Lady Pirates of the TCI
The astonishing story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
By Ben Stubenberg
Who hasn’t dreamed of being a swashbuckling pirate in the Caribbean, living life wild and free on the high seas with the tantalising prospect of getting rich with treasure? The romantic imagery has been woven into our collective imaginations from childhood, starting with Captain Hook and Peter Pan and on to the popular movie series, “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But these fictional tales of adventure and derring-do don’t come close to the true exploits of the most compelling and unlikely pirates of all: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
If you are in the Turks & Caicos Islands right now, you may be standing on the same white sand beaches and looking out over the same turquoise waters where legend has it the notorious female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read did 300 years ago during the Golden Age of Piracy (1713–1725). Here in this string of stunning cays and islands, Anne and Mary and their fellow pirates cruised, plotted, partied, fought, loved and probably procreated.
“Pirate Cay,” now known by the gentler name of Parrot Cay, where today many celebrities keep their second homes, is reputed to be their base for raids and recuperation. The narrow channels, dense mangroves and hidden coves provided the perfect pirate’s lair. The treacherous, hull-ripping, barrier coral reef just offshore gave them one more layer of protection from any pursuers while they kept lookout for passing Spanish galleons and merchants’ vessels to attack.
Who were these seafaring women that lived and thrived in a decidedly man’s world? And what was their relationship? Fortunately, accounts of the time and a pirate trial have given us exceptional insight that otherwise might never be known. While there are many versions of their short, compelling careers yet to be verified by historians, there are enough strands to weave together a portrait of two astonishing women ahead of their time.
Anne Bonny was born “on the wrong side of the blanket” in the town of Kinsale in County Cork, Ireland around 1698, the offspring of a lawyer, William Cormac, and the family maid, Mary Brennan. The scandalous affair erupted into a contentious divorce proceeding initiated by the scorned wife that may have resulted in a criminal conviction of Brennan. One account has Brennan and her daughter Anne sent to a penal colony in the Carolinas in the American colonies but soon joined by her lover Cormac, who was prepared to begin a new life with Mary and their baby daughter. It is known that Cormac started a rice plantation outside Charleston, a rapidly growing commercial city and the center of slave trade in the American South, and became quite successful and prominent.
Anne’s mother died when she was 13 years old, leaving her father to raise her. By Anne’s teenage years, she had become a red-headed beauty, headstrong, and, reportedly, with a fiery temper. Cormac had no doubt hoped to find a proper suitor for marriage so that she could settle down into the life of a Southern belle. But Anne had other ideas, preferring the boisterous company of a less refined class, much to her father’s dismay.
In 1718, at the age of 20, Anne did marry, but to a poor, feckless drifter and sailor (and possibly part-time pirate) named James Bonny, prompting Cormac to cut her off from any inheritance. Undaunted, Anne and James left Charleston for New Providence, now Nassau, in the Bahamas, then a rough- and-tumble town filled with unruly ex-pirates having what we might call today, “career transition adjustment issues.”
Pirates had been useful to the European nations at war with each other. With so-called “Letters of Marque,” Great Britain and other nations turned pirates into privateers with free reign to attack enemy merchant vessels with impunity. The policy was essentially a military “force multiplier” tool, but difficult to control.
The Peace of Utrecht agreement in 1713 brought an end to the conflicts between the alliance of Britain, Netherlands, and Austria on one side and France and Spain on the other. It also threw some 1,500 privateers out of “work,” turning them into freelance pirates loyal to no one. These untethered pirates began posing a serious threat to the emerging lucrative three-point trans-Atlantic trade between England, Africa and the colonies in the Americas. Rather than expend energy and treasure fighting pirates, a frustrated King George I decided in 1717 to offer them an unconditional pardon if they would give up their cut-throat, menacing ways forever and follow the rule of British law. Many pirates took pardon but few found conventional, “honest” living to their liking and it was hardly lucrative.
Anne thrived among the brawling, rambunctious misfits of New Providence, but James chose to live a different way by working as a stool pigeon for the British governor, spying on talk and plots by pardoned ex-pirates who regretted their decision.
