Wednesday, June 4, 2014

18th Century Women Gone Wild...female pirates you need to know

Anne Bonny and Mary Read from an illustration by Benjamin Cole
for Defoe's A General History of the Pyrates
Much is written and known of those "manly men" of the high seas, the pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy (1715 to 1725,) but what of the ladies who set sail, throwing caution and convention to the four winds? Hollywood has given us a few movies featuring these women such as Against All Flags and Cutthroat Island but, most often, women have been portrayed as hapless victims of those leering, lecherous, and otherwise no good sea-going bandits. Enter upon the historical stage or ship's deck, as the case may be, two female pirates who really lived the brigand's life: Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
Calico Jack Rackham, woodcut illustration
from Defoe's A General History of the Pyrates

In late spring of 1719, the infamous, flamboyantly dressed pirate, "Calico Jack" Rackham brought his men to Nassau, Bahamas to receive the pardons Governor Woodes Rogers was handing out to pirates who agreed to go and sin no more. Of course, a goodly number of those reformed pirates simply took the pardons as a temporary means of enjoying their plunder unmolested by the authorities and Rackham was no exception. While living the life in port, Rackham fell in love with Anne Bonny, the wife of another pardoned pirate, James Bonny. The feelings were mutual so the enamored couple asked Mr. Bonny for an annulment of his marriage to Anne so she would be free to join her new-found love, Calico Jack. Having grown accustomed to his wife's many extra-marital dalliances and with no love lost, Bonny consented as long as he was financially compensated. Rackham agreed and sought a reliable witness to the bargain. Unfortunately, that witness went straight to Governor Rogers and tattled on the trio. With much righteous indignation, Rogers proclaimed to Anne Bonny, if she went through with the annulment, she would be sent to prison and her lover forced to whip her. Oh my, my my. According to historical researcher and author of The Republic of Pirates, Colin Woodard, Anne's response was she "promised to be very good, to live with her husband and keep loose company no more." 
Anne Bonny from Defoe's A General History of the Pyrates
Right. To avoid such interference, Rackham and Anne Bonny simply took their relationship out to sea and the pirate resumed his former occupation with the help of his lady love by his side.

One of Anne Bonny's Nassau buddies was a woman by the name of Mary Read who, had for years, dressed like a man and sailed the seas with impunity. The two ladies were well known by Nassau inhabitants to curse with all the raw vehemence of any of their male counterparts. For several months, Rackham and his crew, along with his two lady pirates, plundered ships and laid waste those who would get in their way. One of their captives later testified at trial, the women would wear the usual female finery aboard ship until a potential victim was spied, then they would dress like men and fight along side the pirates. Another former captive, fisherwoman Dorothy Thomas, later told the courts she was terrorized by the women who cursed and swore they would kill her if she testified against them. Thomas said she could only tell them from the other crewmen by the manner in which they filled out their shirts!
                           Mary Read from Defoe's A General History of the Pyrates

In October, 1720, Captain Jonathan Barnet (a privateer given orders to bring Rackham and his crew down) fired upon the pirate ship. Most of the crew was too drunk to fight back and fled down into the hold leaving the two women to fend for themselves. According to Defoe's A General History of the Pyrates, Anne Bonny yelled down to the cowering pirates to come back up and fight like men. When no one met her challenge, she fired into the hold, killing one man and wounding several others. The ship and its crew were taken and sent to Spanish Town jail in the Virgin Islands. On November 18, 1720, the day Calico Jack was to be hanged from the gallows, it is reported Anne Bonny was allowed to see him one last time. Her words? "I'm sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man you need not have hanged like a dog."

As far as the trial of the two women pirates went, on November 28, 1720, they were both found guilty and sentenced to death but both "plead their bellies" (meaning they were both pregnant at the time and by British law could not be hanged until their innocent babies delivered.) After medical examination they were, indeed, proclaimed pregnant and their sentences set aside. Neither woman was ever hanged by the neck until death, however. Mary Read and her unborn child died in prison in April, 1721 when she became ill and died amidst a violent fever. Her grave is at St Catherine's Church in Jamaica. There is no record of Anne Bonny's execution or death by other means nor of what happened to her and her child.  Colin Woodard speculates her wealthy South Carolina plantation owning father may have come to her aid and bought her freedom. Who knows? There may, to this day, be little Calico Jacks and Pirate Queen Annes running around the streets of Charleston causing all manner of mischief!      

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! 


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