Who doesn’t love a tale about pirates, swashbuckling tales of adventure on the high seas, where men were men, and women were the naughty figureheads on the ships. Well, among the most notorious pirates of the 18th Century were two women. If you take the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland, you’ll see them featured on the wall, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Some might call them feminists who chose piracy as a way of rebelling against a male-dominated world. Others might see them as tomboys who just never grew up. Whatever their reasons, Anne Bonny and Mary Read became two of history’s most notorious pirates, male or female. Their story has come down to us shrouded in the mists of legend and myth.
The few facts that we know about Anne Bonny are that she was probably born in County Cork in about 1690 to a lawyer named Wiliam Cormac and his maid, Mary Brennan. Cormac was married and the resulting scandal (apparently Mrs. Cormac was not of a forgiving nature) led him to flee Ireland with Anne’s mother, settling in South Carolina, where he managed to amass enough money as a lawyer to buy a small plantation, where they lived respectably as husband and wife. Anne, however, was not interested in the social life of a wealthy planter’s daughter. She craved adventure and excitement. From childhood, she was headstrong, determined with a fierce temper. There is a story that Anne beat the crap out of a man who dared to make unwanted advances towards her, injuring him so badly that he couldn’t get out of bed for weeks. Also that she once stabbed a kitchen maid with a knife. Clearly not a woman you wanted to have on your bad side.
Instead of making a good marriage, at the age of 16 Anne ran off with a small time pirate named James Bonny that she had met in Charleston, which was then a well-known pirates haunt. When her father found out, he disowned her. She soon found out that not only was James not a very good pirate but he was also spineless. After they settled in the New Providence (present day Nassau in the Bahamas), James, rather than working for a living, spent his time turning in his fellow pirates in order to collect the King’s pardon from the Governor of the island, Woodes Rogers.
New Providence was founded in 1656, and pretty much ignored by those who owned the charter. Because of their neglect, by 1670 New Providence had become a safe haven for pirates. Because it was so near to the American colonies, it provided pirates with plenty of ships to plunder and markets where they could sell what they stole. It was also ideally situated between Europe and the rest of the Caribbean islands. The many coves and tiny inlets of the Bahamas gave the pirates a place to hide when pursued and to keep their ships. However all this was about to change with the arrival of the first royal governor Woodes Rogers in 1718. The British government was getting a little tired of the threat of pirates to commerce, so what better way to fight piracy then with one of their own. Rogers had been a privateer and was ideally suited to be the one to rid the area of pirates. When he arrived, there were about 2,000 pirates in Nassau and other local towns.
Disgusted with his traitorous ways, Anne spent more and more of her time hanging out with the pirates in the local saloons including one owned by Pierre Bouspeut known as Pierre the Pansy Pirate. Pierre owned a coffee shop, hair salon and dressmaking business. Anne may have started her career as a pirate as one of Pierre’s crew. Legend has it that they managed to take hold of a French merchant ship by dressing up an abandoned wreck with a dressmaker’s dummy in the bow, suitably done up as a victim. When the French crew got one look at the sight of Anne standing with an axe over the bloody ‘corpse,’ they quickly turned over their cargo without a fight.
Anne soon left James for ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham (the pirate who allegedly invented the skull and crossbones symbol that we associate with pirates). He was nicknamed ‘Calico’ Jack because of his flamboyant dress, favoring calico coats and britches. Jack offered to buy Anne (who protested at being treated like a piece of property) in a divorce by purchase from James who refused, taking the matter before Governor Rogers who declared that Anne should be flogged and returned to James. Then he passed a court order forbidding the two from seeing each other.
Instead the two escaped on Jack’s ship, “The Revenge.” Because the pirate codes expressly forbid women crew members (they considered women on board to be bad luck), Anne disguised herself as a man, fighting adeptly alongside the men. It was only a matter of time before it was discovered that she was female (the sneaking in and out of the Captain’s cabin must have been a sure giveaway). According to legend, when one of the crew members objected to her presence, she stabbed him through the heart!
Anne soon found herself pregnant with Jack’s child. When he found out, he left her on Cuba to deliver the baby. No one knows what really happened to the child, a baby girl. There was some speculation that she just abandoned her, others think that she left the baby with a foster family to raise it, or that the baby died at birth.
