In November 1720, a pair of women named Anne Bonny and Mary Read took the stand in Spanish Town, Jamaica, accused of piracy in the Caribbean. Their surviving victims, Dorothy Thomas and Thomas Spenlow, recounted harrowing attacks in which the women fired their pistols at will, struck people with their cutlasses, swore, cursed, and even fought with their shirts open, revealing their bare breasts.

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The fact that the two women were said to fight harder and deadlier than their male pirate crewmates was shocking enough for the jury to convict them almost immediately. But who exactly were these women, and how did they end up being two of the most notorious pirates of the 18th century?

Unfortunately, much of their early existence is a mystery, with virtually no information about their lives before they entered piracy in August 1720. The only account comes from Captain Charles Johnson’s book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates –a collection of pirate biographies published in 1724. However, the book is largely fiction, with very little fact. Anne Bonny and Mary Read’s biographies are no different, and may be the most fictitious of them all.

Johnson gives their early lives parallel origin stories: they were both illegitimate children raised as boys to avoid social scandal as bastard daughters. Anne then eschewed 18th-century female societal roles by running away with a sailor, James Bonny, to become a pirate. After several years at sea, they landed at Nassau on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, and separated. Anne subsequently spent much of her time in taverns wooing sailors and pirates until she met Captain John (Jack) Rackham.

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Mary apparently had a similar story in that she joined the British Army in Flanders disguised as a young man. She then seduced and married a fellow soldier, but he died soon after, so she resumed her male identity and re-joined the army in a different regiment. Grief, however, dulled her skills, so she was honourably discharged. It was time for a new beginning. She then joined a merchant ship, which was soon besieged by pirates, and ended up in Nassau after opting to join the pirates’ ranks herself. Here she is said to have met Anne and Jack, and the three of them embarked on their own voyage as part of a larger crew.

Two months of terror

When the trio set sail from Providence in August 1720, Anne – thinking Mary was a man – apparently attempted to seduce her fellow crewmate. Despite the revelation that Mary was, in fact, female, they quickly become the fiercest pair on the ship, and may have even started a romantic relationship regardless.

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According to Johnson, Rackham was so jealous of Mary’s closeness to Anne that he threatened to slit her throat, but when he realised that she was a woman too, he acquiesced to the pair’s relationship.


Dr Rebecca Simon responds to your questions on the 17th-century golden age of piracy and discusses how accurate pop culture portrayals of pirates are on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


Surviving historical documentation provides contradicting information, however: whereas Johnson claims that Mary joined Rackham’s crew disguised as a man, a written proclamation issued by Woodes Rogers, governor of the Bahamas, calls for Rackham’s arrest along with “two women, by name Ann Fulford alias Bonny, and Mary Read”. This means that Anne may have arrived in the Bahamas under a false name, and that Mary was known to be a woman when she stepped aboard with Rackham’s crew.

Despite the confusion surrounding the women’s origins, their subsequent pirate careers are well known thanks to the publication of a 1721 book, The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and other Pirates’. According to the account, Rackham and his crew sailed from late August until late October 1720 on board a captured ship he named the Revenge, with their first attack taking place on 3 September, when they seized seven fishing boats off the coast of Harbour Island in the Bahamas. They struck with brute force – but none fought harder than Anne and Mary – and took fishing goods worth £10 in Jamaican currency.

Things would go poorly for several weeks, but the pirates’ patience was finally rewarded on 1 October, when they managed to seize two merchant ships, taking more than £1,000 in British pounds in the process. This huge success spurred Rackham to become more reckless, and on 19 October, the crew had their greatest triumph off the coast of Port Maria Bay, Jamaica. Here they captured another merchant ship and took its captain, Thomas Spenlow, hostage.

Later that same day, they seized a canoe containing a woman named Dorothy Thomas. Anne and Mary were ruthless in the attack and insisted they kill Dorothy, but Rackham overruled them. The two women insisted that she could speak out against them if they were caught, but Rackham ignored their advice.