The snitching ways of James may well have soured Anne’s attraction to him, along with her own free-spirit inclination to choose her men, damn the social norms of her era. Soon enough, Anne caught the eye of the most colorful ex-pirate in town, “Calico” Jack Rackham. His courtship with Anne is described in Pirates of the West Indies as taking her the way he attacked a prize: with “no time wasted, straight up alongside . . . every gun brought to play, and the prize boarded.”
An enraged and humiliated James Bonny, who clearly did not stand a chance, attempted at first to “sell” Anne to Calico Jack. At the time, a husband sometimes did this in such circumstances to get out of paying support for their wayward wives and maybe landing some compensation for the break-up.
Though not authorized by law, only custom, Calico Jack was apparently willing to pay, but for some reason the “deal” fell through. A court record shows that Anne was sentenced to flogging in the town square for adultery, but there is no evidence this was actually carried out. If Anne, an independent-minded lass raised in the privileged, high society of Charleston, was in fact flogged and publicly humiliated, one can imagine her developing a disdain for institutions that had so punished her.
In the meantime, Anne became pregnant, though it is not clear by which man, since she was living with James while cavorting with Calico Jack. Nonetheless, Calico Jack sent her to a home he had in Cuba where she may have given birth to a son. If so, once she recovered, Anne left the baby behind with a nursemaid while she returned to New Providence alone and ready to take up piracy with a vengeance. Calico Jack by then had had enough of life under the British authorities. He, Anne and a crew of like-minded sailors stole a ship, the William, in New Providence Harbour and sailed away to be pirates again, unencumbered by laws or social conventions.
Taking a woman on a pirate ship was contrary to pirate codes, and the crew must have had some misgivings about Anne on board. But Anne, usually dressed as a man, quickly proved herself their equal when sailing and raiding other ships. It is said that she learned to use a cutlass, fire pistols and curse as bad as any of the men. Indeed, it is reported that she was often more ferocious than the men, perhaps to prove herself, perhaps to distance herself from any perception of upper class association.
Mary Read’s background could not be more different from Anne’s, other than they were both born out of wedlock. She was born into poverty in Bristol, England, and, as fate would have it, raised as a boy and taught to hide her sexual identity.
Before Mary was born, her mother gave birth to a son by her sailor husband, who had died earlier. To help care for the struggling widow and infant child, the husband’s mother provided them with a small allotment of one crown a month. But Mary’s mother soon became pregnant again, and a year later gave birth to Mary. Shortly afterwards, the boy, Mary’s half brother, died. In an effort to continue receiving the allotment, Mary’s mother hid the boy’s death from her in-laws, and instead passed off Mary as the son by her deceased husband.
In due time, the ruse was discovered and support abruptly cut off, leaving Mary and her mother totally destitute. By then, Mary was old enough to be rented out to a wealthier family to do chores, but kept the male identity. Around the age of 13 she became a cabin boy aboard a British man-of-war, and in her late teens or early 20s joined a British infantry regiment in Flanders as a foot soldier.
Mary demonstrated considerable courage in battle and received due recognition from superior officers. She later joined a calvary unit, where she also saw action. By chance, she found herself as bunkmate with her commanding officer and became very attracted to him. Of course, this presented a dilemma to Mary who had been posing as a male soldier. Moreover, her special interest did not go unnoticed by the other officers in the regiment, who thought Mary was a man.
By one account, Mary could no longer contain her passion and found a way to let her commander “discover” her true gender. After the initial shock, he was apparently quite delighted and wanted Mary as a mistress. But Mary had her standards and insisted on marriage before he could consummate the relationship. They did in fact marry, with the regiment chipping in for the wedding dress, celebration and gifts. The couple left the army and opened a successful tavern in Breda, in what is now the Netherlands, called Three Horseshoes. Mary’s husband died within a few years, about the time when the armies (their biggest customer base) stopped fighting, and the tavern fell on hard times. Mary managed to sell the tavern but soon found herself destitute again.
Ever the adventurous survivor, Mary went back to posing as a man, and found work aboard a Dutch ship bound for the West Indies using the name Mark Read. That ship was attacked by a pirate vessel whose quartermaster was non-other than Calico Jack Rackham, before he had taken the King’s pardon. In keeping with the governing articles of many pirates, the crew was invited to become pirates too. Most accepted, including Mary.
