Warrior women: Mary Read, Pirate of the Caribbean

Mary Read was an English woman who also served in the English military successfully masquerading as a man and saw action as a soldier fighting the French. She later gained fame and notoriety when she and Anne Bonny were convicted of piracy and sentenced to hang. Both women gained a stay of execution  by claiming they were in child.

The masquerade begins

Mary was the illegitimate daughter of the widow of a sea captain and her date of birth is disputed but thought to be about 1690.  After her legitimate older brother, Mark, died, her mother would dress Mary in boy’s clothes. This was in order to pass her off as her legitimate son so that she could continue receiving money from his grandmother. This masquerade was apparently successful until Mary became a teenager then she managed to get employed as a foot-boy and later got a job on a ship still dressing as a boy.

Mary becomes a soldier

Later, still disguised as a male she joined the army as a soldier fighting the French possibly during the Nine Years War, or possibly the War of the Spanish Succession. Whichever it was she proved herself in battle as an able soldier and during this time fell in love with a Flemish soldier apparently then making her gender public and not just to her husband.  She received gifts from her former comrades and their commission from the army to invest in buying an inn near Breda in the Netherlands to called De drie hoefijzers or The Three Horseshoes. The death of her husband saw Read once again donning male clothing and signing up with the Dutch military, but it was a time of peace and there was no fighting to be had.

By all accounts by the way she dressed and her behaviour Mary Read made a convincing man seeming to desire to be in the thick of the action regardless of danger to herself. Quitting the soldier’s life she joined a  ship heading for the West Indies.

Becoming a pirate

The ship was attacked by pirates enroute and she was forced to join them.  Her pirate career came to a temporary end when  she took the King’s pardon in about 1718-19.  But trouble seemed to follow her and she that came to an end when she joined a crew in mutiny breaking the pardon.  She joined up with the infamous Calico Jack whose real name was John Rackham, and the Anne Bonny  a notorious female pirate. Keeping up her deception she managing to convince both that she was a man, a least to start with. Together, the three of them stole  an armed sloop anchored in Nassau, in the Bahamas.

Although Rackham and Anne were lovers it was said that she was attracted to Read and tried to seduce her, which forced Read to reveal the secret of her gender to her.  Some say they became lovers but Calico Jack, not yet knowing her secret grew jealous of the attention she was giving Mary.  Thinking Read was a man he confronted the two and Bonny then revealed the truth to allay his jealousy.  All of her other shipmates believed Read  to be a man with the exception of one who became the father of her child.  His name is not known though he had been a passenger on one of the ships they had captured.

She joined Calico Jack and Bonny in several successful attacks on shipping in the Caribbean and they accumulated a substantial amount of booty.  While celebrating their success on board ship along with another pirate crew, while at anchor off Negril Point, Jamaica,  they were surprised by bounty hunter, Captain Jonathan Barnet in an armed sloop. Read and Bonny were on deck and saw the sloop approaching and shouted a warning.  Most of the pirates were too drunk to fight and when Barnet fired a volley that incapacitated their vessel most of them hid below deck in the hold.

Taken into custody

Read and Bonny along with an unnamed pirate  put up a fierce fight against Barnet’s men managing to hold them back for a time.  Calico Jack called on Barnet for quarter and surrendered. Read, disgusted at her shipmate’s lack of fight allegedly shot into the hold killing one and wounding others.  Inevitably Barnet’s men overcame the three defenders and the entire pirate crew was taken into custody.

Read, Bonny, Calico Jack and the rest of the pirates were taken to Spanish Town, Jamaica and put on trial. At the time the trial was a sensation because of the two female pirates on trial.  All the pirates including Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were sentenced to hang and with the exception of Read and Bonny all were hung.

Read and Bonny pleaded that they were pregnant and were given a stay of execution until the babies were born.  Read beat the hangman by dying of fever in prison and her death is recorded in the records of St Catherine’s church in Jamaica, April 28th, 1721.   What became of Bonny is not known though it is thought her father may have paid a ransom for her release.  The body of Calico Jack was left hanging on the gibbet as a warning to other pirates. No record of her baby had been found so it is thought she died before it was born.

End of the masquerade

What ever may be said of her crimes Mary Read certainly lived an extraordinary life but it cannot be helped but wonder what her life may have been like if her mother had not dressed her up and masqueraded her as a boy from such an early age.  Did she feel like she was a man trapped in a female body, or did she become trapped by the masquerade?

© 29/03/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright March 3rd 2016 zteve t evans

Warrior Women: Anne Bonny, Pirate of the Caribbean


Anne Bonny – By Anushka.Holding (Own work)  – CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Anne Bonny the female pirate

Anne Bonny was certainly not like most women of her era breaking just about all the social conventions there were. The history, legends and folklore that surround pirates of the sea throughout the ages, paint a picture of a male dominated world with most women playing a traditional, subservient, non-aggressive role where they do appear.  Anne Bonny was different. She and shipmate, Mary Read, gained fame as female pirates actively engaged in piracy in the Caribbean alongside the infamous Calico Jack.

Early years

She was born Anne McCormac in Kinsale, County Cork, in Ireland in around 1700.  Her mother, Mary Brennan was a maid employed by William McCormac, a lawyer, who although married to another woman, was Anne’s father.  To escape his in-laws wrath  McCormac moved to London with Mary and their daughter.  They began dressing his daughter as a boy and called her Andy in an attempt to hide from his wife’s family. Whether this ploy was to affect Anne in later life is uncertain but the disguise was eventually discovered. McCormac moved  across the Atlantic Ocean North America to settle in Charles Towne (Charleston), South  Carolina, taking Mary and their daughter with him. In the process he also changed his name to Cormac in the hope of finding a fresh start. He succeeded in building a new career and business as a lawyer and plantation owner.

