Anne Bonny and Mary Read are two of the most well known female pirates who ever lived! They sailed the seas of the Caribbean, gaining a reputation for how fearsome they were.
Anne Bonny (then Cormac) was born in Ireland in 1702, while Mary Read was born in Plymouth around the same time (no-one knows the exact year she was born.)
Anne’s father was a wealthy man who had left his wife for her mother, who was a servant. When Anne was a child her father dressed her up as a boy and said that she was his nephew, to avoid the shame of having a child with a woman he wasn’t married to. Eventually, when Anne was a young child, their family left Ireland to travel to the ‘New World’: America.
When she grew up Anne married a poor sailor and part time pirate, James Bonny. Her dad was not best pleased and cut ties with Anne, so she and James sailed to New Providence in the Bahamas – an island that was known as a pirate haven.
While Anne took to the lifestyle like a
duck pirate to water, James became an informant, signalling the end of their marriage. By this time Anne had met the original Captain Jack: not Sparrow, not Harkness, but Rackham, known as Calico Jack because of the material his clothes were made out of. They fell for each other and, as was the practice at the time, the governor of the island declared that he could ‘buy’ her from James, which would end their marriage.
As you may imagine Anne wasn’t too pleased about this suggestion; no man could buy her! The governor ordered that she be flogged instead – her husband James was petrified that if this happened she would kill him! Luckily for everyone, her and Calico Jack took things into their own hands and escaped to sea together in a ship they stole named Revenge.
Soon she would meet the woman who would become her famous partner in crime, Mary Read, who had ended up in the same place at the same time.
Despite the difference in their lives up to that point, there was one unusual similarity in their childhoods. Mary’s father had been a sailor, but had died when she was young. In order to survive, Mary’s mother dressed her as a boy too! This was so she would continue to get money from her mother-in-law (Mary’s paternal grandmother) – who didn’t like girls!
The ploy worked, and eventually Mary was employed as a ‘footboy’ (a servant) for a wealthy French woman. She didn’t enjoy this and ran away, taking to the sea. As she grew she continued to hide her identity and dress as a man – she even managed to join the British Army and served as a soldier in Flanders. Her disguise came unstuck however when she fell in love with another soldier; she revealed to him that she was, in fact, a woman and they married shortly after.
After a happy few years running an inn, sadly Mary’s husband died. At this she went back, first to the army, and then to the sea. She sailed on a Dutch ship all the way to the Caribbean, and when her ship was boarded by pirates – she became one of them!
Shortly after this their ship was caught and Mary became a ‘privateer’, someone who was out to catch pirates! But with a ship full of other ex-pirates the good intentions didn’t last long – and soon the whole crew had mutinied, choosing to return to the pirate life.
It was around this time that Mary, still dressed as a man, and going by the name of ‘Mark’, found her way onto the Revenge.
No-one knows exactly how, but soon enough Anne Bonny realised that ‘Mark’ was in fact a woman. Some stories say that Anne was also dressed as a man, and that they found each other out! She kept Mary’s secret and the two became very close friends – so close in fact that Calico Jack started to become jealous. He didn’t know that ‘Mark’ was Mary and grew suspicious of their relationship. When he challenged them they were forced to reveal the truth about Mary. Some accounts say that Anne and Mary were indeed romantically involved with each other, and that Jack was happy to give them his blessing, but we’ll never know for certain!
Either way the two women became known across the seas for their fearsome fighting and tempers, once being described as ‘fierce hell cats’! Their reputation grew and grew; the chances are no-one would have remembered Calico Jack if it hadn’t have been for his two formidable female crew mates.
Alas, all things come to an end, and in 1720 Revenge was boarded and captured by a pirate hunter called Captain Jonathan Barnet. Accounts of the capture described how the men on board, drunk from too much rum, cowered below deck, while Anne and Mary bravely fought above. Despite their efforts the crew was caught, and all the men sentenced to hanging.
The only reason that Anne and Mary avoided the same fate was that they ‘pleaded the belly’, that is to say they were pregnant, and the law forbade the execution of pregnant women.
Unfortunately Mary soon passed away all the same, dying of a fever the following year while still in prison. No one knows exactly what happened to Anne, some say that she returned to her father, or even her husband. Others imagine that she assumed a new identity and returned to the sea to live out her days as a pirate!
Find out more:
Check out this list of ten other awesome female pirates!
Most of what we know about Anne Bonny and Mary Read comes from an account written by Charles Johnson called A General History of the Pyrates, written in 1724. You can look through an old version of this book online here, and you can still buy the book today if you wanted to read it yourself! (Available here, free on Kindle.)
Here is a short cartoon about the two women: