Pirate Legends III: The Reign of the Pirate Queens, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

Thus far in the series, we have discussed some of the Golden Age of Piracy’s most prominent pirate captains. The first issue examined the tragedy of Captain William Kidd, who in reality was a far cry from the infamous and fearless treasure hoarder that he is so often associated with. In the previous issue, we lunged forward, deep into the heart of the Golden Age, and visited the Pirate Republic of Nassau during the mid 1710s. It was in this most unique of settings that we visited Captain Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard, and uncovered his sinister machinations in North Carolina. Besides laying bare the fruits of Blackbeard’s labour, we also briefly examined Captain Charles Vane, a pirate loyalist who violently refused King George I’s most gracious offer of a pardon by sending a fire ship into the heart of a British fleet. It was aboard Captain Vane’s ship where our next pirate legend begins.

Scholarship in recent decades has begun to explore a new branch of Golden Age piracy that had long since been shrouded. Previously, pirates had been depicted within four primary stereotypes: aristocratic, heterosexual, Caucasian and above all else, male. One only needs to look to immortal characters of Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood (1935) or even Captain Hook to observe this trend. Evidently, both captains are depicted as being men of fine standing and of illustrious education, with Blood peddling his trade as a physician prior to being accused of treason, and Hook’s biography stating that attended Eton College.

Eton’s crest can be seen alongside several depictions of Captain Hook in the media. In Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), the crest can be seen on the back from Hook’s ship, while in Peter Pan (2003) Hook, as portrayed by actor Jason Isaacs, has the crest tattooed on his upper left arm. In the original play, Hook’s last words were ‘Floreat Etona’.
In the hit television series Black Sails (2014-2017), Captain Flint, as portrayed by actor Toby Stephens is identified as adhering to bisexual tendencies throughout the series.

In actuality, pirates were primarily of poorer, working-class backgrounds, and were for the most part completely illiterate. There were many reasons why sailors went to sea. Chief amongst them, England’s pitiful holdings offered few opportunities, while many others were cohered into naval service by the notorious pressgangs. Far from the clean-shaven and handsome or even incongruously dressed pirates that the media has produced for centuries.

Hence, if pirates were not the proud aristocratic seamen, let us move forward to our next stereotype. This being, the portraying of pirates as primarily heterosexual. Historians Hans Turley and Barry Burg are amongst the influential voices on this subject, and both have even gone as far to suggest that the vast majority of Golden Age pirates were at least prone to homosexuality. Emphasising the ‘deviant homosocial world’ of the pirate, Turley suggested that piracy and homoerotic imagery are conjoined.

Thirdly, pirate ships had traditionally been characterised as possessing an exclusively Caucasian crew. In reality however, it is likely that African pirates held a large minority. On the other hand, during the Napoleonic Wars that would come decades later, African sea rovers occupied the vast majority of pirating crews. Concurrent to the Golden Age of Piracy was the height of the African slave trade, and the horrors it brought in its wake.

In 1995, historian Kenneth Kinkor exerted that pirates of African descent occupied a vital component within the operations of a pirating vessel, naming Samuel ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy’s Whydah as a prime example of this. The ships’ pilot, John Julian (c.1701- possibly 1733) was of indigenous Miskito heritage, and he was reportedly amongst the purported 30-50 non-Caucasian crewmen on board Bellamy’s ship. Kinkor goes on to argue that between 1715 and 1725, as much of 20-30 percent of all pirates were of African heritage.

In Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-present), Mistress Ching, a reimagined version of Madam Cheng appears in At World’s End (2007) and much of the extended media. Ching appears as a member of the Brethren Court, the ruling council for pirates of all nationalities.