A year later, Mary took the pardon offered by King George and ended up in New Providence, where Calico Jack had also migrated. One story has Mary joining with Calico Jack and Anne in New Providence to steal the sloop William. Another version has Mary on another ship captured by the William, now under the command of Captain Calico Jack, and joining the pirate crew as one of them. What is accepted is that, against long odds, two females ended up on the same pirate vessel, as pirates raiding ships together.
Pirates ahead of their time
It is tempting to see these pirates as nothing but murderous thieves on the high seas, and while many certainly were, the real story is more complex and nuanced, especially when considered in the context of the times.
Life for the vast underclass of Europe and the Caribbean in the early 1700s was miserable and unjust with no hope of getting ahead. Seamen in particular, whether Navy or merchant marine, were treated especially harshly by their officers, often flogged or otherwise punished severely for the smallest infractions. Officers and ship owners regularly cheated their crews out of their pay when their service was up, sometimes after years of tough, dangerous service, with no recourse.
Moreover, the institutions of the time very much supported enrichment of the privileged few while exploiting the many. In the West Indies, this included long indentured servitude for poor whites seeking to escape abject poverty in Great Britain and Ireland and barbarous slavery for blacks brought from Africa.
More than a few escaped slaves found their way to pirate ships, thus taking them instantly from the most brutal form of oppression to liberation and equal status. As many as 1/4 of the pirates on a ship may have been escaped slaves.
For those on the bitter end of the social strata, the chance to be free from the bonds of abusive domination and even get rich in the process by attacking ships serving and enhancing the power and enrichment of the well-off, was enormously attractive. Indeed, the pirates of the time were quite aware of the inequity of the rigid hierarchy that kept them down and relished the opportunity to steal the wealth of others, which in their view, belonged as much to them.
Piracy provided something that was otherwise impossible to attain: True freedom, especially after chafing under the boot of unmerciful authority. So, it is not surprising that Mary and so many other pirates willingly took the offer.
In 1717, the pirate Captain Charles Bellamy best articulated the righteousness of piracy set against his contempt for those who serve the rich, governing class. This is what he said to the captain of a merchant vessel he had just captured:
“Damn ye, you are a sneaking Puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by the Laws which rich Men have made for their own Security, for the cowardly Whelps have not the Courage otherwise to defend what they get by their Knavery; but damn ye altogether: Damn them for a Pack of crafty Rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted Numskuls. They vilify us, the Scoundrels do, when there is only this Difference, they rob the poor under the Cover of the Law, forsooth, and we plunder the Rich under the Protection of our own Courage; had you not better make One of us, than sneak after the Arses of those Villains for Employment?”
Imagine for a moment standing on a deck face-to-face with the commanding bearing of a defiant pirate captain in whose hands rested your fate, and hearing the forceful logic of why he chose to live this way—and why you should too.
To say pirates were sea-going Robin Hoods would be a stretch, but their actions could be seen as an early form of civil disobedience to authority. And though they were often correctly described as bloodthirsty sea-robbers, it can be argued they were no less bloodthirsty than the actions taken by the more powerful against Indians or African slaves or a poor thief whipped or condemned to a long prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. What is notable is how many were motivated by a well-articulated sense of justice.
In some ways, the Articles to which pirates adhered put them a good century and a half ahead of their time.Ships were run democratically with captains elected by the crew—often one captain for launching attacks and one for when they were not raiding. If a captain was not up to the task, he was voted out of the job. Booty was divided in even shares among the crew, with the captain getting just one more share than the others. Some pirates instituted a form of worker compensation, so that a pirate who lost a hand, leg or eye was compensated in specific amounts for the injury from the spoils of the raids.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read took it to another level by fighting with and against men in deadly encounters to earn equality in an era when such rights for women were scarcely imaginable. In so doing, they posed not only a threat to inflexible institutions of wealth distribution as pirates, but to an ingrained social structure of women subservient to men. We can only surmise, but Anne and Mary must have been cognizant of their unique status as free women who bowed to no man. Even by today’s standards, they held a status seldom matched.
How Anne discovered Mary’s female identity has invited much speculation. It seems that Mary in her male role struck quite a handsome pose as the pirate called Mark, and soon caught the eye of Anne. Apparently, the crush was so strong that Anne could not resist approaching Mary, possibly on a calm, starry night when Calico Jack was asleep or ashore, and let the sailor-turned-pirate know her feelings. Mary, probably sensing the moment, responded by telling Anne conspiratorially that “he” was a “she” named Mary Read. Anne is said to have been taken aback at this revelation and initially disappointed. But she quickly agreed to keep Mary’s true identity a secret, and the two became fast friends.
