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