The Pirate Queens

This is brief story of two women fra the beginning of the 18th Century. Brief, because we actually don't know much about them. They are known today because they became pirates in what is know as The Golden Age of Piracy. Som believe mistakenly, that they were the only female pirates in history, but they were not - far from it.  Queen Teuta of Illiyria is the first woman, known to become a pirate. Her reign was between 231 and 227 BC. And there may have been other female pirates before her.  The women in question were not even the only female pirates in the 18th century, at least ten from  that century are know today.

But Mary Read and Anne Bonny were the only ones, that we know with certainty, were charged and convicted of piracy in The Golden Age of Piracy (from 1650 to 1730). It was in this period, that famous names like Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Black Bart Roberts, Henry Every, Henry Low, The Gentleman Pirate (Stede Bonnet) and Calico Jack Rackham made their living by piracy.

Mary Read was born in England around 1690. The exact date is not known. She was an illegitimate daughter of a captains widow. When her older brother, who was a legitimate son of the captain, died Mary's mother began dressing her as a boy and pretend that she was the brorher. The brother had been supported financially by the captains mother, and Mary's mother didn't want to loose this support. The grandmother was deceived and Mary and her mother lived from her support until Mary became a teenager. From that time Mary had to earn her living, which she did as a servant boy still dresses in male clothing. Later she hired as a cabin boy on a ship, but as she found the conditions too harsh, she deserted and joined the British Army. On several occasions, she excelled in battle, and nobody had any idea, that she was a woman. During a war, that some sources thinks must have been "The Nine Year War" between 1689 and 1697, she met and fell in love with a Flemish Soldier. If the sources are right she must have been a very young soldiers, and other sources claim, that in that case her year of birth must have been not later than 1680 (in whixh case she would have been 17 or 18 near the end of the war). But if that is the case, she must have been around 40 in 1720, when contemporary sources describe her as "a young woman". Other researchers think that the war in question must have been the War of the Spanish Succession, which took place betwenn 1701 and 1714. Born in 1690 it would have allowed her to participate in the last years of the war, and it fits better with the time, she became a pirate.

Anyway she had to expose her true sex, when the two of them announced that they wanted to marry. Their surprised comrades gave them a lot of presents, and the two of them left the army. They got married and bought an inn near Breda in Holland. Unfortunately the husband died soon after, and as Mary coldn't run the inn on her own, she sold it, dressed up as a man once more, and joined the Dutch army. Unfortunately for her it was peace time, so the opportunities of advancement, were few. She therefore left the army again and for the second time let hired herself on a ship, this time bound for West India.

Anne Bonny was born sometime between 1700 and 1702 in County Cork in Ireland. As Mary she was an illiegitimate child, being the daughter of a married lawyer, William Cormac and his servantgirl, Mary Brennan. Unfortunately for William, his wife didn't like the state of affairs. She published the matter, which meant that his reputation was ruined, and his possibilities as a lawyer were none existant. Together with Mary Brennan and Anne he emigated to The Colony of Carolina, where he settled in Charles Towne (now Charleston). William once more began practising as a lawyer with succes, and he bought a large plantation outside town. Mary Brennan died soon after the arrival in America, while Anne was still a child. When she was only a young teenager she became responsible for the household. She was what we today would call "a difficult child". She had a hot temper and could be violent, when she didn't get things her way. A legend tells, that 13 year old she killed a servant girl by stabbing her in the belly with a kitchen knife, for not obeying an order from Anne, and when a young man of her acquaintance tried to lay hands on her, he had to be hospitalized for months. Sixteen years old she fell in love with a young sailor, James Bonny. Her father warned her that Bonny was after her (or rather his) money, but she was stubborn and married Bonny in spite of her fathers wishes. William who wanted his daughter to grow up and become a respectable woman, got angry, threw both out of the house and disinherited Anne.

James took her to Nassau on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. New Providence was known as a haven for pirates, who bribed the governor to leave them alone. In Nassau Anne got to know a lot of priates, so when James turned sides, and bcame a n informer for the authorities, she got very disappointed and angry. With help from a good friend, that was running a brothel on the island, she managed to run away from her husband. After leaving her husband, she hooked up with a at the time rather unknown pirate, John Rackham, later known a Calico Jack. When Bonny accused her of adultery, the governor sentenced her to a whipping, but Rackham offered to buy her from her husband, so she could get a divorce. Today the thought of buying a woman free from her marriage may sound strange, but at that rime it was a recognized way of getting a diverse; "divorce by purchase". Anne though, didn't want to bought and sold as a head of cattle, so she didn't divorce Bonny, but eloped with Rackham. Rackhan mainly boarded small vessels sailing near the coast and was actually not too successful as a pirate. His carrier as a pirate was short, as was the case for most pirates of the time, but he later became known for prossibly inventing the Jolly Roger flag. Wasn't he a successful pirate, he sure knew how to live with style and spend a lot of money, and probably this was what Anne fell for. She became Rackhams mistress, and he took her on board his ship. In 1719 at the age of 17 or 18 she became pregnant and Rackham left her in Cuba, so she could have her child there.

