There aren’t many women pirates in the Caribbean that we know of. However, Captain Johnson immortalized two such women: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Much of what he tells us about them is probably untrue. Still, it’s worth looking even at his fibs to see what they tell us about women in the early 18th century.
(There are footnotes in this blog post. You don’t have to read them. But if you want to, they are hyperlinked both ways. Click on the footnote number in the text, and you go to the footnote. Click on the footnote number at the beginning of the footnote, and you return back to your place in the text.)
In his book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, Captain Johnson[i] devotes a whole chapter to each of the women pirates, and they are entertaining reading. But if you want to understand them in context, you should read the preceding chapters on Captains Vane and Rackam[ii] first. And I need to explain a few things about piracy in the Caribbean in the late 1710s.
The War of the Spanish Succession had been an all-out struggle between all the major European powers from its beginning in 1701.[iii] In the Caribbean, the war pitted the French and the Spanish against the English and Dutch. They all had built up their naval fleets, and the English in particular had given commissions to many privateers.[iv]
And then when peace came with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713,[v] the major powers revoked their privateering commissions and laid up much of their naval fleets. This left a great many seamen unemployed. For those who had been privateers in particular, switching to being pirates was easy.[vi] And if that wasn’t enough encouragement, a Spanish treasure fleet went down in shallow waters off the coast of Florida in 1715. Treasure? Did someone say treasure? Every sailor with a ship and idle time on his hands suddenly found the prospect of a trip to Florida quite attractive. Maybe they could engage in some salvage. Or maybe that would be too much effort, and they’d just steal the silver from the salvagers!
So there was a major eruption of pirates after 1713. Remember my third rule about pirates? They needed a base. And they found one in the Bahamas, on the island of New Providence. You see, the Bahamas were a British possession,[vii] but the Spanish had raided the islands in the late war, and driven out the colonial government. So they had become a lawless land, and hence a good place for pirates to congregate.
The days of the buccaneers were long past,[viii] and the British were making more money from lawful trade than they ever could from piracy, so they decided to put down the pirates. They tapped Woodes Rogers, a former privateer who had written a famous account of his circumnavigation of the world,[ix] gave him some warships, and sent him out to govern and civilize the Bahamas. Not that they expected him to rely just on brute force; they also decided to use persuasion. By the authority of the King as embodied in a 1717 proclamation, Rogers was allowed to issue pardons to any pirate who agreed to stop being a pirate and pursued a lawful existence thereafter.
Charles Vane and “Calico Jack” Rackam were uninterested in taking the pardon. They decided to demonstrate their contempt for those pirates who did take the pardon, and for the British government as well. So when Rogers arrived in the Bahamas, Vane and Rackam sent a fire ship against Rogers’ naval vessels before fleeing the harbor.[x] And that sets the stage for the stories of Vane, Rackam, Read, and Bonny.
So what do we know for sure about Read and Bonny? They were definitely serving on Calico Jack Rackam’s ship. They were vicious, foul-mouthed, and courageous fighters. They lived and dressed openly as women aboard ship, but dressed in men’s clothes when fighting, which makes good sense. Bonny was Rackam’s mistress and had a husband still living somewhere. When both women were convicted of piracy, both claimed, accurately, to be pregnant.[xi] Mary Read died in captivity before giving birth, while Anne Bonny’s fate is unknown.
Captain Johnson has a lot more to say about both women. But we should take what he says with a grain . . . no, make that a truckload of salt. Johnson’s accounts blend the genres of the repentant criminal confession and sensational journalistic story and are quite suspect. Why this is so reflects the predicaments both the women and Johnson found themselves in.
For the women, the problem was that they were going to be hanged. They were pirates. That was bad enough. They were foul-mouthed and violent, which made them definitely unladylike. Bonny had definitely abandoned a husband to live in adultery with Rackam. And, perhaps worst of all, both women dressed in men’s clothes, upsetting the natural order of the universe, which mandates that men dress like men and women dress like women, else chaos will destroy civilization.[xii]
Well, one way to try to avoid being hanged is to suck up to the authorities, tell them what they want to hear, make them want to show mercy to you. Portray yourself as someone who would have led a blameless life, had you not been misled into a career of crime. There’s an entire genre of “confessions” issued by condemned criminals in this era, in which they all explain how they fell into criminality through no fault of their own, and how they have seen the light, that they admit their past sinfulness, and claim they would go straight if they weren’t hanged.[xiii]
And this is what Read and Bonny did. Both of them claimed that it was an erring parent who made them dress up as boys when they were young. Both made it clear that they sinned sexually not due to any of their own viciousness, but due to the wicked ways of men. Bonny had the harder task, since she was known to have abandoned a husband and lived as Rackam’s mistress, so her account is less satisfactory on that score, although more salacious by the standard of the times.
But confessions and apologies, while morally pleasing, don’t bring in the readers the way a good scandal does. So somewhere along the line, someone, perhaps Johnson himself, decided to make the biographies of the two women more sensational by adding all sorts of improbable stories.[xiv] Mary Read was given a career as a soldier whose chronology would put her age in her mid-forties. That is most unlikely. Life as a soldier or sailor was rough, and tended to age people, while Mary Read was young and healthy enough to get pregnant, and was said to have attractive breasts, besides.[xv] Anne Bonny was given a quasi-respectable past as the illegitimate daughter of a maid and a lawyer, respectable enough to make her fall from grace entertaining, while disreputable enough to explain why she was such an awful creature.
Both biographies had to walk a narrow line. The women had to be shown as naturally innocent to evoke pity. At the same time, they have to have encountered unusual circumstances that turned them into monsters. Because no normal woman would ever turn pirate, curse, thieve, shoot people, fornicate and commit adultery, and, as bad as the rest, dress up in men’s clothes. They had to be monsters. Don’t dress up your daughter in boy’s clothes, or else she’ll become a pirate! It was sort of the 18th century’s equivalent of saying that if you let your little boy play with dolls, he’ll turn gay.
