Ben Thompson's delightfully funny if light on history book Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters and Military Commanders to Ever Live is worth picking up just for the chuckles and the comic book style illustrations of men and women as diverse and notable as Charles "The Hammer" Martel and Vlad Tepes Dracula. The chapter on Horatio Nelson - who was unquestionably full of both badassitude and piratitude - made me laugh so hard I cried. At the header to the entry on Anne Bonny, one of the two most famous women pirates of the Golden Age, Thompson inserts this quote from Ayn Rand:
The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me.
And that got me thinking.
A lot of modern writers, among them David Cordingly, the scholarly author of Under a Black Flag and Women Sailors and Sailors Women, wonder out loud about the probable frequency of women as pirates. The argument is somewhat nonsensical because it assumes that the pirates' life was too brutal and messy for women in general. Oh sure, experts like Cordingly argue, there were women who dressed as men and went to sea but they were aboard naval vessels where everything was orderly and ship shape. A casual glance at the history of women's lives might lead one to think otherwise.
My argument against this is two fold. First of all, in a time when up to half the population of the piratically employed were black, we have very little documentation of any Afro-Caribbean or African-American pirates. Simply put, the press didn't print that information and the courts rarely noted it. Chattel plundering their masters was not to be glorified, and so the history just isn't there. Secondly, in that same time when only a small percentage of women were considered worthy of the slightest attention, why would their unseemliness on the high seas be written down?
Most importantly, to my way of thinking, why wouldn't a woman down on her luck have the same desires as a disenfranchised man or a run away slave? Making a living that involved scavenging, homelessness, virtual slavery as a servant or giving and/or selling one's body to a man not of her choosing might not be something readily submitted to. Why not try your hand in a profession so far outside the norm that it didn't even register on the "womanly" charts? It might have looked pretty damn good by comparison.
What's interesting about Anne Bonny is that she came from relative privilege, and that her trial was one of the most sensational of the early 18th century. Not that she was so desperately unusual. What's interesting - and oh so typical - about her mate Mary Read is that we know virtually nothing about her life before her trial in 1720.
Bonny was evidently born some time around 1695 in County Cork, Ireland. She was the illegitimate daughter of merchant William Cormac and housemaid Mary Brennan. Cormac must have had a thing for his maid because he picked up and moved with she and her child to South Carolina where he went into planting either rice or tobacco or both. Cormac did well and little Anne - who may never have had her father's last name - had some entree into Colonial society. She had two big strikes against her, though. Being Irish, while not as horrendous as it would have been in Yankee country, wasn't exactly a good thing. And being illegitimate was right out.
Anne seems to have been a handful from puberty on and it appears that she eloped with a man named James Bonny in 1718. Little is known about Mr. Bonny, who may or may not have been a sailor. The young marrieds ended up in Nassau Port, New Providence right about the time that Governor Woodes Rogers was handing out pardons to the local pirates. One of those who took the pardon, after a disappointing career as a two-bit freebooter, was John "Calico Jack" Rackham. At some point Anne and Jack met and you can make that as romantic as you care to. I wonder if the whole thing wasn't more of a business proposition frankly because shortly after hooking up with Mrs. Bonny, Jack turned back to pirating.
Bonny joined her lover aboard his ship and his crew, in testimony given at their trial, was upfront about Anne's gender. She apparently wore women's attire most of the time and only dawned her shirt and breeches for action of the piratical kind. This is an important point in the story because many pirate articles forbid women aboard ship. It makes me think that, at least sometimes, articles of piracy were more suggestion than law.
Rackham was not a terribly effective Captain - one might even call him a pathetic pirate - and his Revenge got by plundering fishing vessels around Cuba and Jamaica. At some point another woman, the mysterious Mary "Mark" Read, joined Rackham's crew, probably in 1719. The background generally accepted about Mary comes entirely from Charles Johnson's History of Pirates and is mostly fiction. If you're interested, check here for a previous post on Mary from Charles Ellms' The Pirates Own Book which is a virtual regurgitation of Johnson.
The pirating aboard the little sloop Revenge (although some documents say she was now William) continued until a night of celebration finally overcame Rackham and his crew. For the most part the sailors were dead drunk after taking a fishing boat full of barrels of rum off Jamaica when Captain Jonathan Barnet hailed the sloop. Barnet was one of Governor Rogers' pirate hunters and when Rackham identified himself, Barnet called for his surrender. None of the men aboard Revenge were up for the ensuing fight but documentation from their trial says that Anne Bonny and Mary Read cursed their shipmates and battled Barnet and his men with pistols and swords.
The pirates were taken to Kingston for trial, with the men being tried separately from Anne and Mary. Rackham and his pirates were convicted on November 17, 1720 and hanged on the 18th. A last meeting between Rackham and Bonny has her saying to him famously: "If you'd fought like a man you needn't hang like a dog." So much for true love.
The women's trial began on November 20th and they, too, were quickly convicted of piracy. Each pulled out their ace in the hole - I like to think at the same time. They were pregnant and therefor could not hang until they gave birth. A physical examination proved the veracity of their claims and Anne and Mary were trundled back to prison. It is documented that Mary died the following spring of "fever". Most probably Mary and her child were killed by birth in a filthy Jamaican gaol. But what of Anne?
Anne falls through the web of history at this juncture. Most probably, having a wealthy father bought her a get out of jail card - although doubtless her release was not free. Dad probably bribed the right guy or guys and Anne as secreted back to his South Carolina plantation. Though a handful of scholars place Anne in a nice marriage and home where she has a passel of kids and dies in her bed, I'm not buying it. That's like saying Jean Laffite died an Iowa corn farmer. Adrenaline junkies don't last very long in the prison of domesticity and Anne Bonny surely must have been an adrenaline junky. What happened to her is as much a mystery as where Mary Read came from, and probably always will be.
More than proving that they were exceptional in a man's world, I believe the story of Bonny and Read proves that there were more women who "went a pirating" than we will ever know. And good for them. Ladies like the booty, too.
(By the way, the painting of Anne and Mary above is by Don Maitz from his 2008 Pirate Calendar. Check out the 2010 version here. The history is accurate and the art is breathtaking! A great holiday gift for the pirate in your life.)