The eighteenth century was, as any landlubber knows, the Golden Age of swashbuckling Pirates-of-the-Caribbean style piracy. Eighteenth-century pirates (as opposed to their unglamorous modern counterparts) have acquired their own roguish mystique. What is less commonly known is that women, too, had their place in eighteenth-century piracy. I remember, when I was small, being entranced by their stories in my Ladybird Book about Pirates. In a society which gave women very limited choices, there must have been a certain attraction for some young women in the thought of cutting off their hair, donning men’s breeches and running away to sea in search of adventure and fortune.
Two of the most famous female pirates, who became notorious in their lifetimes, were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. The primary account we have of their lives comes from Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, which is a highly entertaining read, even if we must doubt its reliability. Johnson begins his account of the two women with a bold assertion as to the truth of his narrative, which suggests how unusual Read and Bonny would have been thought at the time:
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; but since it is supported by many thousand Witnesses, I mean the People of Jamaica, who were present at their Tryals, and heard the Story of their Lives, upon the first discovery of their Sex; the Truth of it can be no more contested, than that there were such Men in the World, as Roberts and Black-beard, who were Pyrates.
Each woman led a highly unconventional life, beginning with an unorthodox upbringing. Mary Read was born the illegitimate daughter of a sea captain’s widow, some time around 1691. Mary’s life posing as a man began early, when her mother started dressing her as a boy after the death of her (legitimate) older brother, Mark. This deception was necessary in order to continue receiving financial support from Mark’s paternal grandmother, and it does seem to have fooled the lady in question, as she gave Mary’s mother a crown a week for the child’s maintenance.
When Mary was thirteen years old, the grandmother passed away, and with her the financial assistance. Mary was obliged to find a job to support herself, and began working life by waiting on a French lady as a foot-boy. However, she soon grew bored of the life of a domestic servant and, still dressed as a man, ran away to join a man-of-war. She then escaped to Flanders and joined the British Army, fighting against the French during either the Nine Years’ War or the War of Spanish Succession. Although she ‘behaved herself with a great deal of Bravery’, she was unable to get a commission as they were generally bought and sold; promotion in the British Army depended more on connections and money than merit. Mary went on to fall in love with a Flemish soldier, and revealed her true gender to him, upon which:
…he was much surprised at what he found out, and not a little pleased…that he should have a Mistress solely to himself, which is an unusual Thing in a Camp…so that he thought of nothing but gratifying his Passions with very little Ceremony; but he found himself strangely mistaken, for she proved very reserved and modest, and resisted all his Temptations, and at the same Time was so obliging and insinuating in her Carriage, that she quite changed his Purpose, so far from thinking of making her his Mistress, he now courted her for a Wife. This was the utmost Wish of her Heart, in short, they exchanged Promises, and when the Campaign was over…they bought Woman’s Apparel for her…and were publickly married.
Mary quit the army, and the couple scraped together the funds to buy a public house near Breda Castle in the Netherlands, named ‘De drie hoefijzers’ (‘The Three Horseshoes’). We know little about Mary’s life as a tavern landlady, but the premature death of her husband along with a decline in her business led her to again assume men’s apparel and enlist as a foot soldier in Holland. There was, however, little chance of either adventure or advancement during peacetime, so she quit and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies, in search of her fortune. Unfortunately for Mary (though fortunately for her posthumous reputation), the ship she was on was boarded by pirates, who forced her to join their crew. Evidently she grew somewhat accustomed to the pirate life, as in 1720 she joined the crew of notorious pirate John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, which is where her story joins that of Anne Bonny.
Anne Bonny was born the illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer, William Cormac, and his servant Mary Brennan. The affair estranged Cormac from his wife, who went off in high dudgeon to live with her mother-in-law. Cormac grew very fond of his little Anne and wished her to live with him, but as it was common knowledge that he had an illegitimate daughter, he decided to start dressing Anne as a boy, pretending that it was a relation’s child whom he was breeding up to be his clerk. Cormac’s wife grew suspicious, though, and found out through the enquiries of a friend that the ‘boy’ was in fact the illegitimate offspring of Cormac and his maid, with whom he was still involved. Upon the discovery, she immediately withdrew the annual allowance which she had thus far been giving her husband
In response, Cormac started publicly cohabiting with the maid. This caused a great scandal among his neighbours and led to the decline of his legal practice, eventually driving him to emigrate to the Carolinas with Mary and Anne. After a rough start in the colonies, Cormac turned merchant and became a well-to-do plantation owner near Charleston. Now raised as a woman, Anne had striking red hair and a fiery temper to match; it was later put about by her detractors that she killed a servant maid with a knife when she flew into a rage, and also that when a young man attempted to rape her, she beat him up so badly that ‘he lay ill of it a considerable Time’.
