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Women’s History Month: Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Terrors of the Sea

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mary_read_anne_bonny_calico_jackPirates.  You’ve probably heard of Blackbeard or Captain William Kidd, you may have even heard of Captain “Calico” Jack Rackham.  But two pirates you might not have heard about before were Anne Bonny and Mary Read, women who terrorized the seas in the early 1700’s.  (Although, as I understand it the new television series “Black Sails” features these pirate women) These two women would not be held back by the perceptions of men in those days, and not only became pirates but were known to be of the most ruthless and violent variety, drinking and fighting with or better than the men, and willing to stand when men on their own crew weren’t.  While both women came from different backgrounds and met very different ends, for a few years on the Caribbean, they came together to make history.

Mary Read was born in 1691, the illegitimate daughter of the widow of a sea captain.  Her mother waited years for said captain to return from sea, but after the money ran out, she was forced to go to his mother seeking financial assistance.  His mother disliked daughters however, and since her brother who was just a little older than her had recently died of disease, Mary’s mother disguised Mary as a boy, and passed her off as a boy for several years in order to get he financial assistance they needed, and then even after her grandmother died.

As a teenager, Mary found work on a British man-o-war (warship) for a short time, and then after she tired of that she joined a foot regiment and then a cavalry regiment after that.  After a few years with the military, she fell in love with a fellow soldier and disclosed her gender to him.  They both left the military and settled down, purchasing and running the “The Three Horseshoes” Inn near Breda Castle in Holland.  However, her husband died young, and realizing how much easier life in the 1700’s was as a man, Mary returned to her life as a man, finding employment on a Dutch merchant ship.  When that ship was later taken by pirates, she joined the pirates, sailing the English seas with them for a few years before the ship accepted the King’s Pardon in 1718 and turned privateer.  However, it wasn’t long after that before they ran into Calico Jack and Anne Bonny…

Anne Bonny was born March 8, 1702 as the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer, William Cormack and his housekeeper, in Cork County, Ireland.  The family immigrated to South Carolina when she was young, and there she met James Bonny.  The move hadn’t been good to the family, and Anne left with James at some point between 1714 and 1718 amidst reports of her stabbing a servant girl with a knife, and even stories that she set her father’s plantation on fire after being disowned by him (however no evidence currently exists to back up the story of the arson).  The young couple traveled to New Providence in the Bahamas, where James found a gang of pirates and they both joined up.  In 1718 however, when the King’s Pardon was offered, James leapt at the chance, becoming an informant for Bahamian governor Woodes Rogers.  Anne was disgusted by his weakness, and left him, falling for Captain “Calico” Jack Rackham, the newly minted captain of a pirate ship, most famous for his relationship with Bonny, and designing the “Jolly Roger” flag.

Anne joined Calico Jack on his ship, disguising herself as a man and fitting in well, drinking and fighting with the men.  At one point, she became pregnant with Jack’s child, and returned to Cuba long enough to have the baby.  She promptly left the baby with friends (although some speculate she simply abandoned it altogether), and went back aboard Captain Jack’s ship where they continued to sail the seas together.  At some point in 1719-reports conflict on exactly how, whether they met at port after a mutiny by the crew Mary was a part of aboard the privateer, or the pirates overtook Mary’s ship-Mary joined Calico Jack’s crew.  As the story goes, Anne and Mary quickly saw through each other’s disguises, and as the only two women aboard the ship, grew to be friends.  The Captain-who was involved with Bonny-grew jealous, and threatened to kill the new recruit, before he was let in on the secret.  Upon learning the secret, Jack, Anne, and Mary then ditched their old crew, stealing the British sloop “Revenge”, and recruiting a new crew, with whom Anne and Mary sailed and fought as women.

Sailing together, the two women quickly earned a well deserved reputation as ruthless and violent pirates, regardless of their gender.  However, the hunt for pirates was on, and in October of 1720 the British warship “Albion”, captained by the pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet surprised the Revenge while the pirates were throwing a rum party with another crew.  All the men hid below decks, leaving Anne, Mary, and one other pirate above deck to defend the ship from the military.  Anne and Mary turned their rage on their comrades, with Mary firing a pistol into the hold and killing one, all the while both women cursed them as cowards.  Inevitably however, the pirates and women were taken captive, and brought back to Spanish Town, Jamaica for trial.

Captain Calico Jack and the men in his crew were tried on November 16, 1720 and sentenced to hang.  According to legend, Anne was allowed to visit her former lover before his execution.  Instead of words of comfort, Anne scorned him, telling the former Captain “Had you fought like a man you need not have been hanged like a dog” before turning her back on him.  When Mary and Anne were put on trial, they both plead pregnant, what was known back then as “pleading the belly”.  Since British law prohibited killing the unborn, this strategy bought both women a temporary stay before their execution.  Mary Read however, would not live to see freedom or give birth, dying of disease before she was able.  Anne on the other hand, would live a long life.  Evidence from her descendents show that her father was able to purchase her freedom and bring her back to South Carolina.  There she gave birth to the second child of Captain Calico Jack Rackham, and then on December 21, 1721 she was wed to Joseph Burleigh who she proceeded to have ten children with.  She lived out the rest of her natural life in South Carolina, dying at the age of 80 on April 22, 1782.

Both women lived interesting and extraordinary lives, albeit it different in almost every way, save the few years they crossed paths and made history together as the only female pirates known to have been convicted of piracy during the Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th century, as well as some of the most ruthless pirates to ever sail the Caribbean seas.

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at [email protected]

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