How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won't Forget
How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget

How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget

Wyatt Redd - January 1, 2018

The 18th Century is often considered part of the “Golden Age of Piracy.” It was a time when the lack of control by the great European powers over the new world let piracy run rampant through the Carribean. But that’s not to say that it was ever easy to be a pirate. While some pirates managed to grow fantastically rich, many more ended their career swinging from a gallows. And if the 18th Century was still a tough time to be a pirate, it was also a hard time to be a woman. So, it’s easy to imagine how hard it would be to be both.

But that’s the position Mary Read found herself in during the early 18th Century, which is why she chose to disguise herself as a man. Of course, Mary had a lot of practice at disguising her gender. Her mother worried that her family would disown her if they found out she had a daughter out of wedlock. So, she began dressing Mary up as a boy and passing her off as her older brother, Mark, who had died shortly before Mary’s birth. Apparently, the scheme worked, and Mary spent most of her teenage years as a boy.

How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget
Mary Read, Wikimedia Commons.

Finding life as a man to her liking, Mary joined the British military and fought in campaigns against the French. She proved herself to be an able soldier in Flanders and eventually married a Flemish soldier. After Mary left the military, she and her husband bought an inn in the Netherlands called “The Three Horseshoes.” But after her husband died shortly afterward, Mary re-enlisted in the military as Mark. And after the wars in Europe came to a close, Mary decided to try her luck in the New World and took a ship bound for the West Indies.

But on the way, Read’s ship was boarded by pirates. Believing that Read was a man, they offered her the standard deal: join us or die. Wisely, Mary chose to join the pirates. In 1718, the King offered an official pardon to many pirates in the Carribean, including Mary. She then found work on a privateer ship, raiding the shipping of the enemies of the British Crown. But the line between pirates and privateers was always blurry, and soon Mary decided to cross it and joined up with an infamous pirate, Calico Jack Rackham.

How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget
Calico Jack Rackham, Wikimedia Commons.

But shortly before he met Read, Captain Rackham had fallen in love with a woman named Anne Bonny. Bonny was the wife of another pirate, but the marriage wasn’t a happy one. And after Bonny met Rackham, she left her husband for the captain, disguising herself as a man to avoid unwanted attention from other pirates. When the pair met Read, they seem to have instantly developed a connection. And in 1720, the three stole a ship harbored at Nassau in the Bahamas and took to the open sea for a life of piracy. But as their reputation as pirates grew, the chance of someone discovering Read’s secret grew as well.

How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget
Anne Bonny, Wikimedia Commons.

Over the next few months, Read and Bonny began to grow closer. Though neither knew that the other was also a woman, they found that they had much more in common with each other than with the men on the ship. Finally, Bonny decided to tell Mark Read that she had feelings for him. Obviously, this wasn’t an easy decision to make. If Mark didn’t keep her secret, then everyone on the crew would find out Bonny was a woman. And being the only woman on a ship full of pirates isn’t a position anyone wants to be in.

You can imagine the strange mixture of relief, confusion, and maybe just a bit of disappointment that Bonny must have felt when she confessed her gender and her feelings to Read, only to find out that Mark was actually Mary. But with this new connection between them, Read and Bonny grew even closer. The pair began spending much of their time together, even fighting side by side in battle. But the obvious relationship developing between the two pirates began to attract Captain Rackham’s attention. Afterall, Rackham still had no idea that Read was a woman.

As Rackham watched the person he thought was Mark Read spending time with his lover, his suspicion grew. Eventually, he decided to confront Bonny about her new friend in a fit of jealousy and threatened to cut Read’s throat. To avoid Rackham’s anger, Bonny was forced to admit that Read was actually a woman. And it’s here that the story gets a little hazy. Most modern tellings of the relationship between Rackham, Read, and Bonny imagine that, at this point, the three began engaging in a three-sided sexual relationship.

And there are many historians who suggest that Bonny and Read were at least having a romantic affair with each other. But we don’t know for certain that this was going on. Of course, both Bonny and Read were married, which suggests that they were probably attracted to men. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t attracted to each other. And given that Bonny seems to have fallen for Read when she thought Read was a man, there may have been some sexual attraction that survived the reveal of her true gender. So, it’s certainly possible that the three were engaged in a relationship.

How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget
Mary Read killing a man, Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the information we have about Read and Bonny comes from the work of Charles Johnson, who wrote a popular account of the history of piracy in the Carribean. Johnson’s account covers the careers of the two pirates, but it doesn’t go into much detail about their sexual relationship. That’s assuming of course, that there was one. But it certainly appears that both Read and Bonny were having sex with someone. The two claimed to be pregnant within a few months. And that fact would prove to be very important by the end of 1720. As it turns out, their pregnancies were what saved them from being executed.

How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget
Mary Read fighting a duel, Wikimedia Commons.

One night in October 1720, Rackham’s crew was gathered off a beach in Jamaica with the crew of another ship. As you might expect of pirates, the entire party was good and drunk within a few hours. But unknown to the pirates, an English Navy vessel was cruising nearby through the dark night. On board was famous pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet. Barnet’s ship snuck up on the pirate ship and fired a volley from its guns, crippling Rackham’s vessel. As Barnet prepared to board the ship, Rackham and his crew fled to the hold, leaving only Bonny, Read, and one other pirate on deck to fight the boarders.

Read and Bonny were furious at the men’s lack of courage and shot their way into the hold, killing one of the crew. But either too afraid or too drunk, the pirates refused to help fight off Barnet’s boarding party, and soon they were all captured. Barnet then brought the pirates to an English settlement on Jamaica to stand trial. At the trial, Rackham was found guilty of piracy and sentenced to hang. As Rackham was being led out of the courtroom, Anne Bonney allegedly told him, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog.”

Ten days after Rackham’s execution, during their own trials, Bonny and Read announced to the court that they were both pregnant. And since they were with child, they couldn’t be executed. After the clamor in the courtroom died down, the two women were sent to prison on the island until the court could determine if their claims of pregnancy were actually true. Whether or not they were is a question lost to history. Read died in prison within a few weeks from a fever, possibly during childbirth.

But there is no record of Read’s child being buried. So there are a few possibilities to consider. Read may have died before she could give birth. Or she may have died during childbirth along with the child, and the child buried in an unmarked grave. Or she may have given birth to a healthy child that survived as an orphan and simply disappeared from the historical record. Finally, there’s always the possibility that Read was lying about being pregnant and died before she could be hanged. All we know for sure is that Read died in 1721 in Port Royal. She was likely around 35-36 years old.

How Two Female Pirates Disguised as Men Fell In Love Is a Dramatic Story You Won’t Forget
Anne Bonny firing at the hold, Wikimedia Commons.

Bonny’s case is more interesting, as we actually have no idea what happened to her. There are no official documents that report her being executed or giving birth. It’s possible that she was hanged, or died in prison. Or it could be that she was released from prison. At the time of her trial, Bonny was a mere 18-19 years old. So, if she did manage to escape execution, she may have lived a long life afterward. She may have even returned to piracy under a different name. It would be a fitting story for one of the most famous female pirates in history.