, Stephen: The Best Pirate Stories Ever Told, 2011. E-Artnow: Dead Men Tell No Tales – 60+ Pirate Novels, Treasure-Hunt Tales & Sea Adventure Classics, 2017; Stephens, John Richard: Captured by pirates: twenty-two firsthand accounts of murder and mayhem on the high seas, New York 2006.
 Moudrow 2010, p128–139. On the other hand, Jill B. Gidmark and Mary K. Bercaw Edwards consider the report to be mixture of fact and fiction, emphasizing its similarities with other contemporary captivity reports in their Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes, Westport Conn 2001, p365.
 McCarthy, Matthew: Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America 1810-1830, Woodbridge 2013, p63-64.
 Here the author means Matanzas a regional capital in Cuba.
 Like McCarthy did in: McCarthy 2013, p63-64.
 Moudrow 2010 p128–139. Gidmark/Edwards 2001, p365. Remarkably, all the authors gives no reasons for their assumption.
 Rogozinsky, Jan: A brief History of the Caribbean. From the Arawak and Carib to the present, London 2000, p199-202.
 As my colleague Dr. Gauri Parasher suggested, the figure of the gentle and good pirate contradicts this anti-pirate zest in a way. The author could have included him as a reminder that there may be some good people among the pirates who are worth saving. But on the other hand, the text describes no salvation for this gentle pirate. He may not be a murderer, but he still chose to keep the money the murderers stole.