Two of the Most Famous Pirates in History Were Secretly Women

two lady pirates

Ann Bonny and Mary Read standing on a beach in a black and white engraving

Credit: “General History of the Pyrates” published in 1724, Public Domain

The year was 1685 and a young mother was worried sick with grief.

Her husband was a sailor working for the Kingdom of England’s navy at the time — and she hadn’t heard from him in ages.

Her boy, as much as she loved him, wasn’t just sick with missing his father. Something else seemed to be very wrong as well.

To make matters even more difficult, the young mother was once again pregnant — the product of an illicit love affair that hadn’t yet come to light.

Then the bad news came one day. The husband now belonged to Davy Jones and wouldn’t be making it back home.

Panic.

The young mother was not financially well-off, either. Quite the opposite. And now that her husband had been lost at sea, her only hope for a livable income was from her mother-in-law, who agreed to pay a monthly stipend for the sake of her grandson.

The deathly ill grandson.

And so, the mother fled to the countryside to ‘visit her friends’ and give birth to a lovely young daughter. During this terribly arduous ordeal, her son passed away from an unknown affliction.

How can one afford to live when they have no son, a daughter from an affair, and a husband at the bottom of the sea?

Dress the daughter as a boy and pretend she’s the older brother, of course.

This is how the beautiful young Mary Read became known to the world as Mark Read.

Ireland

William Cormac was a man of some means. Not originally having a fortune himself, he married into a wealthy family and was able to enjoy a decent life in Ireland. His family was even able to afford servants and all the pleasures that could come with that.

He enjoyed his servants so much that one of them even gave birth to a young girl by the name of Ann.

Having fallen in love with the girl and her mother, William packed his bags and moved to London for a new business arrangement. This guise allowed him to keep receiving monthly stipends from his perhaps unsuspecting wife back home.

But on one unfortunate day (for him at least), a surprise visit revealed the truth.

Mrs. Cormac found William, their servant, and a young boy named Andy being brought up as a lawyer’s clerk.

And the allowance was cut.

The rag-tag family, cut off from wealth, decided to search for a new fortune in the new world, settling in the Carolinas.

Finally, Ann Cormac could stop pretending to be a boy.

At least for a while.

Dutch

Mark Read, with her grandmother’s monthly allowance, was able to grow well into her teens before she needed to find employment. Still pretending to be male, she first found a job as a footboy, running alongside carriages of wealthy aristocrats.

She then moved to work onboard a ship and eventually joined the British military, continuing the ruse. At the time, the British and Dutch were allies in the War of the Spanish Succession.

But as much as Mark tried to hide her identity, she let it slip to a Flemish soldier after falling in love with him. It turned out he shared the same sentiments, and they both took early retirement from the military to move to the Netherlands together.

While there, they married, opened up a pub called The Three Horseshoes, and lived happily ever after.

Until her husband died shortly after.

Not having any place to go, Mark struck out for the New World and headed straight to the West Indies.

Fire

Ann Cormac was known as a fiery character. She had a head full of angry red hair. Her mother died unexpectedly when Ann was just 12. A year later, she was suspected of stabbing a servant girl after a minor perceived sleight.

By this time, her father had amassed a small fortune as a businessman in the New World. But his treatment towards his daughter all these years may have left a bitter mark.

In her teenage years, Ann met and married a destitute sailor named James Bonny. Whether out of love, anger at her father, or some combination of life’s little intricacies — Mr. Cormac did not approve one bit.

So much so that he kicked her out of his house and disowned her.

Looking for a new life and to get away from her terrible father, Ann Bonny, as she was now called, moved with her husband to Nassau — the pirate’s refuge.

West

On her way to the West Indies, Mark Read’s ship was attacked and overtaken by pirates. Not one to miss an opportunity, she quickly offered to join their service, happily detailing her previous military experience.

They accepted.

Mark/Mary Read was now a bonafide pirate of the Caribbean.

Pyrates

From 1706 until 1718, the Bahamas were home to countless former privateers-turned-pirates. So much so, that the place was referred to as the Republic of Pyrates.

They wreaked havoc on all sorts of mercantile and military ships. It didn’t really matter what country a vessel belonged to either, if it had the potential for gold, loot, or booze — it was attacked.

Ann Bonny enjoyed these stories the most. She was known for spending lots of her free time in the local taverns of Nassau and meeting pirate after pirate.

This all changed in the summer of 1718.

