Women pirates of the West Indies

As we sail through the Caribbean and up the American coast in comfort and tranquillity, it’s as well to remember that, three hundred years ago, the voyage would have been fraught with dangers.  Both passengers and crew would have been at the mercy of the elements and even the most well-to-do would have suffered from malnutrition.  The most prevalent and fearful danger, however, would have come from pirates, most of whom were former British sailors who had switched allegiance.  The most famous of all was the Welshman, Henry Morgan, who plundered Spain’s Caribbean ports during the seventeenth century with the tacit support of the British government.  Then there was the Scotsman, William Kidd, who had been a legitimate privateer against the French off the coast of North Africa and in the West Indies.  He later received a royal commission to apprehend pirates who molested the ships of the East India Company in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.  Then, in defiance of conventional wisdom, the gamekeeper turned poacher and he took up piracy in the West Indies, only to be captured and taken back to England where he was hanged.  Another celebrated pirate was Bartholomew Roberts, popularly known as Black Barty, who plied his plundering trade from the coasts of West Africa to Brazil and from the Caribbean up to Newfoundland.  At one point, he was reputed to have four hundred vessels under his command and he even designed his own flag – a giant figure of himself, standing, sword in hand, astride two skulls.  Finally, there was Edward Teach, the legendary Blackbeard, who was born in Bristol in the late seventeenth century and died off North Carolina in 1718,  He sailed as a legitimate privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession and later attacked every kind of shipping in the Caribbean and off the North American coast, sharing his loot with the corrupt governor of North Carolina.

The two pirates whom I am going to discuss today were the equal in valour, daring and, according to many reports, brutality of the four I have just mentioned.  The crucial difference, however, is that they were women.  Women pirates have been documented since history began.  Among the earliest were the legendary Ch’iao K’uo Fuu Jeen, who practised her trade off the Chinese coast in the sixth century BC, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus who terrorised the Aegean in the fifth century BC and Elissa, better known as Dido, the reputed founder of Carthage, who plundered the Mediterranean also in the fifth century BC.  During the Dark Ages, several of the more celebrated Viking pirates, including Wigbiorg, Hetha and Wisna were female, while, in more recent times, the Irish Grace O’Malley, better known as Granuaile, the Pirate Queen of Connaught, fought and raided English ships off the coast of Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Granuaile was a fearless commander who escaped from confinement in Dublin Castle and later sailed to Greenwich where the Queen was holding court, demanding – and receiving – an audience, during which she made a successful plea to save her son.  Female piracy continued, predominantly in Asia, well into the twentieth century.  One of the most successful of all pirates was the Chinese Huang P’ei-mei who, between 1937 and the 1950s, commanded a force of over 50,000 in the South China Sea.  As late as the 1980s, a woman known simply as Linda led a pirate gang off the coast of the Philippines.

It is interesting to speculate what led such women to adopt a way of life in which they were doubly outlawed and in which, whatever the immediate rewards, the odds were that they would not be enjoyed for long.  The key was clearly freedom.  Piracy offered a woman everything that was denied to her on land:  the chance to keep her own hours and to spend them as she chose, in drinking, gaming, gambling, plundering and killing.  There would be no arranged marriage, no forced attendance at church, no enslavement to elderly relatives, no household to run, no family to support, no chamberpots to empty (I’m wondering whether some of the ladies in the audience are already feeling the attraction).  Some women followed their lovers into piracy;  others were the daughters of pirates who carried on the family tradition.  One celebrated pirate, the eighteenth century Fanny Campbell, led a mutiny to find her fiancé.  Another, the nineteenth century Cheng I Sao, became a pirate to escape a grim life of prostitution.  Mary Read, as we shall see, turned mercenary after a cross-dressing career in the military, while Anne Bonny found in the pirate garb – and in Mary’s arms – a liberation from her conventional sexual role.

  Anne Bonny has been portrayed as, respectively, a prototype feminist who chose piracy as a means of rebellion against a male-dominated world and as a tomboy who never grew up, as a free-spirited woman full of grit and gumption and as a conscienceless criminal.  To many, her appeal lies as much in what isn’t known about her as what is and, here, I must apologise in advance to the Gradgrinds among you.  This is not a subject that can be verified by many hard facts.  It depends, variously, on conjecture, the statements of often compromised witnesses, a lurid trial report and, in particular, a romantic account by one of the world’s great myth-makers, the pseudonymous Captain Charles Johnson, better known as Daniel Defoe.   Such historical documents as do exist, however, lend credence to the notion that Anne Bonny was a headstrong, independent woman with a fearlessly courageous temperament.  It is also clear that she was ahead of her time, for she stood up for her rights in an age when women were expected to behave in a sedate, subservient manner.  Subservient was a word that simply didn’t feature in her vocabulary.

The exact date of Anne’s birth is not known, but it is believed that she was born in County Cork, Ireland between 1697 and 1700.  Her father, William Cormac, had a successful legal practice in Kinsale and her mother, Mary Brennan, was his wife’s maid.  Defoe (from hereon, I shall eschew the Captain Johnson pretence), writing of her illegitimacy, declares somewhat floridly that it ‘seems to cross an old Proverb, which says that Bastards have the best Luck’.   He goes on to describe how Cormac’s wife found out about her husband’s adultery through a bed-trick which is as old as comic literature and which is worth quoting for its literary merit – if not for its factual accuracy.  One night Mrs Cormac dispatched her maid to another room and took her place in her bed.   Defoe takes up the tale ‘The Husband came to Bed, and that Night play’d the vigorous Lover;  but one Thing spoiled the Diversion on the Wife’s Side, which was, the Reflection that it was not design’d for her;  however she was very passive and bore it like a Christian.  Early before Day, she stole out of Bed, leaving him asleep and went to her Mother-in-Law, telling her what had passed, not forgetting how he had used her, as taking her for the Maid;  the Husband also stole out, not thinking it convenient to be catched in that Room;  in the mean Time, the Revenge of the Mistress was strongly against the Maid, and without considering that to her she owed the Diversion of the Night before, and that one good turn should deserve another;  she sent for a Constable….’  And, to cut a long and somewhat sensational story short, had her arrested on a trumped up-charge of theft.

Mary languished in jail, only to be acquitted at her subsequent trial when Mrs Cormac declined to give evidence.  While imprisoned, Mary found that she was pregnant and, on her release, having separated from his wife, William set up house with Mary and their baby Anne.  To avoid either provoking his wife or offending public opinion, he maintained the fiction that Mary was his housekeeper and Anne was the young son of friends whom he was training to become his clerk.  Anne was, indeed, dressed as a boy – and I’ll leave it to the psychologists among you to decide how much bearing this may have had on her subsequent choice of clothes and career.  Cormac’s hopes of silencing scandal, however, were thwarted and his legal practice ruined.  So he decided to make a new start in the new world.  With Mary and Anne, he sailed to America and settled near Charleston in South Carolina which, at the time, had a large shipping community.   After presenting Marry Brennan to polite society as his wife and Anne as his legitimate daughter, he resumed his practice, which proved to be sufficiently successful for him to purchase his own plantation in Charleston, where the family took its place among the community’s elite.

Mary died while Anne was in her early teens and the young girl took over the responsibility of keeping house for her father.  But, while she may have inherited her father’s independent spirit, she had clearly missed out on her mother’s domestic skills.  She was an out-and-out hoyden.  Despite being the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, her face was dirty and her habits rowdy.  As one historian notes, she ‘grew up into a strapping, boisterous girl’ of a ‘fierce and courageous temper’.  Her fiery disposition gave her an unusual way of dealing with recalcitrant servants.  Indeed, she was said to have stabbed an insubordinate maid with a casement knife – although the charge was never substantiated.  It was, however, common knowledge that, at the age of fourteen,  she thrashed a young man who made unwelcome advances to her so violently that he was forced to take to his bed for several weeks.

To a girl of Anne’s temperament, the languid elegance of plantation life was far less alluring than the seedy attractions to be found in the wharves and ports of Charleston, which was a notorious pirate haunt.  There, at the age of sixteen, she fell in love with James Bonny, a sea captain who paid court to her, unbeknownst to her father.  History proclaims him to have been either a penniless soldier or a small-time pirate.  Either way, as his subsequent behaviour shows, he clearly had as sharp an eye for William Cormac’s fortune as for his daughter’s unconventional charms.  He was doomed to disappointment.  Cormac, who in time-honoured fashion had conveniently forgotten his own youthful escapades, opposed Anne’s match to a man who, in Defoe’s calculation, was ‘not worth a groat’.    He had long wanted her to become a respectable lady, marry a Charleston man of his choice, and take the leading place in society for which he had worked so hard.  Anne, in typically headstrong fashion, married Bonny against her father’s will and was duly deprived of a dowry.  Legend has it that she took her revenge by burning down the plantation.  Disappointed in his expectations, Bonny sailed with his new wife for New Providence (present-day Nassau) where he hoped to find profitable employment.

If Charleston had been a pirate’s den, New Providence was the capital of iniquity.  Both Blackbeard and Captain Kidd had made it their base and pirates virtually ruled the city.  Indeed, most of the population was made up of pirates and their paramours.  Anne established her reputation the moment she arrived by shooting the one remaining ear off a drunken sailor who had blocked her way when she disembarked.  It was said that, while in New Providence, she perfected her skills with a sword, publicly stripping her fencing instructor by cutting the buttons off his costume, one by one.  She quickly made friends with some of the town’s most raffish characters, notably Pierre Bouspeut, alternatively known as Pierre Delvin or Peter Bosket or, more graphically, as Pierre the Pansy, a designer of fine velvet and silk clothing, who ran a coffee, hairdressing and dress-making shop and who had designed the loud striped pants that gave the notorious pirate, Captain ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham, his sobriquet and whose relationship with Rackham reputedly went far further than a shared taste in clothes.  Through Pierre, Anne became acquainted with a group of pirates who, as the phrase went, swung ‘port’ as well as ‘starboard’.

