For 2,000 years there have been stories about female pirates. But were these stories just delusional tales told by drunken sailors and aggrandized by poets? Well, some were legends, but some were real.
During the 18th Century, women usually faced a life of domestic servitude. For some, a chance to sail away from poverty, oppression, bad marriages, or boredom was grasped as their last hope for escape. But the world of piracy was a man’s world. If a woman was to be a pirate, she had to dress like a man, drink like a man, and fight like a man. Here is the true tale of two famous lady pirates who were crew mates and comrades to the end.
ANNE BONNY (depicted below) was the illegitimate daughter of lawyer William Cormac and his serving maid. She was born in County Cork, Ireland, sometime between 1697 and 1700. After leaving his wife, Cormac took young red-headed Anne with him to the South Carolina colony where he prospered as a plantation owner. Anne was a rowdy and troublesome young woman with a quick and violent temper. One story says that she, at age 13, stabbed her maid to death over a disagreement. Some years later, Anne met and married a sometime-pirate named James Bonny. When her father found out that he was only after the family’s wealth, he disinherited his daughter. The newly married couple took off for Jamaica.
Anne became disgusted with James, and spent her days socializing with pirates at local taverns. One day she met John Rackham, a pirate captain also known as Calico Jack. She signed on as a crew member aboard his ship and became his mistress. They had a child in Cuba. Meanwhile back in Jamaica, James Bonny appealed to Governor Rogers to bring Anne back to finalize a divorce. Calico Jack and Anne had an amnesty agreement with Rogers (as they had once saved his life) but the Governor was duty-bound to return Anne to her husband. James Bonny was terrified that Anne would kill him, which she was capable of doing, and was relieved when she ran off again with Calico Jack.
At this point, our second lady pirate, MARY READ, enters. Although there is no agreed upon date, Mary was born in England near the end of the 1690’s. She was the illegitimate child of a sea captain and a widow. In order to continue to receive financial support from Mary’s paternal grandmother, her mother represented Mary as her already deceased, but legitimate, older brother. To accomplish this Mary was dressed as a boy. For the rest of her life, Mary Read wore nothing but men’s clothing. In her teens she ran away to join the British army still disguised as a male. Stationed in Holland, she fell in love and married another soldier. Their close comrades knew she was a woman but the army did not. Using their combined funds, Mary and her husband opened an inn.
Her husband died unexpectedly so Mary sold the inn and returned to the army. After peace with France had been accomplished, there was no longer any place in the army for her; so aboard ship, she headed for a fresh start in the West Indies. Then her life took a dramatic turn. Her ship was captured by pirates and Mary, still disguised as a man, joined the pirate crew.
In 1720, she joined anther crew - captained by Calico Jack Rackham and his partner Anne Bonny. Anne took an interest in Mary Read which infuriated Calico Jack. He intended to kill Mary until Anne stepped in and revealed that Mary was actually a woman. It didn’t take long for Calico Jack to decide to break tradition and allow both women to remain on his ship. Rackham, Bonny, and Read stole another ship, the “Revenge,” from the Nassau harbor and began terrorizing merchant ships across the Caribbean. They very hugely successful and amassed a fortune in treasure. Both Anne and Mary fought alongside the men, gaining the respect of the crew.
But every pirate’s life must come to an end sooner or later. Jonathan Barnet, a noted “pirate hunter” was commissioned by the British to track down and capture Calico Jack and his men. Supported by British soldiers, Barnet found and boarded the Revenge in the middle of the night. Calico Jack and most of the crew were below decks either drunk or sleeping when the soldiers arrived. Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and one other pirate were on watch on deck. They fought valiantly defending the ship but could not arouse their comrades down below. The ladies were overwhelmed and the entire crew was captured.
In Jamaica, they were tried for piracy and sentenced to be hanged. As Calico Jack was led to the gallows, Anne’s final words to him were “If you had fought like a man, you would not now be dying like a dog.” All the male crew members were executed, but Anne Bonny and Mary Read were pregnant and “pleaded their bellies” which, by English common law, would allow them to remain alive (at least until the babies were born). The following year, Mary Read died in prison of a fever before giving birth. Anne Bonny strangely disappeared without a trace and was never seen again. Historians believe that her wealthy father had bribed guards to “look the other way” while Anne escaped. Some think that she returned to South Carolina and lived a long life on her father’s plantation.
In the old Appalachian folk song “Jack-a-roe,” the lyrics read:
“She went down to a tailor shop and dressed in man’s array,
She climbed on board a vessel to convey herself away,
Before you step aboard sir, your name I’d like to know,
She smiled in all her countenance, they call me ‘Jack-a-roe’
Your waist is light and slender, your fingers neat and small,
Your cheeks too red and rosy, to face a cannonball.”