As I have learned, a story of one cannot truly be told without the other! These women are 2 of the most famous (& fiercest) female pirates who ever sailed the high seas!! Anne Bonny & Mary Read earned their place in history, and respect of their male counterparts; fighting, drinking and cursing along with the best of them!! They are also the only 2 women to have been convicted of piracy during the 18th century at the height of the “Golden Age of Piracy” (spanning 1650-1730)!!!
Both of these future pirates were born around the same time; Anne Bonny in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, about 1698 and Mary Read in Plymouth, England about 1691. Both were born illegitimate. Anne was the love child of Mary Brennan (sometimes referred to as Peg), a servant (and mistress) in the home of her lover, William Comac, a prominent Irish lawyer. Mary was the daughter of Polly Read and her father is unknown. Polly’s husband, Alfred Read, a sailor who was lost at sea, was not the father of Mary.
Another interesting similarity between the two is that both were made to impersonate boys! With Anne, I have read in a few places, that because it was known that William had an illegitimate daughter, he dressed her as a boy and told everyone that ‘he’ was the son of a family relative who had died! Evidently he adored his daughter and wanted to have her in his home. (Not all accounts of Anne’s early life mention this).
Mary had a half brother who was the legitimate son of Alfred Read, Mark, who died at a very young age. When Alfred went missing, Mary’s mother Polly had Mary dress as a boy and pretend that he was actually Mark. Polly did this so that her mother-in-law would continue to support the family after Alfred was lost at sea! Mary continued to dress as a boy, calling herself Mark Read, long after Alfred’s mother died!!
When Anne was a young girl, William Comac separated from his wife and moved Mary and Anne to the New World. They settled in South Carolina in the early 1700’s, where their first years in their new life did not start very well; Mary died shortly after arriving and William unsuccessfully tried to be a lawyer. He began work as a merchant, which proved to be very successful, eventually buying a plantation.
Whether the tender loving hand of her mother was not there to guide her, or because the red-headed Irish girl’s fiery temper was by nature, Anne was known to be a troublesome, uncontrollable child! She was believed to of stabbed the hand of a servant at the age of 13 with a table knife! A story was also told of when a man attempted to rape her, instead of succumbing to him, she was said to of beaten him to within an inch of his life!! As a young girl, she was already proving herself to be a woman not to be messed with!!
Despite her temper, and because of her father’s wealth, she was generally thought of to be a ‘good catch’ in her day. However, at the young age of 16, Anne married a poor sailor, and part time pirate, James Bonny (and who could expect anything less of this rebellious young lady!) James had hoped of being the inheritor of his new father-in-law’s fortune, but instead, William disinherited his daughter! As repayment to her father’s response, it was believed that Anne set his plantation on fire!
Around 1714, the young couple moved to Nassau on New Providence Island. This island was a known sanctuary for pirates, called the “Pirates Republic” When they first arrived there, the island was home to over 1000 pirates and only about 400-500 legitimate citizens!! During the summer of 1718, Governor Woodes Rogers arrived, (under the direction of King George I of Great Britain) and set about ridding the island of the pirates. The ‘Kings Pardon’ was enacted to allow pirates to be pardoned for their crimes of the sea. Under the Kings Pardon, and threats of being executed if they did not take the pardon, Governor Rogers was able to eventually rid Nassau of the pirates!!!
James Bonny took the pardon, and became an informant to Governor Rogers of the activity of the pirates in the area. Anne, (who had lost respect for her husband for his weak ways, as well as becoming an informant), spent her time in the local taverns in the Bahamas, mingling with (and sleeping with) the pirates that she met there! Eventually one of the pirates, Captain Jack Rackham (Rackam), also known as “Calico Jack” for his love of brightly colored clothes, caught her eye!! They became lovers and she soon left her weak husband for the swashbuckling, brightly dressed, Captain Calico Jack!! I can imagine that compared to her husband, he must of certainly been more of the man this fiery young lady wanted!!
Long after Alfred’s mother passed away, Mary continued to dress as a boy. (She realized that life as a young man would be easier than for a young lady!)
As a teen, using the name of Mark Read, Mary became a foot-boy for a French woman. After working for the woman for a short while, she next served on a man-of-war (a British Royal Navy expression for a powerful warship from the 16th-19th century; often a ship armed with a cannon and propelled mainly by sails).
Mary then joined the British Military, where she first worked as a foot soldier; showing great courage in battle!!! She was advanced to the horse regiment where she met and fell in love with a fellow soldier, a young Flemish man. After revealing herself to the young man her true identity as a woman, they were married and used their military commission to acquire “De driehoefijzers”, or The Three Horseshoes, near Breda Castle in the Netherlands.
While married, this was the only time in Mary’s life that she lived as a woman!! Unfortunately, her husband died at an early age, and Mary lost the tavern. Knowing that in the early 1700’s that life as a man was easier than a woman, she again took up her alter identity of Mark Read, joining the military service in Holland. However, she soon realized that with it being peace time, there would be no way for her to show her prowess and advance her rank, and she ended up quitting. She joined a crew on a schooner that was heading to the West Indies.