Given her now considerable dowry, Anne’s father expected her to make a good match, but she disobliged him by marrying an impecunious sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny who was ‘not worth a groat’. Bonny had probably hoped to inherit the plantation by marrying Anne, but was disappointed in his expectation when Anne’s father disowned her. The couple decided to try their luck in the Bahamas, moving to Nassau, which was a well-known sanctuary for English pirates. Disenchanted with her marriage, Anne began mingling in the local taverns, where she met and became romantically involved with the pirate captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham. He induced her to run away and take up the pirate life with him.
It is at this point that Mary Read enters the story. She joined forces with Anne and Rackham, possibly when stealing a ship from Nassau harbour. The three of them, along with a pirate crew, spent the next few years sailing around Jamaica, capturing ships and gaining much treasure thereby. From now on, the fates of Anne and Mary were to remain intertwined. Both took part in combat alongside the men, and the accounts of their exploits present them as highly competent and respected by their shipmates. It was said of them that ‘in Times of Action, no Person[s]…were more resolute, or ready to Board or undertake any Thing that was hazardous’. Their true gender was known only to each other and John Rackham. Johnson gives the following account of the discovery of Mary’s true gender:
[Mary’s] Sex was not so much as suspected by any Person on Board, till Anne Bonny, who was not altogether so reserved in point of Chastity, took a particular liking to her; in short, Anne Bonny took her for a handsome young Fellow, and for some Reasons best known to herself, first [revealed] her Sex to Mary Read; Mary Read…being very sensible of her own Incapacity that Way, was forced to come to a right Understanding with her, and so to the great Disappointment of Anne Bonny, she let her know she was a Woman also; but this Intimacy so disturb’d Captain Rack[h]am, who was the Lover and Gallant of Anne Bonny, that he grew furiously jealous, so that he told Anne Bonny, he would cut her new Lover’s Throat, therefore, to quiet him, she let him into the Secret also.
One unlucky day in October 1720, Rackham’s ship was attacked by a Captain Jonathan Barnet, who had obtained a license from the Governor of Jamaica to hunt and capture pirates. The ship was quickly disabled by a volley of fire and boarded by Barnet’s men. It seems that it was left to Anne, Mary and one other crew member to put up a fight; apparently the rest of the pirates were incapacitated by a heavy rum-drinking session, and in no state to resist capture. When Read demanded that her crewmates to come up and fight like men, and received no response, she allegedly fired into the hold in anger, killing one of the men.
It was of course only a matter of time before Barnet’s crew eventually overcame the women. Rackham surrendered, and he and his crew were brought to trial in Spanish Town, Jamaica, where they were sentenced to hang for acts of piracy. According to Johnson, Anne’s last words to Rackham were, ‘had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog’.
Mary and and Anne managed to delay their executions by ‘pleading the belly’; this was an English legal custom that allowed pregnant convicts to give birth before being executed. Mary, however, died of a violent fever while in prison, and as there is no record of the burial of her baby, she probably died while pregnant. There is no historical record either of Bonny’s release or execution, which has fed speculation that she escaped in some way. Whether she died in prison, under the hangman’s noose, or much later, what we can say for certain is that Anne Bonny and Mary Read lived extraordinary lives for women of their time.
This was possibly the hardest blog post I’ve ever written in terms of gathering reliable information. Even discounting the obviously suspicious sites (assassinscreed.wikia.com, badassoftheweek.com), such usually reliable sources as Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Smithsonian Magazine have wildly differing accounts of the two women’s lives.
In the end, I decided to go back to the original source we have about them, namely Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 work A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. It very likely lacks reliability in itself, and so anything written about Read and Bonny should probably taken with a tablespoonful of salt, but it’s probably preferable to a version of the story which has been filtered through hundreds of websites.
So, you can find A General History of the Pyrates here at Project Gutenberg.