Thus far we have fractured three previous pirate stereotypes. Although these archetypes have long been cast aside by modern historians, these conventions influenced the impression of Golden Age pirates for generations, and it is only relatively recently that public perception has shifted towards the true reality of the pirates’ life. One stereotype, long since abolished, was that pirate ships were male-dominated, and while this was certainly the case, there are instances of women finding liberty aboard sea roving vessels. One such individual was Jeanne de Clisson, who in attempting the avenge the death of her husband, commanded a fleet of ships bearing black sails. Next, there was the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley, who terrorised the coasts during the reign of Elizabeth I. Laskarina Bouboulina is another notable female queen, who commanded a fleet of warships during the Greek War of Independence (1821-29). During the 19th century, roved Madam Ching, who dominated the China Seas and was one of the only confirmed pirates to have comfortably retired.  In the eighteenth century, ‘civilised’ seafaring gave to the world the fascinating stories of Mary Anne Talbot and Hannah Snell. Pirate subculture however, bequeathed the legends of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Despite there being over 2,000 confirmed pirates roving the Caribbean in 1720, this number would decrease exponentially in the coming years, and there remained only half this number three years later, and there remained only a few hundred stragglers by 1726. Indeed, out of over 2,000 pirates, in truth there are only four confirmed female Golden Age pirates. One such pirate was Martha Farley, who along with her husband very briefly occupied Blackbeard’s old stomping ground near Ocracoke Inlet, before being acquitted in 1727. Next, there was Mary (sometimes referred to as Maria) Critchett, whose very brief pirating career was brought to an abrupt close after being caught by a navy patrol ship in the Chesapeake Bay, and ended her short stint as a pirate with a hangman’s necktie. However, none have attained Bonny and Read’s legendary status.

The front cover for Johnson’s General History, as you can see Bonny and Read reign supreme, while their male counterparts remain blow in much smaller font.

Before we delve into the histories of these most infamous of pirate legends, it is important to note that while their stories are ones of intrigue and pure fascination, their histories may in fact be somewhat, or even entirely, fictional. As per usual, the only contemporary evidence we have of their upbringing is Johnson’s General History, which has garnered an increasing level of criticism over the course of three centuries.

But for now, let us examine the legends of Bonny and Read, at least according to the General History. Anne Bonny, the future redheaded hellcat of the Caribbean was supposedly born in County Cork, Ireland in the late 1680s, the product of an affair between the attorney William Cormac, and a maid employed in his service. After a very confusing fiasco involving a set of silver spoons, to which Lady Cormac believed were being stolen by the maid, she proceeded to sleep in the maid’s bed to prove her guilt. Her husband then entered the room, and it was there she discovered the affair. Despite Lady Cormac summoning a constable, and the unnamed maid being held for a short period, it was discovered that she was pregnant and gave birth to the new-born Anne while still in prison. In an initial attempt to hide his daughter’s true parentage, Cormac disguised her as a boy and passed her off as a clerk in his employ.

Anne Bonny, as depicted in the General History (1724), note the number of weapons she carries. These include a boarding axe, several knives, a cutlass and a pistol.

When Anne was still a child, Cormac and his wife divorced, and he relocated his practice to the Carolinas and brought Anne along with him, with the intent of purchasing a plantation. In Johnson’s own words, Anne possessed ‘a fierce and courageous temper’, and it was claimed that she had once killed an English serving girl with a knife, though even Johnson claims this story may be baseless. It was also claimed that when a young man attempted to assault Anne, she beat him within an inch of his life. Despite her father’s efforts to find a good match for his daughter, Anne eloped with a hapless young sailor named James Bonny, and was subsequently disinherited.

We shall return to Bonny’s story presently, but next let us take into consideration the trials and tribulations of her sister-in-arms. Mary Read, the fearless raven-haired harridan also possessing seemingly impossible origins. Reportedly born somewhere in England in the 1680s, Mary’s mother’s husband was a sailor, who would frequently leave his wife alone for months on end while he was at sea. According to Johnson, Mary’s mother suffered an ‘accident’, which to quote the captain, ‘often happened to women who are young, and do not take a great deal of care’ and fell pregnant. Evidently, the baby was not her husband’s child. Mary’s mother alleged to her mother-in-law that her new-born daughter was her husband’s, and in similar regards to Bonny, Read was raised as a boy for much of her adolescence. When her ‘grandmother’ died some years later, Mary was placed in the employ of a French lady as a footboy. Ever the adventurer seeker and discontent with civilian life, after some years and employing the skills she had acquired while posing as a boy, Mary once again disguised herself and joined the army, and was at some point deployed to Flanders. If true, whilst in the army one can imagine that Mary found a sort of comradeship, as she was respected by her peers and distinguished for her commitment to her duties. Not only this, she also found love. According to legend, she and her new husband left the army and ran an inn, until he passed away a few years later.

Mary Read, also from the General History. In similar regards to the Bonny’s previous illustration, note the number of weapons present.

Heartbroken, Mary returned to sea, this time aboard a Dutch privateering vessel bound for the West-Indies. Soon after, the vessel was set upon by English pirates, and as Mary was the only ‘Englishman’ aboard, ‘he’ was pressed into service. Finally, it is here that the legends of the pirate queens finally converged. Enter John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, our next player. After leading a successful mutiny against his captain, in late 1719, Rackham limped to Nassau and bartered a pardon from Woodes Rogers, claiming that he and the remaining crew had been forced into service. In keeping with the theme of pirates not abiding by their pardons, in the summer of 1720, Rackham and his crew departed Nassau, once again flying the black banner of piracy in the sloop William. Rogers, furious about having been made a food of yet again, issued a proclamation on 5 September for Rackham’s recapture, noting the presence of ‘two women, by name, Ann Fulford alias Bonny and Mary Read’ aboard Rackham’s ship. Soon after, pirate hunters were dispatched. The game is now set, and history will never be the same.

The circumstances in which Rackham and Bonny met are unknown, but it is likely that they became involved while she was living in Nassau with her husband, James. It is said that Rackham had attempted to ‘purchase’ Anne from James in a legal practice that was once referred to as a ‘wife sale’. James, furious with Anne’s infidelity, sought the help of Woodes Rogers, who subsequently had Anne publicly flogged. There are differing anecdotes referring to when the first meeting between Bonny and Read took place. Some claim that the two met aboard the William or another of Rackham’s commands, either prior to or after leaving Nassau. According to legend, despite being Calico Jack’s lover, Bonny was taken aback by a young handsome man, and being ‘not altogether so reserved in point of chastity’, Bonny was slightly disheartened to realise the young pirate’s true gender. Of course, the pirate in question was a disguised Mary Read. It is known that the pair struck a close friendship, while some historians even claim that the two were also lovers. Another anecdote dictates that Read’s gender was known prior to their escape from Nassau, and this is the most likely as in Rogers’ aforementioned proclamation, Read was named directly.

Rackham’s banner is undoubtedly one of the most famous pirate flags of all time. In Pirates of the Caribbean, this flag is repurposed Captain Hector Barbossa aboard the Black Pearl

Rackham’s defying of traditional maritime practice and the courage and tenacity displayed by the two pirate queens set into motion one of the Golden Age’s most enduring and inspiriting legacies, and it is here where genuine historical agency takes command. Rogers dispatched a sloop of 12 guns to hunt down Rackham’s pirate band, and Rackham, likely expecting this, set a course south and harassed fishing boats near Harbour Island, and later a schooner off the coast of Port Maria. After raiding further along the coast, the pirates dropped anchor at Negril, Jamaica. This was a disastrous move. The privateer Jonathan Barnet tracked down the William, and Rackham attempted to set sail and escape. Barnet positioned his ship and fired a broadside, crippling the William in the process. The pirates, Rackham himself included, ran below decks and barricaded themselves in the hold. Bonny and Read however, refused to stand down.