Red hair and a fiery temper

By all accounts Cormac loved his daughter dearly and when Mary died she took over the running of the household at an early age.  At 13 years of age Anne was said to be an attractive girl with red hair and a fiery temper to match.  Some accounts say that later on she stabbed and killed a maid with a table knife and had almost beaten an attempted rapist to death. She also became the center of a string of accusations and rumors of her drinking in taverns and sleeping with drunks and fishermen.


Such rumors damaged her father’s business and he wanted her to settle down and to marry a local man but she rebelled. In 1718 she married James Bonny, a penniless sailor and petty pirate who may have had more designs on her father’s wealth than her.  Her father, did not approve of the marriage and disowned her.  It was rumoured that Bonny retaliated by setting fire to his plantation though there appears little evidence to support this.

What is known is the that Anne and James Bonny moved to Nassau, on Providence Island and known as the Republic of Pirates, a haven for English pirates.  They mixed freely with pirates and vagabonds and to her dismay her husband became an informant for Governor Woodes Rogers as a means of earning money.

Anne had become friends with many pirates and appeared to spend a lot of time carousing with them in bars and seducing them.  On one occasion she was caught in bed with one by her husband.  There was one named Pierre who was a well known homosexual.  He ran a popular brothel and helped her to leave her husband and to meet John Rackham, a notorious pirate.  He was known as Calico Jack, because of his preference for colorful clothing.

Calico Jack

The two became lovers and Rackman offered to pay her husband to divorce her which at the time was a recognised practice.  Bonny, through jealousy, spite or some other unknown reason, refused the offer. Later, she gave birth to Rackman’s  son in Cuba.  It is not clear what happened to the boy though some stories say that he was abandoned while other say he was left with Rackham’s family, or her own.

Anne then divorced her husband and rejoined Calico Jack to live the life of a pirate.  They were joined by Mary Read a female pirate who dressed and masqueraded as a man. It is not clear if Calico Jack and Anne were aware of this at the time though they certainly were later.   The three of them stole a ship anchored in Nassau harbor called the Revenge and recruited a crew of suitable cutthroats to man her and spent several months attacking and pillaging smaller ships raking in a considerable fortune.

Most pirates and sailors considered it bad luck to have women on board ships but Calico Jack and his crew did not appear to hold that superstition. Anne and Mary did not join the pirate ship for a pleasure cruise and took part in the fighting shoulder to shoulder with their male shipmates, who were said to respect their fighting prowess and combativeness. In the case of Mary Read they may not have known she was a woman to begin with because she hid the fact.   It is thought that Anne knew later and that she and Mary became lovers and that also Calico Jack knew.  In the case of Anne she openly wore female clothing only changing into male clothing when fighting was expected making no secret of her gender.

According to one story about her she obtained a mannequin such as used by dressmakers and smeared it with fake blood to give it a bloody corpse like appearance. As they approached a French vessel she stood over the fake corpse wielding an axe which supposedly persuaded the crew to surrender without a fight.

As her infamy grew, Governor Rogers posted her name in the Wanted Pirates circular that was published in the The Boston News-Letter.  Despite her growing notoriety as a female pirate of the Caribbean she was never the commander of her own ship and despite her successes with Rackham, Mary Read and the Revenge their luck was about to run out.

Bounty hunters

While Calico Jack and the crew of the Revenge were hosting a party during October 1720 when they were attacked by a ship under the command of bounty hunter, Jonathan Barnet, holding a commission from the Governor of Jamaica, Nicholas Lawes.  Bonny and Read were on deck and noticed an unknown ship approaching alongside.  Realizing it was bounty hunters they shouted a warning to the rest of the crew, most of whom were too incapacitated through drink to respond and hid below deck.  A few did respond, including Rackham but they were too drunk to offer much resistance. Rackham cried out for quarter and he and his men surrendered. Bonny and Read refused to surrender and put up a fierce fight and managed to hold off Barnet’s men for a brief time. They too were eventually overpowered and captured along with Calico Jack and the rest of the crew.

A sensational trial

They were all taken to Jamaica where they were tried and sentenced to hang by Governor Lawes.  The trial of two women for piracy caused a sensation at the time with women prisoners  being reviled in general.  These were two who had broken through from the traditional role of women to forge different and even dangerous identities in more ways than one and their trial caused a sensation.  Apart from the challenge of their murderous behaviour they also challenged the traditional subservient and domestic role of women in their time.  Bonny was allowed to see Rackham before his execution and reputedly, the last words she spoke to him were, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”

Both Bonny and Read begged for mercy pleading their bellies which was a temporary stay of execution that allowed the baby to be born in accordance to English Common Law.   Read died in prison possibly from a fever contracted during childbirth.


What happened to Bonny is not certain.  There appears to be no record of her execution or release.  It is speculated that her father may have paid a ransom for her, or she may have returned to James Bonny, or even taken up piracy again under a new name.  It is thought that the likeliest scenario was that her father paid a ransom for her and married her to a man from Virginia named Joseph Burleigh (spelling varies) and lived into her eighties producing eight children.  Although some records do tend to support this it is not absolutely certain.

© 02/02/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright February 2nd, 2016 zteve t evans