Ode to the Anti-Heroines: Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Anyone who knows me knew this was coming. I mean, how could I not feature these two crazy-ass bitches? Seriously? These two put the “anti” in “anti-heroine.”

Bronze sculpture of Anne Bonny and Mary Read by Erik Christianson. Yes, that’s a titty hanging out of Mary’s shirt. I’m 86% certain she was aware and just didn’t give a fuck.

I’ve done quite a bit of research on Golden Age pirates. I even have an 1826 edition of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson. I basically should have named my daughters Anne and Mary (or, you know, Edward and Howel, if I’m progressive), considering the first two years of their lives, I was consumed with writing a pirate novel. Yes, that’s right. Don’t ask. Just read it.

But if you think the lives of the male Golden Age pirates are fascinating, imagine what it must have been like for the female pirates?

If we assume that Johnson’s description of the pirates is accurate, it is astonishing that Mary Read and Anne Bonny could have survived in such an alien world. It was a world in which murder, torture, and casual violence were commonplace and where foulmouthed men indulged in drunken orgies that lasted for days on end.  —David Cordingly

Captain Johnson may have actually been Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe (for you uneducated assholes), but no one knows for sure since it was a pseudonym. Even so, the story of these two women is fucking amazing on so many levels. First, both women were—at least partially—raised as boys. Mary’s mother got pregnant after her hubby was lost at sea (which, you know, oops), and so convinced her in-laws that Mary was actually her younger brother in order to get help from them (which, you know, you can’t really blame her considering what life was like for women—let alone poor women— in England back in the 1700s). Mary did a damn good job playing a boy, good enough that she became a page for an aristocrat and eventually ran away to join the crew of a Flemish man-of-war. She fell in love with a fellow soldier in her regiment and eventually revealed her sex to him when they were sharing a tent, and he was thrilled. Mary, however, refused to get intimate with him until they were married, which they did once the campaign was over. They received discharge from the army, got hitched, and opened an inn together.

They lived happily ever after. HAHAHA NOT. Actually, Mary’s hubby died of illness soon thereafter, so Mary once again donned men’s clothes and joined the crew of a ship headed for the West Indies.

Anne Bonny was born in Ireland, and her lawyer daddy took her and her servant girl mother and moved to the Carolina colonies to get away from his wife (gee, I wonder why). He dressed Anne up as a boy clerk for “economic” reasons and called her “Andy.” Anne grew into a woman Johnson described as “fierce and courageous,” and when some dude tried to rape her, she beat him fucking senseless.

There’s no question Anne must have been a fucking handful for Daddy, as is usually the case with my anti-heroines. When Anne was 16, she married some small-time sailor named James Bonny against Daddy’s wishes, and he cut her off. She went to New Providence, in the Bahamas, which was basically a pirate haven, with her new hubby. When she discovered that Hubby was actually an informer to the governor, Woodes Rogers, she ditched his duplicitous ass for “Calico Jack” Rackam, a pirate captain.

If you’ve read The Noble Pirates, you know I don’t think Rackam was a big deal. He was known for wearing flamboyant shirts and spending money, but not exactly for being the bravest pirate of the lot (he stuck to attacking ships along the coast, rather than those at sea). Anyhoo, Anne was braver than Jack, by a long shot, and she likely knew this—so she controlled him (probably with sex, because duh). Under Anne’s control, Rackam’s recklessness increased, as did his infamy.

So now we come to the part of the story where Anne and Mary meet, which is a pretty amazing coincidence. Mary’s ship was captured by pirates, and she was forced to join the crew (something that happened quite often). They headed to the Bahamas, and somehow Mary ended up part of Rackam’s crew. It was one fateful night, when Rackam’s ship was attacked by a ship of the British Navy, that the two women met. The pirates were on the losing end of this particular battle, so the pirates (including Rackam) hid belowdecks, leaving Anne, Mary, and one other crewmate to fight. It was then that Mary, furious, yelled at her shipmates, “Come up and fight like men!” When none of their drunken asses moved, she fired her gun into the hold, killing one dude.

Artwork by Ilya Komarov.

Anne had already been involved with Rackam for some time when she met Mary, whom she mistook for a “handsome young fellow” with a “feminine” voice who also happened to be as ballsy as she was. When Anne put the moves on Mary, Mary knew she was in a pickle. Johnson describes what happened best:

Mary Read, knowing what she would be at, and being very sensible of her own incapacity that way, was forced to come to a right understanding with [Anne], and so to the great disappointment of Anne Bonny, she let her know she was a woman also…

Yep, Mary knew Anne expected to find a penis in her pants, and she was super “sensible” regarding her lack of said penis. Thank you, Captain Johnson, for making me giggle.

While there’s no record that the two women became lovers, per se, they definitely became very close. So close, in fact, that Rackam became insanely jealous and told Anne he was gonna “cut her new lover’s throat,” which compelled the women to let him in on the secret. Again, no one knows if the three pirates engaged in a ménage à trois, but it’s possible. To be honest, this is the least interesting aspect of the story, although the most hyped up. People love to be titillated, eh?

There are several eyewitness accounts of Anne and Mary as pirates—mostly from their captives. They were heavily involved in fighting battles, and according to one captive, they “wore men’s jackets, long trousers, and handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads… a machete and pistol in their hands and cursed and swore at the men…” A captain of a captured sloop described both women as “very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything onboard.” People knew they were women from the fact that they had titties (which may or may not have been hanging out of their shirts, according to several artistic renditions).

I will say that, after researching both these women, Mary Read is my personal favorite of the two. While Anne’s red hair, temper to match, and involvement with Rackam have made her the bigger name, Mary is by far the more interesting character, IMO. Johnson tells the story of how Mary fell in love with a young sailor who was forced to serve onboard Rackam’s ship. The sailor apparently got into a fight with one of the pirates, who challenged him to a duel ashore. Mary was so anxious her lover might be killed that she picked a fight with the same pirate and challenged him to a duel two hours earlier than the duel with her sailor boy. She fought the pirate with sword and pistol, killing him on the spot.

Guys, you can’t make this shit up.

When Rackam’s crew was finally captured, Anne and Mary were the only two on board the ship ready to fight. Many of the pirates, actually, were too drunk to fight, which I imagine happened often on pirate ships, you know? Because rum. Most of them surrendered, and thus ended the piratical careers of Jack, Mary, and Anne. On November 17, 1720, the governor of Jamaica condemned Calico Jack and the ten men in his crew to death. Despite being charged with the exact same offenses, Mary and Anne were spared because they both happened to be pregnant.

On the eve of Rackam’s hanging, Anne was allowed to see him one last time. She reportedly said to him, “I am sorry to see you here, but if you’d fought like a man, you needn’t be hanged like a dog.” OUCH. Really, though, she should have said if you’d fought like a woman. Amiright?

The two women were spared the death penalty on account of their pregnancies. Mary, unfortunately, contracted a violent fever soon after her trial and died in prison. Anne, on the other hand… No one actually knows what happened to Anne. Her rich daddy may have gotten her out of prison by pulling some strings, then married her to a “respectable” local man.

The same source indicates that her father also managed to locate the son she had by Rackam in Cuba. The boy was brought back to Charleston, adopted by Anne, and named John in memory of his pirate father. Anne is believed to have died in 1782 at the age of eighty-four. —David Cordingly

Yet another anti-heroine who somehow settled down, had a billion kids, and died knitting scarves or some shit. And you have to wonder: WTF? Really?