We all love a good tale of swashbuckling. But they tend to be dominated by stereotypes — not just of eyepatches and peg legs, but that men ruled the high seas. Let’s take a moment to reflect on two of the leading ladies of piracy’s Golden Age.
Born out of wedlock in 1690 while her father was off seafaring, Mary Read was dressed by her mother as a boy. This might have been done to disguise her as her deceased brother. If so, it was an effective ruse; she would grow up finding work as a boy.
It also set the tone for some of her future. She joined the military by — yup — disguising herself as a man. While in the British army, she fell in love with a soldier, and they would marry. Read settled down and lived as a woman until her husband died.
Eager for new adventure, Read followed in her father’s footsteps and took to the high seas. Disguising herself as a man once again, she joined a vessel that would be taken by pirates. Read took a liking to the pirate life. In 1720, dressed as a man, she joined a ship led by John “Calico Jack” Rackham and his companion, Anne Bonny. This would be a good time to introduce her.
Consider her introduced. Bonny was born in Ireland and, like Read, was born outside of marriage. Also like Read: she began playing dress-up as a child; her father, ashamed to have fostered a child outside of marriage, disguised her as the son of a friend and apprenticed her at his law offices.
Dad would eventually lighten up, and he brought Anne and her mother to the New World, where they settled in to Charleston, South Carolina.
Anne fell in love with a small-time pirate named James Bonny. They married, but James would eventually turn his back on the pirating world by becoming an informant to the governor of Rhode Island.
Anne, it would appear, found that quite lame. Having made some connections in the pirate world herself, she left James and ran away with Calico Jack, with whom she fell in love. Ironically, according to some historians, Calico Jack may have been on the verge of accepting a pardon and turning in his pirate hat (bandana?) from that very same Rhode Island governor before meeting Bonny and opting for a plunderful romance.
The trio had a short-lived run together after Calico Jack took Reed’s ship, but the popular story, at least, was the stuff of an HBO drama (attn: HBO). As legend has it, Bonny took something of a liking to the strapping lad who was, in fact, Read — prompting Read to reveal herself as a woman. The ladies grew close, but Calico Jack became jealous of all the time Bonny spent with what he thought to be a male pirate. To quell his jealousy and keep him from killing Read, he was let in on the secret too.
After a couple months, Calico Jack, Bonny and Read were captured in October 1720 after their ship was attacked by the British Navy around Jamaica. Legend has it that only Jack, Bonny and Read fought against the British while the rest of the pirate crew hid in the deck below.
Rackham was hanged the next month. Read and Bonny were found guilty of piracy soon after Rackham’s execution. They both claimed they were pregnant — Bonny may have claimed she was carrying Jack’s son — and their sentences were stayed. (Bonny had previously given a child to Jack, which the couple would kindly leave in Cuba to apparently never be heard from again.)
But Read would soon die of a fever in prison in 1721. Bonny’s ending is more mysterious. She was never executed, and it’s unclear what ever actually happened to her, but most theories seem to suggest her rich lawyer dad helped get her home.
I should acknowledge that the account above is the popular story. While that doesn’t necessarily make it untrue, and while historians generally agree that Bonny, Read, and Calico Jack sailed the seas for a little bit together, there are major points of disagreement among historians over a number of factors. Among them: whether both Bonny and Read dressed as men, if just Read did, or if neither did; and whether Bonny really had eyes for a Read-in-mens-clothing. And, some tales have it that the duo may have been romantically involved even once they learned they were both women — which, now that I mention it, sounds like an even better fit for that HBO drama.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons