Of The Sea
Female Pirates Mary Read & Anne Bonny
IN OCTOBER of the year 1720, Calico Jack Rackham might have gazed out across the azure blue waters of the Caribbean Sea from the bow of his pirate ship and smiled. All was right in his world. Known as the 'Terror of the Caribbean,' he had assured his place within the pirate realm. Calico Jack, so called because of his habit of wearing calico pants, knew, as he approached Jamaica, that despite the 1692 devastation of Port Royal by earthquake, the early 18th century saw piracy alive and well in the region. Calico Jack was happy to be a member of the brotherhood of pirates. He was as proud of his crew as he was of his own daring and success. Indeed, it seems he was fond of saying his crew was unlike any other.
It didn't take long for word to reach Jamaican Governor Nicholas Lawes that Calico Jack Rackham had been sighted off the coast of Ocho Rios. Determined to stamp out piracy, Lawes wasted no time in setting a sloop commanded by Captain Barnet in pursuit of the notorious Terror of the Caribbean. Barnet followed Rackham's progress around the coastline and steadily gained ground. Finally, Barnet encountered Rackham and his 'special' crew anchored off of Negril enjoying a rum punch party a celebration of their recent capture of a commercial vessel.
Caught by surprise and groggy from drink, much of Rackham's crew fled below deck. Only two members are said to have held their place and fought steadily against Barnet's entire crew for over an hour. Occasionally, they were also said to have fired on their own crew for not fighting like men. Their strength was not enough, however, and the vessel was captured. The law had caught up with Calico Jack.
shocked as people were by Rackham's capture, nothing prepared them for
the surprise that was to come at the court of St. Jago de la Vega (now
Spanish Town). Two members of Rackham's crew were women -- the same
two that had put up such a magnificent last stand against Capt. Barnet
and his men. Their names were Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Today they are
remembered as the Female Pirates, women who defied convention by living
desire for adventure in a man's world.
When her father died, Mary's mother secured his company and holdings as an inheritance for his 'son', Mary, who may have used the name Mark. The money lasted until Mary became a teenager at which point she was forced to find employment. Still disguised as a boy, Mary became a footboy to a wealthy French woman living in London. Unhappy in her position, Mary soon ran away. Giving in to her longing for excitement, she found new employment aboard ship but life onboard was not what she had expected. After a few years, Mary managed to jump ship and turned her sights to military. She joined the British army as a foot soldier. Later, while a member of the Horse Regiment Mary is said to have fallen in love and confessed her true gender to the soldier. The two were wed and bought out their commission in the military. Together they opened an English inn called The Three Horseshoes.
For the first time in her life, Mary lived as a woman, and she and her husband were happy and prosperous. Soon, however, Mary's husband died. Alone and unhappy, Mary turned to what she knew and donned men's clothing, once again becoming a 'man'. She left her inn and joined the military again, but did not last long, perhaps due to memories of her dead husband. Leaving the military, Mary joined up with a ship bound for the West Indies. While enroute, the ship was attacked and captured by Captain Calico Jack Rackham and his crew.
a member of Rackham's crew, Mary met Anne Bonny, Rackham's mistress.
Anne quickly figured out that Mary was a woman and swore that she would
keep her secret safe. Anne and Mary became fast friends, often fighting
together. It is said that they were the first in battle and the first
to volunteer in any boarding parties. The crew respected their strength
and ferocious courage, but feared their unpredictability. Rackham became
jealous of the time Anne spent with Mary but when he discovered Mary's
true sex he also promised to keep her secret safe.
Anne always had a taste for adventure and, when she was 16 years old, she met, fell in love and married a sea captain named James Bonny. Her father disowned her, and Anne and James left Charleston for New Providence, Bahamas, where piracy was in full swing.
Anne soon grew bored with her husband and began to think of ways to escape. When she met the handsome Jack Rackham she saw her chance and seized it. It is said she approached Bonny and asked him to declare a formal separation in exchange for a settlement. When he agreed, she disguised herself as a man and snuck aboard Rackham's ship. Knowing that her sex would be considered unlucky aboard ship, she remained clothed as a man for some time. It is said that Anne was so viciously adept with both pistol and cutlass that her gender was never really questioned. The one man who did challenge her lost his life. Anne is rumoured to have gutted him.
Eventually, however, she became pregnant and her affair with Calico Jack was revealed. Jack is said to have sailed to Cuba where he left Anne with friends until she had given birth. Their child did not live.
In October of 1720, not long after the couple had happily resumed their life of piracy, their adventures came to an end. They were captured off the Jamaican coast by Capt. Barnet and his crew.
...after the trial
Rackham and his crew were brought to trial, an account of which can be found in a 1721 pamphlet at London's Public Record Office. They were found guilty of piracy. Rackham himself was executed at Gallow's Point on the Palisadoes, his body gibbeted (exposed on a gallows) on a sandy cay near Port Royal that today bears his name as a reminder to all who still chose piracy as their calling. It is said that Anne visited her lover on the morning of his execution. Declaring her sorrow at seeing him in that state, she offered little consolation, reminding him, 'If you had fought like a man, you would not now be hanged like a dog.'
Mary Read and Anne Bonny, in deference to their sex, were granted a separate trial, held a week after Rackham and his crew had been hanged. After testimony from witnesses who stated that the female pirates were 'cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do any thing on board', they were found guilty. At that point, both women pled their bellies, declaring pregnancies which were subsequently said to be confirmed. Anne's baby, of course, was believed to be Rackham's. Mary is believed to have had an affair with a member of Rackham's crew.
The women received stays of execution until after the births of their children. This probably saved Anne Bonny's life, but Mary Read died of a fever while in prison at Port Royal in 1720, her unborn babe with her. They are buried in Jamaica, as recorded in the earliest registrar of burials for the parish of St. Catherine.
As for Anne, she not only cheated the gallows, she managed to disappear from recorded history. One story states that her father used his connections to arrange her return to the Carolinas. Another, that she escaped with an unknown lover. Still another story states that Anne was granted a pardon by Governor Lawes on the condition that she leave the West Indies and never return.
to Anne in reality, the fame of these female pirates lives on, perhaps
as much for what is not known about them as for what it is. Whether
believed to be vicious criminals or liberated, independent minded women
ahead of their time, Mary Read and Anne Bonny are fascinating historical
figures that straddle myth, legend and reality while still managing
to give meaning to the phrase, fact can be stranger than fiction.
Female Pirates Through History: http://www.piratesinfo.com
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted April 22, 2002
Copyright 2001. Produced by Go-Jamaica.com