It worked well enough that Bonny and Read earned woodcuts depicting them both in Johnson’s General History. Keep in mind that none of these were done from life. My understanding is that the engraving with both of them came first, and is fairly realistic. The later pair of engravings at least demonstrate that the artist knew what to give his audience: a hint of breasts. I doubt either woman fought looking like that.[xvi]
In the end, what do we know about these women? They were pirates, fiercely so. Anne was married before she met Rackam. Johnson probably gets the meetings of Rackam and the two women wrong; they probably met in the Bahamas in 1720 when Rackam had taken the pardon he had earlier spurned. Rackam turned pirate again, and had a career of only a few months before he was captured. Both women were found guilty, and “pled their bellies” to escape immediate execution. Mary Read died, probably still pregnant, while in prison. Anne Bonny apparently did have a father who was well-off, so she may have eventually been released.
The rest is legend.
[i] Don’t know who I’m talking about? Well, in a manner of speaking, neither do I. Captain Charles Johnson is the putative author of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724-28), which is available online and in many print editions. (I like the Dover edition, myself.) We don’t know who Captain Johnson really was. But his book is one of the major sources for contemporary information on the pirates of the 1690-1724 period.
[ii] Calico Jack’s surname is sometimes spelled “Rackham.”
[iii] The war was over who would get Spain and its empire after the last Spanish Habsburg, Carlos II, an inbred freak, died in 1700. The major powers had agreed through various partition treaties how to carve up Spain’s empire. But Carlos II disregarded those treaties and left it all to one of French King Louis XIV’s younger grandsons (i.e., not the one who would inherit the throne of France). Louis faced a grim choice: let his grandson take the inheritance, and face a war against all the other major European powers, or let the partition treaties go into effect, in which case he and his Bourbon dynasty would get much less. Louis decided to risk war, and that’s what happened. Besides the colonial powers, the Austrian Habsburgs were also a major player in this war, as they felt that Habsburg territories should stay Habsburg territories. In the end, Louis XIV’s grandson did get Spain and its overseas empire, under the condition that the thrones of France and Spain never be united. Various other powers got bits and pieces; notably, the Austrian Habsburgs ended up with what is now roughly Belgium. The French and Spanish thrones, now both held by Bourbons, would often act in alliance during the 18th century.
[iv] Presumably the French and Dutch did so as well. The Spanish tended to keep a tighter rein on such matters, not giving their colonial governors much discretion.
[v] Some secondary conflicts continued until 1715.
[vi] Keep in mind that privateers are basically pirates licensed to go after the ships of enemy powers in wartime.
[vii] I’m using the term “British” instead of “English” now when referring to the government, since the Kingdoms of England and Scotland had been combined into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. If you heard about the Scottish independence referendum held in 2014, its aim was to reverse this unification, which has also included Northern Ireland since 1801. It did not pass, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland endures, though the Prime Minister has promised the Scots greater autonomy.
[viii] What is usually called the last major buccaneering raid was a French-led action against the Spanish port of Cartagena (in modern-day Colombia) in 1689. That Jamaica’s old buccaneering capital of Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692 also helped end the era of the buccaneers.
[ix] Rogers’ 1712 account is entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World. In sending an ex-privateer to put down pirates, it would seem the British government was following the old policy of “set a thief to catch a thief.”
[x] They failed, but the sight of the fire ship, its double-shotted cannons going off while the ship burned, was quite spectacular. Initially, Vane was captain and Rackam the quartermaster on the Ranger, the sloop they sailed out of the harbor.
[xi] Who the fathers were is a good question. Both women had been in prison so long that it was unlikely to be Jack Rackam. It’s possible that both women found guards willing to have sex with them in order to become pregnant. British law did not allow the hanging of a pregnant woman, so being pregnant won a woman a temporary reprieve, and hope that she could get her case reconsidered at a later date. For who would want to hang the mother of a newborn child?
[xii] It’s hard to imagine these days just how ingrained the idea of distinct attire for men and women was in Western culture. Did you know that in medieval Iceland, a woman could actually divorce her husband for wearing clothes that were effeminate? And even in my childhood, my local school system had a dress code that forbade long hair for boys and slacks for girls. Fancy restaurants would refuse entrance to women wearing pants. I fondly remember a TV show from 1973 starring Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) which showed how absurd, or at least sexist, this could be. In an episode, Danner enters a restaurant in a stylish pants suit. She is told pants are not allowed on women because they are immodest attire. Whereupon she drops her pants, revealing a miniskirt underneath. That is considered acceptable, though clearly less modest. Or perhaps it was acceptable because it was immodest in an acceptable way?
[xiii] Or how they hope to make it to Heaven anyhow, but understand that they deserve Hell. Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998) by Karen Halttunen describes this genre in detail, and explains how it was transformed into sensational criminal stories in the 19th century.
[xiv] Considering that Johnson wrote an entire chapter on the fictional Captain Misson, inventing some stories about these two women would hardly have been a challenge to him. Although it’s possible that the two women spun some tall tales themselves to make themselves sound more colorful. Or perhaps the 18th century equivalent of urban legends sprung up about these two.
[xv] I am not saying it’s impossible for a woman in her forties to have attractive breasts. And, because this blog does not discriminate on the basis of gender, I should note it’s quite possible for a man in his forties to have an attractive chest.
[xvi] Female superheroes in comic books get similar treatment: their uniforms are not meant so much to protect them as to highlight their sexual charms. DC’s Power Girl is a prime example.