Robert Eller

If you think the rough and rowdy world of marauding is exclusively man’s work, sign up for Advanced Piracy 101. There are plenty of women who have proven to be every bit as tenacious as the guys. Sure, Blackbeard tops the list when you need a pirate’s name quick and Stede Bonnet was the Gentleman Pirate, but what about Anne Bonney or Mary Read, both as fearsome as any in the trade.

Anne Bonney’s family moved to the colony of Carolina from her native Ireland when she was about 10 years old. On these shores she married a sailor, James Bonney but her real partner was “Calico Jack” Rackham, whom she met in Nassau after she and her husband moved there. Anne and Calico Jack started up a torrid affair that saved her life but cost him his own. Both were captured as pirates and sentenced to death. So was Mark Read. However, Mark turned out to be Mary Read and when captors found out that both Anne and Mary were pregnant they commuted their sentences, after the women “pleaded their bellies.” Calico Jack was not so lucky.Move Over Boys

The trio of Anne, Mark/Mary and Jack proved to be a complicated one. Before his execution, Jack thought Anne was attracted to Mark (which may have been true) so it’s no surprise that interpersonal relationships got in the way of their collective piracy. The romance between Calico Jack and Anne did not end well. She had a “courageous temper.” Anne rebuked Jack in her last words to him by saying, “had you fought like a man you need not have been hanged like a dog.”

One surviving victim of the women buccaneers gave an excellent description of the two. She said Anne and Mary “wore men’s jackets & long trousers & handkerchiefs tied about their heads. “Each of them had a machete & a pistol in their hands & they cursed & swore at the men to murder her.” The injured party was spared, thanks to the men having softer hearts than the women. To be pirates, both Anne and Mary dressed for the job. There is no indication that Anne attempted to pass herself off as a man, like Mary. Perhaps eyewitnesses of these two pirates made quick assumptions as the pair moved on to their next ship of plunder.

The end for female pirates was only marginally better than it was for their male counterparts. Mary died in prison, perhaps in childbirth. Some speculate that since Anne’s father was wealthy and well-known, and that he used his influence to get her released. No one knows what happened to Anne Bonney. Possibly, she came back to the colonies or died in Jamaica.

The story of Anne Bonney and Mary Read challenge a lot of what we think we know about history. It was definitely not as male-dominated as has been presented. Women were just as likely to determine the course of events as men throughout time, though their contribution has been muted in stories about the past. That’s why history is not as absolute as you might think. The more we learn, the “richer” it becomes.

So, as George Harrison once sang, “get out your skull and crossbones and run it up your mast.”

Photo: Anne Bonney in past and present. History is more about who we are now than who we were in the past.