Women’s History Month: Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Who among us hasn’t watched The Goonies and dreamed of finding a long lost pirate treasure? 

Snappy nicknames! Life on the high seas! Gold and jewels and treasure maps marked with an X!

Yo ho ho and a bottle of lies. 

Planks and buried treasure, it’s the stuff of Hollywood and Disney. But pirates? Pirates are real, and though historically they’ve overwhelmingly been men, there were women on the high seas swabbing decks and and yo ho ho-ing, cursing, drinking–and fighting–with the best of them.

By all accounts, Anne Cormac took the rebellious teen thing to a whole different level. Maybe it had to do with the fact that her father had tried to pass her off as a boy for years. Maybe not. Rumors of stabbing a servant girl and beating an overly aggressive suitor half to death swirled around her. She was finally disowned by her father after she married a poor sailor by the name of Bonny. No sweat off Anne’s back. She and her sailor boy moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, where James Bonny found a new career: informant. Anne didn’t like her husband’s new job as an official tattle-tale and seems to have spent the majority of her time living up to her earlier reputation: drinking in the island’s saloons and seducing pirates.

It was in Nassau that Anne met–and started fan-girling–“Calico” Jack Rackham. Eventually Anne left Bonny behind and ran off with Jack, joining his crew. Accounts differ as to whether Anne lived openly as a woman on board, or if she concealed her sex. However, all seem to agree that when Anne partook of pirate pillaging or armed conflict, she dressed like a man.

Across the ocean, Mary Read had also been dressed as and passed off as a boy, first at her mother’s urging to collect an inheritance and later to join the British military. Mary eventually fell in love with a Flemish soldier and used her military pension to buy, of all things, a pub. But like Anne, Mary’s married bliss didn’t last. Mary’s husband died and Mary went back to dressing, and by all accounts living, as a man. Leaving Europe behind, she set sail on a ship bound for the West Indies to seek her fortune.

Anne and Mary: two ships passing in the night…except instead of passing, the women’s lives collided. 

There is some disagreement as to when exactly Mary joined Anne and Jack, but join she did. Randy Anne, assuming Mary was a man, made an amorous play, her seduction was kiboshed when, as legend goes, Mary bared her breasts and revealed herself to be a woman.

Apparently there was another breast baring episode when Mary let Calico Jack in on the ruse in order to avoid a throat slitting. It seems Jack was jealous that Anne had found a new man. There’s some confusion as to whether the rest of the crew knew of Mary’s identity, but she took up with another man on board, so at least one of them knew that Mark Read was, in reality, Mary Read.

During their brief career as pirates, the two women often fought side by side, dressed in “billowing jackets and long trousers and handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads, wielding a machete and pistol in either hand”. According to witnesses, Anne and Mary swore and cursed with the best of them and were willing to do “anything on board”.

In 1720, after an epic night of yo-ho-ho-and numerous bottles of rum–Anne and Mary were on deck when they identified a sloop belonging to the governor. The pirates–at least the ones who weren’t too drunk, put up a half-hearted fight, but outnumbered, Calico Jack ordered a surrender. 

But Thelma and Louise? They refused the order.

The two women stayed on deck, facing the governor’s men alone. Legend has it that Mary, so incensed by the cowardice of the men, stopped fighting and yelled into the hold “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!”, before she fired blindly into the space, killing one man. 

Despite her attempts to shame her pirate pals into action, the crew was captured. Calico Jack was tried and hanged, but Anne and Mary were granted a brief reprieve. Turns out they were both pregnant.  

Mary Read died in prison in 1721, possibly due to pregnancy complications. And Anne? Well, no one quite knows what happened to Anne Bonny. Some have her dying, others claim she used her father’s connections to secure a pardon, leaving her pirating days behind to marry and have a passel of children. 

I don’t know. I just don’t see it. It doesn’t seem like Anne at all…

Yo ho ho and Happy Women’s History Month!

Talk to me, Goose.

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