Last week Mike Dash told a tale of high seas adventure that put me in mind of another, somewhat earlier one. Not that Anne Bonny and Mary Read had much in common with kindly old David O’Keefe—they were pirates, for one thing, as renowned for their ruthlessness as for their gender, and during their short careers challenged the sailors’ adage that a woman’s presence on shipboard invites bad luck. Indeed, were it not for Bonny and Read, John “Calico Jack” Rackam’s crew would’ve suffered indignity along with defeat during its final adventure in the Caribbean. But more on that in a moment…
Much of what we know about the early lives of Bonny and Read comes from a 1724 account titled A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson (which some historians argue is a nom de plume for Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe). A General History places Bonny’s birth in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, circa 1698. Her father, an attorney named William Cormac, had an affair with the family maid, prompting his wife to leave him. The maid, Mary Brennan, gave birth to Anne, and over time William grew so fond of the child he arranged for her to live with him. To avoid scandal, he dressed her as a boy and introduced her as the child of a relative entrusted to his care. When Anne’s true gender and parentage were discovered, William, Mary and their child emigrated to what is now Charleston, South Carolina. Mary died in 1711, at which point the teenaged Anne began exhibiting a “fierce and courageous temper,” reportedly murdering a servant girl with a case knife and beating half to death a suitor who tried to rape her.
William, a successful planter, disapproved of his daughter’s rebellious ways; the endless rumors about her carousing in local taverns and sleeping with fishermen and drunks damaged his business. He disowned her when, in 1718, she married a poor sailor by the name of James Bonny. Anne and her new husband set off for New Providence (now Nassau) in the Bahamas, where James is said to have embarked on a career as a snitch, turning in pirates to Governor Woodes Rogers and collecting the bounties on their heads. Woodes, a former pirate himself, composed a “most wanted” list of ten notorious outlaws, including Blackbeard, and vowed to bring them all to trial.
Anne, meanwhile, spent most of her time drinking at local saloons and seducing pirates; in A General History, Johnson contends that she was “not altogether so reserved in point of Chastity,” and that James Bonny once “surprised her lying in a hammock with another man.” Anne grew especially enamored of one paramour, John “Calico Jack” Rackam, so-called due to his affinity for garish clothing, and left Bonny to join Rackam’s crew. One legend holds that she launched her pirating career with an ingenious ploy, creating a “corpse” by mangling the limbs of a dressmaker’s mannequin and smearing it with fake blood. When the crew of a passing French merchant ship spotted Anne wielding an ax over her creation, they surrendered their cargo without a fight.
A surprising number of women ventured to sea, in many capacities: as servants, prostitutes, laundresses, cooks and—albeit less frequently—as sailors, naval officers, whaling merchants or pirates. Anne herself was likely inspired by a 16th-century Irishwoman named Grace O’Malley, whose fierce visage (she claimed her face was scarred after an attack by an eagle) became infamous along the coast of the Emerald Isle. Still, female pirates remained an anomaly and perceived liability; Blackbeard, for one, banned women from his ship, and if his crew took one captive she was strangled and pitched over the side. Anne refused to be deterred by this sentiment. Upon joining Rackam’s crew, she was said to have silenced a disparaging shipmate by stabbing him in the heart.
Most of the time Anne lived as a woman, acting the part of Rackam’s lover and helpmate, but during engagements with other ships she wore the attire of a man: loose tunic and wide, short trousers; a sword hitched by her side and a brace of pistols tucked in a sash; a small cap perched atop a thicket of dark hair. Between sporadic bouts of marauding and pillaging, pirate life was fairly prosaic; our modern associations with the profession draw more from popular entertainment—Peter Pan, The Pirates of Penzance, a swashbuckling Johnny Depp—than from historical reality. The notion of “walking the plank” is a myth, as are secret stashes of gold. “Nice idea, buried plunder,” says maritime historian David Cordingly. “Too bad it isn’t true.” Pirates ate more turtles than they drank rum, and many were staunch family men; Captain Kidd, for instance, remained devoted to his wife and children back in New York. Another historian, Barry R. Burg, contends that the majority of sexual dalliances occurred not with women but with male shipmates.
Accounts vary as to how Anne met Mary Read. According to Johnson, Rackam’s ship conquered Mary’s somewhere in the West Indies, and Mary was among those taken prisoner. After the engagement, Anne, dressed in female attire, tried to seduce the handsome new recruit. Mary, perhaps fearing repercussions from Rackam, informed Anne she was actually a woman—and bared her breasts to prove it. Anne vowed to keep Mary’s secret and the women became friends, confidantes and, depending on the source, lovers.
Learn more about Anne and Mary after the jump…
They had much in common; Mary was also an illegitimate child. Her mother’s first child (this one by her husband) was a boy, born shortly after her husband died at sea. Mary’s mother-in-law took pity on the widow and offered to support her grandson until he was grown, but he died as well. Mary’s mother quickly became pregnant again, gave birth to Mary, and, in order to keep receiving money from her husband’s family, dressed her daughter to resemble her dead son. But her grandmother soon caught on and terminated the arrangement. To make ends meet, Mary’s mother continued dressing her as a boy and occasionally rented her out as a servant.
