Hollywood depicts female pirates as swashbuckling women as fierce as their male counterparts, which many people think is a product of the fertile minds of the writers. Not so, as there are many recorded instances of women being on pirate ships who were as ruthless as any of the men.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read, when captured and tried for their crimes, pleaded ‘their bellies’ as both were pregnant at the time of their trial and, under English Law, could not be sent to the gallows. These two are the most famous, perhaps because they both served on the same ship and were eventually brought to trial in Jamaica.
Anne Bonny was reputedly the illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer and the family maid who fled to America after the scandal of Anne’s birth. In her early teens Anne eloped with her pirate lover James Bonny, who turned informer when the governor of the Bahamas offered pardons to all pirates. Disgusted by his weakness she then tried a variety of men but finally took up with Calico Jack Rackham, named for the striped trousers he always wore. He dressed her in men’s clothing and together they went pirating aboard a merchant ship stolen from Nassau harbour.
Dressed in pantaloons and wearing a cutlass, Anne fought like fury and more than held her own with any male opponent.
Aboard one of the many ships Calico Jack and Anne Bonny captured was a young Dutch sailor who soon confided to Anne that she too was a woman in a man’s clothing. This was Mary Read, whose mother had passed her off as a boy and Mary saw no reason to reveal the fraud until later in life, thinking that a man’s life was easier than a woman’s and consequently served in both the Dutch and the English navies.
Soon after being discovered Mary agreed to sign the pirate ‘articles’ aboard Calico Jack’s ship and both women, as witnesses swore at their trial, “fought ferociously in combat dressed in men’s jackets and long trousers with handkerchiefs tied about their heads”. A female witness added that “they cursed and swore at the men to murder me to prevent my bearing witness against them”. The master of a sloop which the pirates took testified that “Anne Bonny had a gun in her hand and both women were very profligate, cursing and swearing and ready to do anything”.
Both of them were captured in October 1720, when a British Naval vessel surprised Calico Jack’s pirates off the Jamaican coast. The pirates, together with Calico Jack, were all drunk and hid in the hold while the two women fought their attackers like hellcats with pistols, cutlasses and machetes whilst screaming at their shipmates, “Come up and fight like men!”.
On his way to the gallows with his men, Calico Jack is reported to have said, “If instead of these weaklings I’d only had more women with me!”.
Mary Read died of fever in prison before her baby could be born whilst Anne Bonny went free with her child a year later.
by Terry Took © 2015
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.