The Real Lady Pirates of the Caribbean

Swashbuckling yarns abound of Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts and Captain Morgan - but the true story of two remarkable women is the most extraordinary pirate tale of all
History is full of tall tales and true of the great pirates of the Caribbean.

Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, who terrorised Atlantic shipping in the early part of the 18th century and was killed in battle in 1718, his head subsequently displayed on his enemy’s bowsprit. Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts, who plundered over 400 ships and died in battle off West Africa in 1722. Sir Henry ‘Captain’ Morgan, who dominated Spain’s Caribbean colonies in the late 1600s, but was knighted by Charles II and released to become Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Captain William Kidd, who started out as a pirate hunter, not a pirate, but eventually was jailed and hanged in 1701 after a controversial trial.

And then there was Englishman John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, who sailed the Caribbean and the American coast during the so-called ‘golden age of piracy’ and whose Jolly Roger flag was a skull and crossed swords. Although Rackham, who operated between 1718 and 1720, was not among the most successful pirates, he is infamous because he had under his command two female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And their incredible stories are two of the most improbable in the swashbuckling annals of Caribbean piracy.

Rackham himself was a brave and inscrutable figure, who earned his nickname because of his fondness for colourful calico clothes. He loved women and was rumoured to have kept a harem of mistresses on the coast of Cuba. Once a quartermaster on Captain Vane’s pirate ship, he revolted following the captain’s refusal to take on a large French ship, and was chosen by Vane’s crew as the new captain. He never looked back. Now in charge of Vane’s vessel, he embarked on a career of plundering smaller vessels, first around the Bahamian islands and then around the coast of Jamaica.

Rackham met Anne Bonny in a New Providence tavern in 1719 while seeking an amnesty from the then governor, Captain Woodes Rogers. She was married to James Bonny – a poor sailor and part-time pirate – but Rackham soon became her lover and persuaded her to leave her husband.

Finding herself pregnant with Rackham’s child, she went to Cuba, where the child was left with friends, and rejoined Rackham’s crew. They lived together as pirates and soon were married. While at sea, however, she became attracted to another young member of Rackham’s crew – who incredibly, in the intimate moment that followed, revealed herself also to be a woman.

This was piracy’s other great lady, Mary Read. Anne and Mary revealed their secret to Rackham and they became a powerful and feared trio, plundering and stealing ships across the Caribbean.

The story of how these two women came to be on the same pirate ship and served under the same charismatic pirate captain is extraordinary in itself. But things would become even more remarkable.


Details of both outlaw women are hazy, but Anne Bonny was born around 1700 in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, the illegitimate daughter of a maidservant, Mary Brennan, and her employer William Cormac, a lawyer. Unsurprisingly, Cormac’s marriage foundered – and he lost his Irish practice. So, hoping for a better life, he took Mary and Anne to the Carolinas in North America, where he eventually earned enough money to buy a considerable plantation.

The three of them lived together until Mary died of a fever, leaving the teenage Anne to keep house. She had a ‘fierce and courageous temper’ and there was even a rumour that she had killed a servant with a case knife.

Life was good for father and daughter – until the impetuous Anne fell under the spell of a wayward young sailor, James Bonny. Her father protested, but she eloped with Bonny and headed for the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. It was there, while frequenting the local taverns, that she met Captain Rackham.

The story of Mary Read in England has its own surprising twists and turns. Her mother had married a sailor while still a young teenager,but she was soon widowed and left with a very young son. Before long, however, she was pregnant again. Hiding her shame, she left her relations and hid in the country, taking her young son with her.

Unfortunately, he died, but spotting an opportunity, she dressed her new baby daughter, Mary, in boys’ clothing, and visited her mother-inlaw in London, passing the girl off as her (legitimate) first-born son. The ploy worked and she secured her mother-in-law’s financial support.

When Mary was 13 she was sent, still disguised, to work as a footboy to a French lady. But soon, having grown strong and developed a roving mind, she found work as a sailor, before joining the army fighting in the Netherlands. Admired by her superior officers, the young, disguised Mary fell in love with a fellow soldier and let him discover the truth about her sex. Soon they were married.

But their happiness did not last long. Mary’s husband died and the young widow returned to the sea; this time on a Dutch vessel bound for the West Indies, and again dressed as a man. These were dangerous times, however, and her ship was taken by pirates, Mary being kept on by the captain.

It was at about this time that the pirates, hearing about the amnesty offered to them by the governor of the Bahamas, headed to New Providence hoping to get a pardon, which they achieved. There followed a quiet existence on shore, after which they joined the governor’s privateers to hunt for Spanish ships sailing in the Indies.

Pirates-Nov07-03-590From left: Mary Read; Anne Bonny; John Rackham, alias Calico Jack

But the pirate soul is rarely content, and Mary and her fellow crew members mutinied against their privateer commanders, seized their vessel and turned again to their old trade of outright piracy. This was how she came to join the crew of Captain Rackham. Dressed as a man, she is reported to have been as bold as brass, and her true sex was never discovered until she and Anne Bonny shared their secret with their jealous captain.

Anne, Mary and Captain Rackham continued to successfully plunder vessels bound for Europe on their ship the Revenge, but Mary soon found herself to be pregnant. When she confided this information to Anne, Anne told her that she too was expecting a child. It was in this state that Anne and Mary fought their last and fiercest battle.

In 1720 Captain Rackham’s pirate crew were flushed with success. After looting several vessels off the Bahamas, they made for Jamaica, taking several merchant vessels on the way. The furious Bahamian governor, Woodes Rogers, dispatched privateer Jonathan Barnet in pursuit, and Barnet engaged Rackham’s ship at Negril Point, on the western tip of Jamaica.

Drinking heavily below decks, Rackham left the fight to his two female crew members. They fought fiercely and managed to hold off Barnet’s heavily-armed men for a short while with pistols, cutlasses and a certain amount of swearing. But too many of their fellow crew members were too drunk to fight, and everyone was captured and taken to the jail in Spanish Town, Jamaica.

On 16 November 1720, Rackham and the other male members of the crew were tried for piracy and convicted. Anne Bonny’s last, rather harsh, words to the imprisoned Rackham were: ‘Sorry to see you there, but if you’d fought like a man, you would not have been hang’d like a dog.’ Rackham and his fellow pirates were executed at Gallows Point, before being strung up in chains for everyone to see.

Anne and Mary were also condemned to death, but ‘pleaded their bellies’ (as pregnant women could) and received a stay of execution until they had given birth – it being unlawful to kill an unborn child. Mary died in prison, almost certainly of typhus, but history notes that Anne escaped execution.

It is possible that her wealthy father bought her release after the birth of her child. Who knows? Perhaps she even got to retire quietly on her father’s estate in the Carolinas.

For more on female pirates, visit the National Maritime Museum:

Journey To The Source Of The Nile, by Christopher Ondaatje, is published by HarperCollins, priced £20.