When it comes to pirates, most people think of iconic names like Blackbeard, Calico Jack, or William Kidd . But what about female pirates? Although female pirates are less well-known, they did exist. Female pirates were not nearly as common as male pirates due to standard ship contracts which prohibited women and children from joining the crew. This “official” contract wasn’t enough to stop some women, though. Famous female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read found their way around these contracts, choosing lives of piracy over their domestic lives on land.
But how did Bonny and Read get around these contracts, and what did they accomplish as pirates?
Female Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read by Benjamin Cole. (Copper engraving coloured, from Defoe, Daniel; Johnson, Charles (1724) A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates ) ( Public Domain )
Anne Bonny’s Preparation for Piracy
Anne Bonny was born in 1697 in Cork, Ireland. Though not much is known about her early life, it is known that she was the illegitimate daughter of William McCormac, a reputable lawyer, and his servant, Mary Brennan. After Anne’s birth, her father moved to London to escape the watchful eyes of his wife’s family. As Anne aged, her father would dress her as a boy and train her as his clerk. Once this ruse was discovered, his wife and her family stopped sending him money, prompting him to move to the Province of Carolina with Anne and her mother.
Upon moving to the Province of Carolina, Anne’s father changed their last name to simply Cormac to blend in better with the locals. They also struggled financially for a time, due to the halting of his wife’s money, but he was soon able to continue working as a lawyer, which eventually paid for a townhouse and a plantation. Although finances were challenging at times, he eventually joined the merchant business and built his wealth back up.
Unfortunately, Anne’s mother died when she was only 12. After this, Anne began displaying rebellious and aggressive behavior. It was even rumored that she had stabbed one of her servants to death with a knife when she was only 13 years old. The good news for Anne was that while she was known around town for her temper, she was also known for her good looks, which helped her find favor in the eyes of James Bonny, a poor sailor who dabbled in piracy. Anne was disowned by her rich father because of her choice of husband, which removed her rights to his estate after his death.
After being disowned, Bonny and her husband moved to New Providence Island, near a pirate sanctuary called the Republic of Pirates . While it was not an official republic, it was known for being a safe place for those turning from privateering to piracy. Anne’s husband James took advantage of this location and allegedly switched from sailing and piracy to becoming an informant for the governor of the region, reporting any pirates that did not turn themselves in for the king’s pardon. This led to many pirate arrests, as well as Anne’s distrust of her husband.
Because of this wariness, Anne started spending more time with pirates in secrecy. She would normally head to the taverns in the evening to mingle and try to protect them from her husband’s position. At some point, she met the famous pirate John Rackham, also known as Calico Jack, and started having an affair with him. Eventually, their love grew to the point that Jack offered money to Bonny to divorce Anne, but he refused and threatened Jack. Calico Jack then had Anne join his crew and they ran away together.
Because of pirate standards, women were not allowed to become a part of the crew. For this reason, Calico Jack had Anne disguise herself as a man so she could blend in. This worked until she became pregnant and could no longer hide her identity. Anne Bonny gave birth to a son, married Jack on his ship, and they continued their life of piracy together. After some time, she eventually met Mary Read, another female pirate.
Famous Pirate Mary Read ( Public Domain )
The Mischievous and Magnetic Mary Read
Mary Read was a bit older than Anne Bonny, and was born in England in 1685. She was the offspring of a woman and a sailor who died at sea soon after Mary was born. Mary was her mother’s second child; the first had been a boy, but he died soon after his father did. Mary’s mother, not wanting to lose the financial support of her husband’s family, dressed Mary as a boy to pass her off as her dead son. Soon, though, the family discovered the truth and cut them off financially.
Once they were on their own, Mary’s mother continued to dress her as a boy and would rent her out as a servant to make money for them to survive. She excelled at any task thrown her way, and even earned the position of “powder monkey” during the War of Grand Alliance, which required her to deliver bags of gunpowder to gun crews. She later served in both the infantry and the cavalry, where she eventually revealed her true identity and married one of her bunkmates, who died soon after they were married.
Once again on her own, she continued living her life disguised as a man and joined piracy on a Dutch ship set for the West Indies . On the trip, the boat was captured by English pirates, who took Mary as a prisoner. As it turns out, the ship belonged to the one and only Calico Jack.
On the ship, Anne revealed herself to be a woman to seduce Mary to get her to join the crew, not knowing Mary was also a woman. Mary then revealed that she, too, was a woman, and Anne promised to keep Mary’s secret if she joined the crew. She joined, and it is speculated that they became secret lovers during their time together, though it is not confirmed. Jack, jealous of his wife’s relationship with Mary over time, sought to kill Mary in her bed-chamber one day, where she revealed her identity to him as well. Impressed by her cunning (as well as her ruthlessness as a pirate), he spared her and continued to treat her as an equal.
Anne Bonny: Real Female Pirate of the Caribbean ( Public Domain )
Anne Bonny & Mary Read: A Deadly Duo
No longer having secrets between them, Anne Bonney and Mary Read sailed the high seas together with their pirate lovers. Around other pirates, they would dress in their men’s garb of loose tunics and wide trousers, often with their swords and pistols at their sides. They would often fight together as well, wielding their weapons and proving themselves as tough as any man on board.
One of their victims once wrote that they, “… wore men’s jackets, and long trousers, and handkerchiefs tied about their heads: and… each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands and they cursed and swore at the men to murder her.” She also noted that she recognized them as women because of the size of their breasts.
Their ruthless piracy eventually came to an unfortunate end. In 1720, Calico Jack’s crew was attacked by Jonathan Barnet, a privateer under the commission of the governor of Jamaica, Nicholas Lawes. There was little fight, as many of the pirates were drunk at the time of the attack, leading to a quick surrender.
Anne and Mary, never ones to back from a fight, continued to fight for their lives. According to legend, Mary yelled down to her crew during the fight, “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” When no man chose to fight with them, she shot through the door and killed one. Both women were captured soon after that.
Exchanging Gangplank for Gallows
Those captured were sentenced to death by hanging . Records state that Anne Bonny’s last words to Calico Jack, true to her character, were, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”
Both women pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty in court. They were sentenced to be hanged; however, both were able to avoid execution as it was soon discovered they were each pregnant. Although they avoided hanging, Mary died in prison from a “fever,” likely caused by infection after childbirth.
Anne’s fate remains unclear. She survived childbirth, but there is no record of her execution or release. It is believed she either died in prison years later or perhaps escaped, though nobody is certain.
Either way, it’s clear these two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read , gave their male counterparts a run for their money. Though they both met an untimely end, there’s something to be admired about the ferocity of a female pirate.
Top image: Female pirate close up looking through trees. Representative of Anne Bonny. Source: stivog / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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