In any event, when Anne later returned to the ship, she met the woman who would soon become coupled with her in infamy, Mary Read. According to legend, Anne became smitten with the new lad on board ship. When she made advances, the ‘lad’ revealed himself to be a woman. Since Mary was the only other woman on the ship, the two became fast friends, although there was some speculation that they were lovers as well, or in a ménage a trois with Jack. There is, of course, no way of knowing for sure whether or not they were lovers, since Hogarth wasn’t exactly under the bed sketching.
Mary Read was born in Devon, England sometime in the late 17th Century. Like many scandalous women, she had a rough childhood. Her father, who was a sailor, went off to sea she was born, and her half-brother Mark passed away soon afterwards. Mary and her mother waited for years for her father to return but to no avail. In desperation, Mary’s mother disguised her as a boy in order to keep her paternal grandmother supporting them. It seems grandma preferred boys to girls. Mary spent her early childhood pretending to be her dead half-brother.
When Mary turned thirteen her grandmother finally passed away. Needing to find work to support herself, Mary (still disguised as a boy) managed to find work as a footboy to a wealthy French woman who lived in London. After a few months, Mary was bored and left, finding work on a man-o-war. After a few years, she became bored again and joined the army where she met her future husband. After confessing her gender, they left the army, opening an inn called The Three Horseshoes near Castle Breda in Holland. Unfortunately, Mary’s husband died after a few months. Mary joined a Dutch ship on its way to the Caribbean where it was attacked by ‘Calico’ Jack. The captured crew was forced to become pirates, a way of life that turned out to suit Mary just fine.
Mary and Anne proved to be more than the equal of any of the men on board ship. Dressed in men’s clothing, Anne was often a member of the boarding party when they attacked a ship, and along with Mary was responsible for the deaths of many sailors, including shipmates, who crossed them the wrong way.
Mary fell in love with one of the crew, Tom Deane, on board ship. After revealing her secret, they became lovers. Deane was not a natural pirate, like Mary he had been pressed into service when Calico Jack captured his ship. When he got into a quarrel with a more experienced member, Mary knowing that her lover stood no chance against him in a duel, picked her own quarrel with the older man, and challenged him to a duel that would take place prior to her lover’s duel. Mary killed the older man but not before revealing to him her gender.
In October of 1720, Captain Barnet, an ex-pirate who was now the commander in the British Navy, attacked Rackham’s anchored ship, “Revenge.” Almost the entire crew on board was drunk, leaving them vulnerable to attack. They had been celebrating their victory in managing to capture a Spanish commercial ship. The fight was short because only Mary and Anne were sober enough to resist. The rest of the crew cowered down in the hold. Read, incensed at their cowardice, shot several rounds into the hole, killing one man.
The crew of the “Revenge” was taken Port Royal to stand trial, which was a huge sensation due to the sex of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were reviled for daring to step outside the proscribed bounds for females. The women were tried separately from the men, who testified to their cruelties.
During her trial, when Mary Read was asked why she had chosen the life of a pirate, she replied:
“That as to hanging, it is no great hardship, for were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate and so unfit the seas that men of courage must starve.”
Mary and Anne were given stays of execution by claiming they were both pregnant. While Anne may have escaped the hangman’s noose completely due to the influence of her father, Mary Read died in prison either from fever or in childbirth. Like her father, they both died in men’s clothing. She’s buried in St. Catherine’s parish in Jamaica.
What happened to Anne afterwards is a matter of speculation. Its possible that she went back to live with her father on his plantation in South Carolina. However having had a taste of freedom from the restrictions of being a woman in the 18th century, wouldn't she have been more likely to have either gone back to piracy or settled down somewhere on another of the islands?
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Anne however states that "Evidence provided by the descendants of Anne Bonny suggests that her father managed to secure her release from gaol and bring her back to Charles Town, South Carolina, where she gave birth to Rackam's second child. On 21 December 1721 she married a local man, Joseph Burleigh, and they had eight children. She died in South Carolina, a respectable woman, at the age of eighty-four and was buried on 25 April 1782."
Calico Jack wasn't as lucky. On the day that Calico Jack was to hang, he asked for special permission to see Anne on his way to the gallows. Anne coldly told him, “I’m sorry to see you here, but had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog.”
Anne Bonny and Mary Read defied convention to live an adventuous life. So next time you're riding the Pirates of the Carribean ride at Disneyland, lift a glass of grog to celebrate the lives of these courageous women.