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Mistresses Of The Sea
Female Pirates Mary Read & Anne Bonny

This 1971 fifteen-cent stamp bares an illustration of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, with the title page from the pamphlet on their trial.
Stamp courtesy of Joseph Mahfood

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.

As 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 out their desire for adventure in a man's world.
Rebecca Tortello
'If you had fought like a man, you would not now be hanged like a dog.' Anne Bonny.
Courtesy of Fern Canyon Press.
Illustration from book cover of 'The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read' by Tamara Eastman and Constance Bond.

Looking for Adventure

Mary Read
Mary Read was born in London, England in the late seventeenth century to a sea captain and his wife. Historical documents claim that Mary lived most of her childhood disguised as a boy.

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.

While 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 Bonny
Anne was born the illegitimate child of a maid, Mary Brennan, and her employer, William Cormac, a lawyer, in County Cork, Ireland somewhere between 1697 and 1700. He took his mistress and their child with him to America, and settled in Charleston, South Carolina and eventually became wealthy enough to own a plantation.

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.

Whatever happened 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.

Some accounts have it that James Bonny, rather than having agreed to a deal with Anne prior to her having run off with Rackham, appeared at one point while Anne was with Rackham to reclaim her.  He kidnapped her and brought her bound and naked before the governor, charged with the felony of deserting her husband.  Bonny suggested "divorce by sale," as an option, hoping to profit by the proceeds of such an auction. But Anne refused to be as she is said to have stated, "bought and sold like a hog or cattle".  In fact she is said to have expressed herself so vehemently that no buyers dared step forward to claim such a "hellcat."  The governor was forced to release her on condition that she return to her rightful master, but James, who only wanted the money, fled in terror.  Mary, who by this time was friendly with Anne, had to persuade Anne not to shoot the governor. Instead, together they set out in a sloop in pursuit of James who eventually escaped. The female pirates did, however, get their revenge by burning his turtle business to the ground. (Rictor Norton, "Lesbian Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read", The Great Queens of History, updated 8 Jan. 2000.   http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/pirates.htm)

-The history of piracy dates back more than 3000 years.  The Greek historian Plutarch, writing in about 100 A.D., gave the oldest clear definition of piracy: those who attack without legal authority not only ships, but also maritime cities. Descriptions of piracy can be found in Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.  In medieval England, pirates were known as sea thieves.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates were also known as buccaneers, filibusters, freebooters and once granted “letters of marque” by England and France which guaranteed authority to act against hostile nations, they became known as privateers – unlike piracy, a legal profession.

- Some historians regard Read and Bonny as homosexuals although evidence of their homosexuality is not clear cut. At most, according to Rictor Norton (2000), they were “bisexual.” -          Some historians doubt that both women were actually pregnant when they claimed to be.

Some Female Pirates Through History: http://www.piratesinfo.com
Ch’iao K’uo Fü Jën — Chinese legend from c. 600 B.C.
Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus (in Greece) — 480 B.C., Mediterranean.
Princesses Sela  (420 A.D.) and Rusla— c. 420 A.D., Norwegian Vikings.
Lady Killigrew — 1530-1570, Atlantic.
Sadie the Goat — 1800s, New York State.
Catherine Hagerty —1806, Australia and New Zealand.

Black, C. V. (1966).  Tales of Old Jamaica.  Kingston: Carlong Publishers Ltd., p. 62-77.  Norton, R. (2000). "Lesbian Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read",
The Great Queens of History, updated 8 Jan. 2000.   http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/pirates.htm. 
Wilczyñski, K. (2002) History of Piracy,  A Biography of Anne Bonny , A Biography of Mary Read. http://www.piratesinfo.com
Jones, D. J. (2002). Ahoy, Matey! That Pirate Has Breasts! http://www.piratesinfo.com

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Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
Jamaica's Botanical Gardens
All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
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A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
Jamaican Coffee - A beverage of distinction
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Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
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The Founding Of the People's National Party
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A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams

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Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Germans
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The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
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Printing in Jamaica
Museums in Jamaica
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Jamaican Horse racing History
A Time to Live...Jamaican Birth Rituals
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Deadly superstitions

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted April 22, 2002
Copyright 2001. Produced by Go-Jamaica.com