Their luck was waning, however. The governor of Jamaica, Sir Nicholas Lawes, had heard of their exploits and charged the famed pirate hunter, Jonathan Barnet, to attack and capture the ship. Barnet, a privateer of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), knew many pirates’ haunts in the area, and managed to get information from Dorothy Thomas regarding their whereabouts. He caught up with them off the coast of Negril Bay (now known as Bloody Bay) and lay in wait until after dark. In the meantime, Rackham and the rest of the crew were celebrating their spoils by drinking all their stolen wine. Only Anne and Mary abstained, and warned the men to keep a lookout. No one listened.

Returning to dock

At around 10 o’clock, Barnet approached the Revenge with a British flag, calling for Rackham to surrender. The pirate captain refused and shouted he would neither give nor take any quarter, but after Barnet fired his ship’s cannons, Rackham ordered everyone to hide down in the hold.

“If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” Mary allegedly shouted at her crewmates, still standing on deck. She shot her pistol into the hold, killing one of her fellow pirates in the process, but the men still refused to fight, leaving Anne and Mary to defend the ship alone. Captain Barnet and his men easily overpowered the duo, and soon, all the pirates were arrested and sent to Port Royal, before being carted to Spanish Town for trial.

Captain Jack Rackham was one of the first to be sentenced to death. On the morning of his execution, 18 November 1720, he asked to see Anne for some final words of comfort. Still furious at how his cowardice likely led to their imprisonment, she spoke with callousness: “If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.” That same afternoon he was hanged at Gallow’s Point, later renamed Rackham’s Cay.

Thomas Spenlow and Dorothy Thomas were key witnesses, just as Anne and Mary predicted, and their testimony damned the rest of the pirates almost immediately. Although they all pled “not guilty”, the entire crew was condemned and sentenced to hang. At Anne and Mary’s trial, the women were asked if they had anything to say in their defence, to which they replied “no”. But after receiving their sentence of death, they revealed a shocking secret: both were pregnant. As custom dictated, they were given a stay of execution until after the birth of their children.

Tragically, Mary died in prison in April 1721 of ‘gaol fever’, today known as typhus, and possibly complications during childbirth. Anne’s end is more mysterious. It has long been thought that she managed to leave prison and go back home to the Carolinas, where she lived until the age of 82. On the other hand, more recent research has located records in St Catherine’s Parish, Jamaica, listing the death of a woman named Anne Bonny in 1731, suggesting that she may have spent the rest of her life on the island.

The enduring mystery that surrounds their early years, combined with their extraordinary bravery and capacity for violence, has cemented Anne Bonny and Mary Read as two of the most notorious pirates in history. But not only do their stories provide a fascinating insight into what it was like to sail during the golden age of piracy, they also show how it was possible for women to survive – and thrive – in such a dangerous world.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read in pop culture

Anne Bonny and Mary Read’s stories have had a profound impact on popular culture, starting with the biographies that appear in Captain Charles Johnson’s book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724.

Some 53 years later, John Gay’s Polly, a sequel to the dramatist’s famous Beggar’s Opera, premiered. The title character has a similar background to Anne: she disguises herself as a man to travel to the West Indies and find the love of her life. Along the way, she meets a fellow female pirate named Jenny, who is evidently based on Mary Read.

More recently, in 1978, Steve Gooch wrote a play entitled The Women Pirates: Ann Bonney [sic] and Mary Read. The initial performances were deemed a failure due to their poor production quality, but the play enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s.

Since then, Anne has emerged as the more popular of the duo, with the US television show Black Sails (2014–17) featuring her as a main character. Played by Clara Paget, she is portrayed as a bloodthirsty woman, willing to murder anyone who stands in her way, but with a tragic backstory that seeks to humanise her. Bizarrely, the programme’s creators replace Mary Read with a fictional character named Max, who runs a brothel.

On the whole, Mary’s erasure in popular culture is a mystery, considering she was given a richer life story in A General History of the Pyrates. However, as Anne is described as embarking upon a life of piracy out of love for her husband (unlike the more masculine Mary), it could be argued that her story has been deemed more ‘socially acceptable’ for mainstream audiences.


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This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Dr Rebecca SimonHistorian, author and piracy expert

Dr Rebecca Simon is a historian of early modern piracy. She is the author of Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever (Mango Press, 2020)

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