In the days to come, Calico Jack noticed that Anne was spending more time in the company of Mary. One can just imagine a brooding Calico Jack, accustomed to getting his women and his way, strolling the decks and seething at Anne’s affections for the pirate he knew as Mark. When he threatened to “slit the boy’s throat,” Mary took it upon herself to reveal her true identity by discretely exposing to him a pair of breasts and announcing, “As you can clearly see, sir, I am no threat to you.” The revelation of just two women liking each other apparently calmed him down, though he surely must have been startled. The rest of the crew, however, continued to know Mary as a man.
But Mary too developed a strong attraction for another pirate and faced the same dilemma as she did with her bunkmate commanding officer in Flanders. Once when her secret love got into a quarrel with another pirate, Calico Jack ordered the two men to settle it on the beach. Mary, desperately anxious that her heart-throb might be killed in the fight, stepped in to take his place in a duel of swords. Being superior with the weapons, Mary quickly killed the pirate who had threatened “her man,” who was unaware of the real reason she risked her own life.
While the pirates respected Anne for her bravery and notable contribution in raids, at least one apparently lusted after her. While Calico Jack was away, the pirate attempted to bed Anne against her will. When Mary saw what was happening, she intervened and challenged the perpetrator to a sword fight on the beach—the winner presumably getting Anne.
The lusty pirate and Mary, still known as Mark, fought it out. Mary, being the better fencer, quickly dispatched the pirate by running him through the stomach with her saber. As he lay dying in the sand, Mary ripped open her blouse to expose her breasts, crying out, “Look here, you were just killed by hand of a woman,” thus adding a double dose of humiliation to the pirate’s defeat and demise. After that, Mary’s identity as a woman was known to the crew, but nobody troubled either one of the women again.
With her gender no longer a secret, Mary was free to pursue the pirate she wanted, and they apparently became lovers, while at the same time she forged a deep, unbreakable bond with Anne.
Soon, reports of two “hellcat” female pirates sailing with Calico Jack Rackham began spreading in the Bahamas, London and the American colonies. Anne and Mary were often the first to board a ship under attack, “screaming like banshees.” This prompted the British governor in New Providence to offer a reward for their capture. He even sent out a vessel to find them, to no avail.
Capture and trial
On the night of October 22, 1720, the pirate careers of Anne Bonny and Mary Read came to a dramatic end in Negril Bay, Jamaica. Most of the men were below deck getting drunk from a cask of rum they had opened when a British merchant vessel contracted by the governor of Jamaica to find the pirates approached. The vessel’s captain, Jonathan Barnett, hailed the pirate sloop, and Calico Jack, perhaps in smug defiance, shouted out identifying himself, “Captain John Rackham of Cuba,” and then fired a swivel cannon at the merchant vessel. Captain Barnett returned fire, knocking out the boom of the pirate ship and sending the men on the deck running for cover below. With his sloop disabled and perhaps believing he was outnumbered, Calico Jack, along with some of the other pirates called for “quarter,” an offer to surrender, that was accepted by Captain Barnett.
But Anne and Mary would have none of it and refused to surrender. They shouted to the men below to come up and fight, but the pirates, some quite drunk, did not budge. Anne attempted to rally them by furiously firing her flintlock pistol into the hold, killing one of the pirates. Still, none would join them. So the two female pirates, who had been through so much together and knowing the steep odds against them, took on the boarding party themselves, relentlessly fending off the attack with pistols blazing and cutlasses swinging. But there were too many against them, and Anne and Mary were overwhelmed and captured along with Calico Jack and the other pirates.
The trial of the male pirates commenced on November 16, 1720 at the Admiralty Court with Jamaica Governor Nicholas Lawes presiding. It lasted just two days, and all ten men were found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Before being taken to the gallows on November 18, Calico Jack asked to see Anne one more time. His request was granted and he was escorted to Anne’s jail cell. But instead of a tearful final farewell, Anne spat on him and let fly the most heart-wrenching insult to a man once her lover, set to die in just hours: “If you had fought like a man, you would not have hanged like a dog.”