The future governor Woodes Rogers arrived at the island with the express intent and permission to take back the region — and stop the pirating.

His main tool? A written promise from the English King offering a full pardon to anyone that came forward and confessed their piratey sins.

Most people did just that. Some, on the other hand, accepted but continued pirating anyway.

It was these pirates that James Bonny ratted out in exchange for gold from the new governor.

Ann was not a fan.

Calico

Mark Read heard of this very same pardon and quickly made her way over to accepting it. But she still missed the call of battle and the sea, signing up with a group of privateers shortly afterward.

Privateers that were formerly pirates. And once again, became pirates shortly after when they mutinied.

It was around this time in 1720 that she first met the madman John “Calico Jack” Rackham — and joined up with his crew.

Rats

Ann was growing tired of her conniving husband’s rat-like ways. She was enraptured with the pirates’ stories and hated the fact some of them were ending up hanged because of James Bonny’s devious ways.

Once again she had anger in her heart towards a man she loved — and she ran away with a dastardly handsome pirate.

John “Calico Jack” Rackham was a bit of an enigma.

Sloop

In 1720, the pirate’s heyday was over. The King’s pardon had turned many former comrades into potential enemies. Whispers of betrayal could be heard at every pub in town. No one knew who to trust.

But John Rackham decided to trust two men. Ann Bonny and Mary Read.

He and Ann quickly fell in love. To bring her with him on his pirating adventures, he asked her to take on a disguise she was all too familiar with — that of a man.

Mary herself hadn’t stopped pretending to be a man at this point, and John was none the wiser.

In August of the same year, the three of them stole an armed sloop straight from the harbor in Nassau.

Love

Life at sea pirating can be a harrowing affair. And where there is a life of excitement, love often follows.

This case was no different. Ann, once again dressed up as Andy, observed the amazing bravery, fighting skills, and beautiful passion of Mark over the next few months.

She even found her love for John waning as she gazed upon Mark’s prowess at sea.

Then one day, Ann confessed her true nature of being a woman — and her love for Mark. To abate fears of jealousy, Ann also told John Rackham of Mark’s secret as well.

The rag-tag trio were now roaming the seas, in a very odd arrangement for the time.

Boom

Their wave-rolling love affair was not destined to last for long. In November of 1720, Rackham’s crew were hosting another vessel in a grand boat party off the coast of Jamaica.

While historians aren’t completely sure of what happened next, they do know that in the early morning hours, their ship was raided by the pirate-hunter Jonathan Barnet.

Boom.

An initial volley of cannonballs disabled the ship.

The pirate hunter docked. Dozens of men began climbing over the edges to defeat the outlaws in the name of the Governor of Jamaica.

But there were sorely few enemies to fight — most of the men were reported to be down in the hold of the vessel. Whether they fled there or were drunkenly passed out is up for debate.

It’s even said that Mark fired a shot into the hold in anger and an attempt to waking them up. Having the opposite effect, she put one of the pirates in a permanent sleep with the bullet.

The two women, dressed in all of their male-pirating gear, battled almost to the death with the invasion force.

Until their main man Jack Rackham asked for quarter and surrendered the entire crew.

Hanging

All of the crew of Jack Rackham’s ship were brought to Spanish Town in Jamaica. For their terrible crimes of piracy, every single one of them was sentenced to death by the Crown.

Our two leading ladies had one last trick up their sleeves, though — they were both pregnant!

It was called “pleading the belly” and it worked. Both of them revealed their true identity, stated they were both pregnant and were given temporary reprieve from being executed.

Ann Bonny had some nasty last words for her lover before he was executed:

“Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”

Ouch.

Records

This is where their adventure stops, unfortunately.

Mary Read is on record as having passed away from a fever while in prison, just a few months later in April of 1721. Some have postured it was during childbirth that this happened.

As for Ann Bonny, there was never any official record made of her being released from prison.

A ledger does list the death of someone named Ann Bonny in December of 1733. Seeing as how it’s in the exact same town as where they were on trial, as well as where Mary died, it may just be her.

A few years after Mary’s death, an unknown author using the pen-name of Charles Johnson wrote an epic novel detailing the lives of pirates — A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates.

Charles Johnson wrote one last paragraph about our Ann Bonny:

“She was continued in Prison, to the Time of her lying in, and afterwards reprieved from Time to Time; but what is become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed.” — Charles Johnson

And so ended the tale of the two most notorious female pirates of Nassau.


J.J. Pryor

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