During the crossing, the ship was overtaken by English pirates, and Mary was forced to join the crew, serving, and fighting with them for awhile. (And knowing how well Mary did in battle, I am sure she certainly showed her stuff with them as well!!) When the Kings Pardon was offered, she took it in 1718, and joined an anti-pirate privateer expedition, searching for and turning over pirates to the law.
I have read that at some point, Mary helped convince the rest of the crew, mostly former pirates like herself, to mutiny and become pirates again. And also have have read that Captain Calico Jack, along with Anne Bonny and crew, took the ship Mary was on, and bored with a legitimate life, turned back to pirating. It has been reported that Mary told them that she would much rather join them than lead the dull life of a woman!! Whichever the story, the crew of Calico Jacks ship captured her, and Mary joined the pirate crew on the ship, The Revenge!! Evidently the Revenge was a ship that the crew had captured.
Anne & Mary Reveal Their True Identities!
Now the true relationship of Anne & Mary is not clear. According to the stories I have read, Anne was attracted to “Mark”. Upon approaching ‘him’ on her feelings for ‘him’, Mary revealed that she was in fact a woman as well!!! And I have read both that they became nothing more than very good friends, and also that they became lovers. Whichever is true, we will not truly know, but upon finding out that his new member of the crew was also a woman, Captain Jack apparently was thrilled to have 2 fierce women fighting with him!
An interesting story I have read of how fierce and ruthless Mary was, she developed an attraction to one of her fellow crew mates. This crew member was reported to of been an unwilling pirate, having been captured at some point from another ship, and forced into being a pirate. An altercation happened between one of the fiercest pirates on the ship and this young man, the pirate challenged him to a duel. Mary, knowing that this young man stood no chance against the larger fiercer man, started her own altercation with the pirate, challenging him to a duel, timing it before her lovers duel. As per the ‘pirates code’ at the time, the quarter master rowed the 2 to shore, each armed with a pistol and a cutlass. They each got off one shot, both missing the other. They then clashed with their swords until the bigger pirate slipped and fell, some reports stating that after he fell, she surprised him when she tore open her bodice, showing her breasts to the pirate!! Momentarily stunned at the sight, Mary swung at the pirate, nearly decapitating him, killing him instantly!!
However, the crew did not remain intact for too long! The crew of the Revenge were named by Governor Rogers in a ‘wanted Pirates’ circular published in “The Boston Newsletter” as dangerous pirates in 1720! Captain Jonathon Barnet, a bounty hunter on the British man-of-war, the Albion, was commissioned to look for and capture them. Captain Barnes learned that the Revenge was anchored off Port Negril, Jamaica in October, 1720. Reports have said that because the crew were celebrating their recent victories with lots of hard drinking, he was able to sneak up on them and surprise them!
Only Mary & Anne stood up to them! The others either drunk and passed out in the hold, or hiding down there as some reports have stated! Mary was heard to yell down to them in the hold “If there’s a man among ye, ye come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” There were also reports that Mary fired into the hold, killing one of the crew, and injuring a few more! Despite their fierce fighting to protect their ship, they were only able to hold off for a short period of time, and were captured.
The captured crew was taken into Jamaica and tried and sentenced to be hung. Anne Bonney’s last words to her former lover were reported to be “Had you fought like a man, you need not be hung like a dog”!!! During the trial, some of the pirates stated that both women were very ruthless pirates, egging on the rest of the crew for more bloodshed and violence! Another former crew member stated that both women were both “very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything on board” Captain Calico Jack and 4 of his crew members were reported to of been hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal on November 18, 1720.
Both Anne & Mary were tried and sentenced 2 weeks later, on November 28, 1720, but ‘plead with their bellies’ a term asking for mercy because they were both pregnant. In accordance with English common law, they both received a temporary stay of execution until they gave birth.
There have been many stories as to the fate of these 2 women! The most prevalent story of Mary Read is that she died in prison on April 28th, 1721 of a violent fever, in the Spanish Town prison. This story seems the likely one, as there is a reported recording in St. Catherine’s Church in Jamaica, of her burial. Stories have also said that Mary, feigning her death, was snuck out under a burial shroud and able to escape.
Anne Bonny was said to of disappeared! There has been no record of what happened to her, neither of her release or execution has been found. Most stories say that her father was able to bribe her out of prison where she returned to South Carolina and married a man by the name of Joseph Burleigh, and went on to have 5 children; dying at the age of 81 and buried in York County, Virginia.
Other stories included that she escaped and married in Port Royal on Nassau and had several children there; also that she owned a tavern in the south of England, regaling her customers with stories of her adventures at sea as a pirate! And finally, another story says that the 2 women moved to Louisiana, where they raised their children together, being friends forever!
Most of the tales of these two women were written in a book by Captain Charles Johnson’s “A General History of Pyrates [sic]” published in 1724. However, the book did not list any sources, and facts have been unable to be verified. Evidently, many historians on pirates believe that Captain Charles Johnson was the pseudonym for Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe. And is also believed that the two women were the inspiration for his 1721 heroine, Moll Flanders!
But whatever the true fate of these 2 women, they go down in history as two of the fiercest female pirates of the 18th century!