Mary excelled at living as a man. Around age 13, she served as a “powder monkey” on a British man-of-war during the War of the Grand Alliance, carrying bags of gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the gun crews. Next she joined the Army of Flanders, serving in both the infantry and cavalry. She fell in love with her bunkmate and divulged her secret to him. Initially, the soldier suggested that Mary become his mistress—or, as Johnson put it, “he thought of nothing but gratifying his Passions with very little Ceremony”—but Mary replied, with no apparent irony, that she was a reserved and proper lady. After informing her entire regiment that she was a woman, she quit the army and married the solider, who died shortly before the turn of the 18th century.
Mary resumed her life as a man and sailed for the West Indies on a Dutch ship, which was soon captured by English pirates. The crew, believing Mary to be a fellow Englishman, encouraged her to join them. Calico Jack Rackam served as the quartermaster of her new crew, and he, along with his shipmates, never suspected Mary’s true gender. She was aggressive and ruthless, always ready for a raid, and swore, well, like a drunken sailor. She was “very profligate,” recalled one of her victims, “cursing and swearing much.” Loose clothing hid her breasts, and no one thought twice about her lack of facial hair; her mates, most of them in their teens or early twenties, were also smooth-faced. It’s also likely that Mary suffered from stress and poor diet while serving in the army, factors that could have interrupted or paused her menstrual cycle.
Initially, Rackam was jealous of Anne’s relationship with Mary, and one day burst into her cabin intending to slit her throat. Mary sat up and opened her blouse. Rackam agreed to keep Mary’s secret from the rest of the crew and continued to treat her as an equal. (He was also somewhat mollified when she took up with a male crewmate.)
During battles Anne and Mary fought side by side, wearing billowing jackets and long trousers and handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads, wielding a machete and pistol in either hand. “They were very active on board,” another victim later testified, “and wiling to do any Thing.” The summer and early fall of 1720 proved especially lucrative for Rackam’s crew. In September they took seven fishing boats and two sloops near Harbor Island. A few weeks later, Anne and Mary led a raid against a schooner, shooting at the crew as they climbed aboard, cursing as they gathered their plunder: tackle, fifty rolls of tobacco and nine bags of pimento. They held their captives for two days before releasing them.
Near midnight on October 22, Anne and Mary were on deck when they noticed a mysterious sloop gliding up alongside them. They realized it was one of the governor’s vessels, and they shouted for their crewmates to stand with them. A few obliged, Rackam included, but several had passed out from the night’s drinking. The sloop’s captain, Jonathan Barnett, ordered the pirates to surrender, but Rackam began firing his swivel gun. Barnett ordered a counterattack, and the barrage of fire disabled Rackam’s ship and sent the few men on deck to cowering in the hold. Outnumbered, Rackam signaled surrender and called for quarter.
But Anne and Mary refused to surrender. They remained on deck and faced the governor’s men alone, firing their pistols and swinging their cutlasses. Mary, the legend goes, was so disgusted she stopped fighting long enough to peer over the entrance of the hold and yell, “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” When not a single comrade responded, she fired a shot down into the hold, killing one of them. Anne, Mary and the rest of Rackam’s crew were finally overpowered and taken prisoner.
Calico Jack Rackam was scheduled to be executed by hanging on November 18, and his final request was to see Anne. She had but one thing to say to him: “If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.” Ten days later, she and Mary stood trial at the Admiralty Court in St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica, both of them pleading not guilty to all charges. The most convincing witness was one Dorothy Thomas, whose canoe had been robbed of during one of the pirates’ sprees. She stated that Anne and Mary threatened to kill her for testifying against them, and that “the Reason of her knowing and believing them to be women then was by the largeness of their Breasts.”
Anne and Mary were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but their executions were stayed—because, as lady luck would have it, they were both “quick with child.”
Captain Charles Johnson. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. London: T. Warner, 1724.
Barry R. Burg. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean. New York: New York University Press, 1995.
David Cordingly. Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives. New York: Random House, 2007.
_________. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Random House, 2006.
_________. Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean: The Adventurous Life of Captain Woodes Rogers. New York: Random House, 2011.
Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling. Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Tamara J. Eastman and Constance Bond. The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Cambria Pines, CA: Fern Canyon Press, 2000.
Angus Konstam and Roger Kean. Pirates: Predators of the Seas. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon. Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. New York: Penguin Group, 2011.
C.R. Pennell. Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Diana Maury Robin, Anne R. Larsen, Carole Levin. Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England.
“Scholars Plunder Myths About Pirates, And It’s Such A Drag.” Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1992; “West Indian Sketches.” New Hampshire Gazette, April 10, 1838; “How Blackbeard Met His Fate.” Washington Post, September 9, 1928; “Seafaring Women.” Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1896; “Capt. Kidd and Others.” New York Times, January 1, 1899; “Female Pirates.” Boston Globe, August 9, 1903.