When most people hear the word "pirate," they conjure images of Long John Silver, Captain Hook and today's most popular pirate, Jack Sparrow. In fact, most people are familiar with male pirates and sailors being so superstitious that they wouldn't even allow a woman on board their ship. However, there were exceptions in the male dominated world of pirates.
The Two Most Well-Known Female Pirates
The two most common and notorious names in the unique subject of female piracy are Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Not only are these women famous for living outside the boundaries of the law, Anne Bonny and Mary Read actually knew each other and became close friends. These "pirate queens" still have admirers today, such as the Florida based Bonny-Read Krewe, a private club of women and their "Grogmaster" mates that celebrate the legend of these two women.
Anne Bonny was born in the late 1600s, in County Cork, Ireland. Anne was the love child of a prominent Irish attorney, William Cormac and his housekeeper mistress. After the birth and the revelation of the affair, Cormac and his lover moved to America, where the family made a new life on a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. Anne was a spirited, independent and headstrong young woman, who got caught up in the wild life of the port city of Charleston, where she met a young, small-time pirate named James Bonny. Against her father's will, Anne married Bonny and ran off with him to New Providence (now Nassau), a notorious pirate haunt. It was here that Anne absorbed herself in the pirating lifestyle, making many friends and allies along the way.
During this time, Anne met and became quickly infatuated with Captain Jack Rackham, better known as Calico Jack. Accounts are mixed as to why she became disillusioned with her husband James. Some sources say Anne grew tired of playing the role of obedient wife and waiting for James to come home from sea, while others say Anne became disgusted with her husband, who turned informant when the Bahamian governor offered King's pardon to any pirate who decided to go legitimate. In any case, Anne fell in love with Calico Jack and began sailing the Caribbean with him. However, there was one small catch in this romantic scenario. Jack's pirating crew would have never allowed a woman to board the ship with them. Anne had to disguise herself as a man to join the crew.
One woman masquerading as a man, fighting alongside other pirates and having a secret affair with the captain is quite an amazing story. Even more amazing is the fact that Anne was soon to discover another crew member carrying the same secret.
Mary Read was born around the same time as Anne Bonny, however, Read was born in Plymouth, England. Mary was born an illegitimate child as well and when her mother's husband failed to return home after a long voyage at sea, Mary's mother dressed her up as a boy and they traveled to London to seek financial help from the missing husband's family. The mother-in-law, who disliked girls, was more than willing to help her daughter-in-law and supposed "son."
Masquerading as a boy seemed to suit Mary, who knew it was a male-dominated world. Disguised as a male, Mary spent time sailing on a man-of-war and later enlisted in both a foot and a horse regiment. However, Mary ended up falling in love with a soldier, whom she married and the two became innkeepers, living in Holland. Tragically, her husband died young and Mary was forced to return to a life of disguising herself as a man to survive.
Posing as a male, Mary boarded a Dutch merchant ship and sailed to the Caribbean. One of the ships Mary happened to be sailing on was taken over by Captain Jack Rackham. Mary became a crew member of Captain Jack's Vanity sloop. Around this time, Anne had been left on the island of Cuba, where she had given birth to her first child. It is unclear what became of the child, however, Anne soon returned to her pirating lifestyle with Captain Jack.
The Caribbean Hellcats
Whether Mary was already on board Captain Jack's ship when Anne returned or she joined the crew shortly after Anne's return is also unclear. However, the two females soon discovered they were each sharing the same secret and quickly became good friends.
Anne and Mary were notorious for their quick tempers and aggressive fighting. They earned the respect they deserved from the other crew members. Their reign as two of the most bloodthirsty pirates in the Caribbean came to an end in 1720, when a British Navy ship surprised the drunken crew of Calico Jack's ship off the coast of Jamaica. Because the men were so intoxicated, they hid below the deck, while Mary and Anne bravely tried to defend the ship. Understandably, the women were so furious with their cowardly crew mates, they ended up killing one and wounding a few others.
The entire pirate crew, including Calico Jack, was captured, tried and sentenced to hang. The two female pirates, Anne and Mary, were given a temporary stay of execution because they were both pregnant at the time. Sadly, Mary died from a high fever while in prison. No one is certain about the fate of Anne Bonny. One theory states her freedom was bought by her wealthy father. Once freed, some say she lived a quiet life on a Caribbean island, others say she moved to England and still others say she went back to South Carolina, remarried and had many more children.
Other Female Pirates
There were other female pirates throughout history, from many different countries. It's impossible to tell now how much is fact and how much is fiction, however, these daring women have amazing stories that have immortalized their names in history. Other female pirates include:
Ching Shih - A famous Chinese pirate who took over her husband's huge fleet of ships when he was killed in a typhoon. Ching Shih ruled the China Sea during the early 1800s and commanded tens of thousands of other pirates.
Grace O'Malley - The daughter of an Irish sea captain, Grace always wanted to be a sailor but was heavily discouraged by her family. She cut her hair and impersonated a male to prove she could handle the seafarer way of life. Although no one took her seriously at first, her persistence paid off and she was allowed to go to sea, eventually commanding her own fleet.
Charlotte de Berry - an English woman from the 1600s, who fell in love and married a sailor in the Royal Navy. Charlotte disguised herself as a man so she could sail with her husband. After the death of her first husband, she was forced to marry a tyrannical captain, who repeatedly raped her and then set sail to Africa with his unhappy wife in tow. Charlotte convinced the rest of the crew to join her in mutiny and once the ship was taken, she beheaded her husband. As the new leader, Charlotte and her crew became pirates, raiding ships for gold along the African coast. There is much debate over whether Charlotte de Berry was a real person or is a fictional story.
Rachel Wall - This young woman was married at the tender age of 16 to George Wall, a struggling young fisherman in Boston, who convinced five of his sailor buddies that piracy would be much more profitable. Rachel abandoned her job as a maid and joined her husband and his pirating crew. These pirates would wait for storms to blow in and pose as a distressed ship needing help. Once they lured a ship in, they would take it by force. After retrieving all the valuables, the Pirates would kill the crew and sink the ship, making it appear as a casualty of the bad weather. This scheme worked well for about a year, however, their luck ran out when George and another crew member were swept over board and the pirate's ship was destroyed. Although Rachel was eventually rescued, as a widow, she was forced to become a maid again and eventually started to steal once more. Rachel was arrested for robbery and during her trial, she confessed to piracy but claimed she had never killed anyone. Nonetheless, she was hanged for her crimes in 1789.
There were many more female pirates throughout history, enough to fill the pages of a book. One common theme that seems to occur with most stories about female pirates is the fact that they had to masquerade as men to be able to board a ship. However, once these daring and brave women proved themselves to be valuable crew members and sometimes even leaders, they often earned one of the rarest attributes given to women in the past: respect.