After being hanged, Calico Jack’s body was placed in a gibbet, a cage hoisted at the entrance to Port Royal, where his rotting body was left for all sailors to see as a warning of the consequences of piracy.
The trial of Anne and Mary took place on November 28, 1720. Both entered pleas of “not guilty.” A series of witnesses testified to Anne and Mary’s active participation in raids. The overwhelming evidence against them, like the other pirates, resulted in a swift verdict of guilty by the court, also presided over by Governor Lawes.
Anne and Mary at first said nothing in their defense at the trial. But after the sentence of death was handed out, the two women asked for a stay of execution by “pleading their bellies,” claiming they were pregnant. A doctor was called to examine the women and confirmed that indeed they were “quick with child,” meaning he could feel the fetus moving about. This would indicate they were both 12 to 16 weeks along in their pregnancy.
The court agreed to postponement of their hanging, thus giving them a reprieve. It is reported that Mary died of a violent fever soon after the verdict, but this is disputed in the The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It notes that Mary did not die until April 27, 1721. Since her due date would have been late April / early May, it is entirely possible that Mary died in childbirth. She is recorded as being buried in St. Catherine Parish. A proper burial would be unusual for a condemned criminal, and may have indicated that Mary and her baby were buried together.
Mysterious fate of Anne Bonny
Anne’s fate continues to be a perplexing mystery, as there is no record of her death in or departure from Jamaica. Some evidence points to the intervention by her father William Cormac, who may have learned of his daughter’s sentence of death for piracy and used his connections with the elite of the colonies to secure her release. Plantation owners of the 1700s in the American South and the British West Indies were generally well-connected or at least knew about each other. So a request for a favor, perhaps lined with cash, could get things done quietly and quickly.
Anne’s family background might also have been uncovered by Governor Lawes, who sent word to her father. Or Anne herself may have found a way to contact her father for help. In any case, Anne could well have benefited from her high social circles—even if rejected— and a well-regarded father, and made her way back to the Carolinas. If so, she probably traveled under an assumed name, since she had a death sentence hanging over her.
Once back home, Anne may have married in December 1721 James Burleigh, a gentleman from a Virginia family involved in planting and law. Although it is not certain that this marriage was arranged, Cormac did move in the social circles of the Burleighs, thus suggesting the possibility of an arrangement that would also serve to further cover up Anne’s identity and flagrant past. If this is the case, we can probably assume that a good amount of cash or other forms of wealth helped to seal the deal, as Burleigh would have been asked to marry a condemned pirate with a notorious reputation, possibly with child, and keep it a secret forever!
At least one story has it that Cormac also helped to get back Anne’s child left behind in Cuba, whom she named John after his assumed pirate father. It is not known what happened to the second child she was carrying when Calico Jack was hanged. Incredibly, good fortune seems to have stayed with Anne for all of her life. Research suggests that Anne went on to have eight more children and lived to be 84 years old, dying in 1782. Left for us to ponder is how Anne made the transition back to the life of a wife, mother and southern belle after a year of swashbuckling swagger and narrow escape from the gallows.
The full story of these amazing women has yet to be told. The improbable trajectory of their intertwined lives illuminates an early challenge to convention and order in very unsettled time in early 18th century West Indies, that could also be a part of the history of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Just as important, it testifies to a sustained tenacity and unflinching courage on a level rarely seen, especially given the choices and predicaments these women faced. We can only admire the masterful role-playing of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who defied their society in the most violent manner while, at times, also successfully integrating into it. They were hardly misfits, like most of their pirate contemporaries. Rather, they were women quite cognisant of their choices and determined their destiny in an unforgiving world.
Almost three centuries later, their story speaks to us as loud as ever, not just that they alone turned convention on its head and mocked the injustice and limitations of their day, but because for a brief moment in their lives they were completely free, together, and mattered.
Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for the history of the West Indies. An avid watersports enthusiast, Ben is co-founder of the sports and vacation adventure company Caicu Naniki, providing swim lessons, paddleboard rentals and private tours to North and Middle Caicos and Northern Haiti. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Black, Clinton. Pirates of the West Indies.
Cordingly, David. Women Sailors, Sailors’ Women.
Eastman, Tamara J. and Bond, Constance. The Pirate Trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Johnson, Captain Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com