The two women fought valiantly, with Read even firing a flintlock pistol into the hold and cursing the pirates as cowards. Outnumbered, both of them were overwhelmed, and marched across the island from Davis Cove to Spanish Town lead by Major Richard James for trial. Rackham was tried first, and although he and his crew all pleaded not guilty, on 16 November 1720 they were all found guilty of ‘piracy, robbery and felony’. Legend has it that prior to his hanging on 28 November, Bonny and Rackham were permitted to meet once more, and she cursed that had he ‘fought like a man, he need not be hanged like a dog.’ Rackham’s body was gibbeted at Dead Man’s Cay, known today as Rackham’s Cay which can still be visited today. Likely due to the uniqueness of their circumstances, Bonny and Read were tried separately. It was read before the court that ‘the said Mary Read and Anne Bonny, alias Bonn . . . did feloniously and wickedly, consult, and agree together, and to and with, John Rackham . . . to rob, plunder, and take, all such person . . . which they should meet with on the high sea.’ What followed was perhaps the most theatrical pirate trial of the Golden Age, arguably even rivalling that of Captain Kidd. 

Both protested that they were not guilty, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Fisherwoman Dorothy Thomas swore that ‘the two women, prisoners at the bar, were on board the sloop, and wore men’s jackets, and long trousers and handkerchiefs tied about their heads; and that each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands, cursed and swore at the men’. Thomas continued that Bonny and Read ordered the deaths of their captives, should they escape and alert the local authorities. When asked by the arbitrator whether the accused had anything to say in their defence, Bonny and Read maintained a deathly silence. Thus, they were sentenced to ‘go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you, shall be severally hanged by the neck, until you are severally dead.’ Did they really think it would be that easy? They spoke up and played the ace of their sleeves. Both women claimed to be pregnant, a manoeuvre known under English common law as ‘pleading one’s belly’, and their executions were postponed until their children were born, yet this would only keep the reaper at bay for a few precious months.

What happens next is tragedy entangled in myth and legend. Mary Read fell ill with a particularly violent fever and died shortly after giving birth to her child. St. Catherine Parish corroborate this, naming her death date as 28 April 1721. The fate of her child remains unknown. Bonny’s fate on the other hand is more ambiguous, as she simply vanishes from history. Johnson admits that even he could not find any evidence to her fate, though he firmly attested that ‘only this we know, that she was not executed.’ Perhaps she died in prison with Mary, or perhaps her influential father somehow smuggled her out or manoeuvred her release. Some say she lived until 1782 before dying at the ripe age of 82, having lived a long and adventurous life. 

Both women embraced the pirates’ life with great enthusiasm, demonstrating immense degrees of courage, and demanded the respect of their peers in an occupation that was previously perceived as an exclusively male enterprise. Not only did they renounce the traditional concepts if maritime authority, both women were also complacent in defying traditionalist marital practices. Both women were married at separate times, Mary Read to her (alleged) spouse after serving in Flanders, while Bonny wed at least twice, once to James Bonny, and again to Rackham some years later. In doing so, both women adhered to John Gillis’ definition of ‘proletarian practice of self-marriage and self-divorce.’ Interestingly, both Bonny and Read unknowingly aided in the passing of the 1753 Hardwicke Act, which restricted the passing of marriages outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England. Thence, they defied the traditionalist practices of a notoriously oppressive establishment where women felt few rights, and commanded respect in the maritime world well into the present day. To close this issue, though the natures of their upbringings remain shrouded in mystery, the legitimate historical agencies surrounding Bonny and Read can never be countermanded, and if their legends can be summarised in a single word, I think of only one: Defiance.

Next: Sloops and Floating Fortress- The Pirate Ship

Further Reading:

Burg, Barry Richard. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean. New York, 1984.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Cordingly, David. Seafaring Women. New York, 2007.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London, 2004.

Ellms, Charles. The Pirates Own Book. Portland, 1859.

Gosse, Phillip. The History of Piracy. Dover, 2007.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.

Kinkor, Kenneth. ‘From the Seas! Black Men Under the Black Flag’ in American Visions Vol. 10, Issue 2. Washington, 1995.

Rediker, Marcus. ‘Liberty Beneath the Jolly Roger’ in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World 1700-1920 eds. Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling. London, 1996.

Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.

The Tryals of John Rackham and Other Pirates. The National Archives, Kew.

Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. New York, 1999.

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