On the way to West India, the ship Mary Read was on, was boarded by pirates, and they forced the crew, among which, Mary still dressed in mnale clothes, to join them "or die". In 1718 she accepted a pardon from the king, and hired on a privateer. A privateer had authorization from one or more countries to board an sink enemy ships, and doing so under a so-called "letter of marque", actually a license to kill enemies. Some time later the crew committed mutiny and Mary joined the mutineers, who once again became ordinary pirates. Later she left the pirate ship, and hired on a small Ductch merchant vessel, and in 1720 this ship was boarded by Jack Rackhams crew. Mary, still dressed as a man, joined Callico Jacks crew. At this time, Anne Bonny was still in Cuba with her newborn child. Read,was still dressed as a man, and nobody knew the truth of her sex. She fell in love with a young navigator who had been forced into Rackham's service against his will. One day the navigator got into a fight with an expericenced pirate. The pirate challenged him to a duel. As Mary knew that her beloved wouldn't stand a chance against the pirate, she made sure, that she herself got into an argument with the pirate, challenged him to a duel and killed him. When her lover arrived for his duel, his opponent was already dead. Mary continued her affair with the navigator, and nobody else discovered her sex.

Shortly after having given birth Anne Bonny returned to Calico Jacks ship in Nassau. What happened to the child is not known today. Some thinks that it was dead at birth, other thinks that Anny simply left it on Cuba. Back in Nassau she finally got divorced from James Bonny. Later she "married" John Rackham while at sea, and as a captain he himself performed the wedding ceremony. In spite of her relationship with Jack, Anne got interested in a handsome young sailor, but when she made a pass at him, Mary Read had to reveal her sex, but made her promise not to tell anyone.  The two of them probably had a short lived lesbian relationship, but when the jealous Jack surprised the two of them together, and threatened to cut her new lovers throat, they revealed Mary's sex to him as well. Completely against the spirit of the time, according to which women aboard ships was the sure way to doom for the ship and crew, he allowed them both to stay onboard, which caused some protests from the rest of the crew. The ship returned to Nassau and the crew was mustered out and returned to their homes.

Not long after this, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who may have had a relationship between them, stole a ship called Revenge in Nassau Harbor, recruited a new crew, who from the beginning was aware of two women being amongst them. They wenmt to sea once more and resumed their piracy. Both Anne and Mary were dressed in female attire, and only when attacking other ships, did they dress as men. Somehow though the British Governor of the Bahamas, got wind of their gender and they were decribed as female on a wanted poster in mid 1720.

In October 1720 Revenge was back in Nassau and the crew celebrated by having a binge with the crew from another pirate ship that was also harbored in Nassau. During the binge several cans of local rum were consumed. While the binge was underway, Revenge was attacked by an English privateer commanded by a famous pirate hunter, Jonathan Barnet, sent by the governor of Jamaica to once and for all end the piracy emanating from Nassau. When Barnet fired a broadside agains Revenge, the drunken crew and their guests fled down below deck, and only the two women and one more pirate stayed on deck to defend the ship. Mary Read got so angry with the drunken sailors, that she fired several shots to the cabin, killing one and wounding a couple of others. The three remainen on deck fought bravely against the English but at last they had to surrender the ship, and they were overpowered by Barnes' crew. Rackham and the crew surrendered and aske for clemency, but Barnes arrested them and brought them to Jamaica. Here everybody was imprisoned, and when they were put on trial, everyone including the two women, were sentencend to be hanged for piracy.

Mary Read and Anne Bonny both "pleaded their bellies", that is they claimed that they were pregnant, and according to British law at the time, that meant that they could not be hanged until the babies were born. It is thought that Mary Read may have been pregnant with the navigator that she had been in love with before before meeting Anne, while Anne is supposed to have been pregant with Jack for a second time. The trial took place in Spanish Town, Jamaica in 1720, and on November 18th, John "Calico Jack" Rackham and the crew were hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal, Jamaica. Mary Read died sometime in 1721 from "fever in connection with childbirth". What happened to the child is not known. It may have been stillborn or it may have been given up for adoption. There are no records of the child being buried, so the latter might be the most likely explanation.

Whatever happened to Anne Bonny is not known today. She simply disappeared from the records without a trace. Some think that she was released and returned to her former husband. Some think that she went to sea and took up piracy again under an assumed name that was never discolsed. Most agree though, that her father bribed officials and prison staff, and had her smuggled out of prison and brought her with him back to Charles Towne. In Charles Towne she married a man called Joseph Burleigh and the two of them had 10 children. According to this story, that is quoted in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, she lived until she was around 80, and died on April 20th 1782. She was buried in Charles Towne on April 25th the same year. The story sounds likely as it is known that even though he had disinherited her, her father had helped her on other occasions when she was in trouble. He was wealthy and had good connections in Jamaica and may very well have been able to get her out of prison.

The whole "affair" lasted less than a year but in spite of this, the two girls are mentioned in several books about pirates. Movies have been made and they appear in several novels, among the latter James L. Nelson's 400 page novel "The only life that mattered" from 2004. Adam Ant mentions Anne Bonny and Mary Read in his song, 5 Guns West, and some short movies telling the story can be seen on YouTube, like for instance: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

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