Anne Bonny & Mary Read: Fierce And Famous Female Pirates
By Todd R. Sciore
Pop culture has dramatically romanticized the life of a pirate and for immediate proof you don’t need to look any further than the blockbuster Pirates Of The Caribbean films with their affable protagonist Captain Jack Sparrow. Professional sports franchises have also adopted the swashbuckler aesthetic with teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Raiders and South Florida’s own Tampa Bay Buccaneers all donning pirate inspired logos. In reality, the pirate’s life was not always a rum soaked free-for-all of endless treasure hunts and debauchery. While a marauding band of pirates may have lived life on their own terms, their life expectancy wasn’t very long. If wounded, early 18th century medicine was still primitive and if convicted, the use of capital punishment was more prevalent.
According to author and historian David Cordingly’s Under The Black Flag- The Romance And The Reality Of Life Among The Pirates, two of history’s more popular pirates were not only women but were tough customers “armed with pistols and cutlasses and shouted and swore at everyone in sight”. Coincidentally, both were affiliated with Captain John “Calico Jack” Rackham who was noted as “a small-time pirate” when compared to Edward “Blackbeard” Teach or Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts and that, Rackham’s primary claim to fame was “his association with female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, whose lives were considerably more adventurous and interesting than his own”.
Born near County Cork, Ireland, Anne Bonny was the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer named William Cormac and his maid/mistress Mary Brennan. While there are varying accounts of Anne’s childhood, some say that in order to avoid scandal, she was often dressed up as a boy with occasional attempts to pass her off as her father’s law clerk or the son of a deceased relative. They subsequently immigrated to America settling in South Carolina where her father tried reviving his law career but eventually found success as a merchant and purchased a plantation.
Rebellious from the start, Anne was naturally attracted to the bad boy type and, against her father’s wishes, she ran off to Nassau in the Bahamas with a minor league pirate named James Bonny who eyed her father’s fortune as his potential treasure chest. Disinherited by her father and disenchanted with James after he turned informant in exchange for a King’s pardon, the fiery red-head met a more dashing pirate in the form of Calico Jack. Bonny once again dressed as a male and became one of the crew.
Mary Read was born in Plymouth, England circa 1690 and she too began life as an illegitimate child. She also spent the better part of her youth impersonating a boy (a deceased half-brother named “Mark”) in order for her mother to obtain financial assistance from an otherwise coldhearted mother-in-law who favored male children. The ruse worked; however, Mary continued the bizarre charade well after the woman had passed away. Eventually she married and lived life as a woman; however, after the untimely death of her husband she reclaimed her supposed male alter ego of “Mark Read” and took to the high seas. As fate would have it, Read would also cross paths with Calico Jack as “after further adventures, she found herself on the ship commanded by Rackham”. She also joined his crew and became a fierce fighter.
In a bit of O’Henryesque irony, legend has it that Anne found herself attracted to the new pirate named Mark and secretly revealed to “him” that she was really a woman. In what was probably an awkward moment for both, Mark was then forced to reveal that he was really a woman too and “to avoid any further misunderstandings, Calico Jack was let into the secret”. The two ladies became fast friends and rose to a mythical fame having been the only two women known to be tried, convicted and sentenced to hanging for piracy during the eighteenth century. Fortunately for Bonny and Read, they cunningly held a trump card up their sleeves to delay their sentence: Both revealed that they were pregnant and in accordance with English common law, they were both reprieved only adding to their cult figure status.
For those of you looking to channel your inner pirate, the long running and popular Gasparilla Pirate Fest will take place on January 27-28, 2017 in Tampa. Proceeds from some events benefit the Gasparilla Community Fund and The Humane Society of Tampa Bay.