The Pirate Queens–Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Avast ye scurvy dogs, it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day (and no, I’m not making this up). Okay, I may not be the best at talking like a pirate, but I did write up an awesome profile of two of the baddest (as in coolest) female pirates to ever sail the high seas in honor of this quirky holiday.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were pirates 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.
Anne and Mary were both illegitimate children that were often dressed as boys by their respective family members in order to keep their identities a secret. Anne displayed a penchant for getting into trouble from a young age and by her early teens had already stabbed and murdered a servant girl and beat a suitor almost to death for an attempted rape.
Anne was also fond of drinking in taverns and sleeping with fisherman and in 1718 when she married a poor sailor-James Bonny-her father finally disowned her and left her to her own devices. Anne took off for New Providence in the Bahamas with her husband, continued her carousing and took up seducing pirates at local saloons. She took a shine to John “Calico Jack” Rackam and left Bonny to join Rackam’s crew. When a shipmate complained, Anne silenced him by stabbing him in the heart.
Anne started her pirating career with flair, mangling the limbs of a dressmaker’s mannequin and smearing it with fake blood; allegedly, a passing French merchant ship saw Anne wielding an ax over her bloody creation and promptly surrendered without a fight.
Anne met Mary Read when Rackam’s ship conquered Mary’s somewhere in the West Indies, and Mary was among those taken prisoner. After the battle, Anne, dressed in female attire, tried to seduce the handsome new recruit. Mary informed Anne she was actually a woman, bared her breasts to prove it, and the rest was history. Anne vowed to keep Mary’s secret and the women became friends, confidantes and, depending on the source, lovers.
Mary, like Anne, had lived a pretty unconventional life. Around age 13, she served as a “powder monkey” on a British man-of-war 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—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 unfortunately died shortly after.
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. Loose clothing and an aggressive attitude hid her gender. She was also ruthless, ready for a raid, and swore, well, like a drunken sailor.
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. On October 22, Anne and Mary were on deck when they noticed a mysterious sloop gliding up alongside them. Realizing it was one of the governor’s vessels they called for backup. A few obliged, but many had passed out from the night’s drinking. Rackam was ordered to surrender and after a brief battle he gave in without much of a fight.
But Anne and Mary weren’t down with this plan. They remained on deck and faced the governor’s men alone, firing their pistols and swinging their cutlasses. Mary, 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.
Rackam was scheduled to be executed by hanging on November 18, and his final request was to see Anne who was rightfully fed up with 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. Despite their plea of not guilty Anne and Mary were sentenced to be hanged, but their executions were stayed—because, thankfully they were both “quick with child.”
Mary is said to have died of a violent fever in the Spanish Town prison in 1721, before the birth of her child. Other reports say she feigned death and was sneaked out of the prison under a shroud.
No record of Anne’s execution has ever been found. Some say that her wealthy father bought her release after the birth of her child and she settled down to a quiet family life on a small Caribbean island. Others believe that she lived out her life in the south of England, owning a tavern where she regaled the locals with tales of her exploits.
And yet others say Anne and Mary moved to Louisiana where they raised their children together and were friends to the ends of their lives.
For more information:
Captain Charles Johnson. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. London: T. Warner, 1724.
David Cordingly. Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives. New York: Random House, 2007.
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.
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon. Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. New York: Penguin Group, 2011.
Lorimer, Sara; Synarski, Susan (2002). Booty : Girl Pirates on the High Seas. San Francisco: Chronicle Books