Marriage to James Bonny soon disagreed with Anne.  She considered him to be a traitor, a coward and a government stoolpigeon when he abandoned pirating and became an informer to Governor Woodes Rogers, turning in his erstwhile comrades for a generous reward.  Before long, she left him and went to live with the pirate Captain Jennings and his mistress, Meg, who advised her to acquire some male protection.  Accordingly, she became the mistress of Chidley Bayard, one of the wealthiest men on the island, although, first, she was forced to fight a duel to the death with his current lover, a violent and volatile Spanish beauty named Maria (either Vargas or Reynaldi depending on the source), who, it was rumoured, had once decapitated a child who had inadvertently dirtied her skirts.  With Maria duly dispatched, she took her place at Bayard’s side but, while she enjoyed travelling with him and spending his money, she had difficulty fitting in with his friends.  At a ball, he introduced her to the sister-in-law of Governor Lawes of Jamaica.   When the woman, after making caustic insinuations about Anne’s position in Bayard’s life, declared that she did not consider Anne worth knowing and told her to keep her distance,  Anne cheerfully replied that she’d make sure that there was a considerable distance between them and proceeded to knock out two of the woman’s teeth. 

Bayard’s influence managed to save Anne from jail, but the incident ended the relationship between them and Anne was once again both alone and bored.  Either through Pierre or another of her pirate associates, she met Rackham who, in spite of his liberal use of perfume, penchant for frilly clothes and reputation as the lover not just of Pierre but of his former commander, the infamous Captain Charles Vane, did not swing solely to ‘port’.   Anne fell for Rackham, who was benefiting from the recent pardon that Governor Rogers had granted to pirates and which, ironically, had put her husband, James Bonny, out of work.  The attraction was mutual and Rackham lavished presents on her, until he was forced to sail with Captain Burgess, another former pirate who had become a privateer commissioned to seize Spanish vessels.  The voyage was successful and Rackham returned with a plentiful supply of prize money which he proceeded to share with his mistress.  At this point, James Bonny reappeared, abducted Anne and brought her bound and naked before the governor, charged with the felony of deserting him, for, like any wife, Anne was regarded as her husband’s property.  He suggested a remedy of ‘divorce by sale’ – in other words, putting up Anne for auction – but his hopes of profiting by it were dashed by Anne’s refusal to be, as she put it, ‘bought and sold like a hog or cattle’.  She expressed herself so vehemently that no buyers dared step forward to bid for such a hellcat.  The governor was obliged to release her on condition that she return to her rightful master, but James, whose sole interest lay in the money, fled in terror from the storm he had raised.  Rackham and Anne assembled a crew and, stealing a slope of between thirty and forty tons from one John Haman, set out in hot pursuit.   James escaped after a merry chase but, in an echo of her revenge on her father, Anne burnt his turtle business to the ground.

Anne’s fate was now bound up with Rackham’s and she joined his crew in the guise of a man, ostensibly because most eighteenth century sailors believed that a woman aboard ship brought bad luck.  It is said that she fought so well with both pistol and cutlass that no one suspected her sex and the one man who did challenge her lost his life on the tip of her blade.  Her gutting of the man most probably went a long way towards ensuring that, when the truth was revealed, the rest of the crew gave her their support.  One incident from this period illustrates both her courage and the strange blend of humour and ingenuity that lay behind her exploits and which can only be described as an early form of camp.  Pierre was always on the lookout for new cloths and materials and, having heard that a French Merchantman, liberally laden with silks and satins, would be sailing in the vicinity, persuaded Anne to raid it.  Together, they smeared the topsail and deck of the ship – as well as many of the crew – with turtle blood.  In the bow they placed one of Pierre’s dressmaker’s dummies, clad in women’s clothing, similarly splashed with blood, and arranged the crew around it like corpses.  Brandishing a blood-soaked axe, Anne stood over this nightmare figure and they sailed out to meet the Merchantman.  Sailors are a deeply superstitious breed and, when they caught sight of this demonic ship illuminated by the full moon, the Frenchmen were so horrified that they gave up the prize without a fight.

For all Anne’s attempts to live on the ship as a man, there was one condition that set her apart:  pregnancy.  Rackham convinced her that a pirate ship was no place to give birth, so they sailed to Cuba, where he left her in the care of friends until she had the child.  Sadly, the baby was two months premature and died within an hour of her birth.  Anne was devastated, convinced that her lifestyle had been responsible for her daughter’s death.  When Rackham returned, he was horrified by her mental state and, taking advantage of the pardon which had been extended for a further year, took her back to New Providence to recover.  Soon after their return, Anne learned through Pierre of a plot to kill Governor Rogers and relayed the information to the Governor who was, naturally, extremely grateful.  But Anne’s husband, James, who was still living on the island, now made a final appearance in her story.  He was determined to get even with Rackham and Anne for publicly humiliating him and had them arrested in the middle of the night and brought before the Governor as fast as the soldiers could drag them.  This time Rackham offered to buy Anne from him but Bonny, knowing his wife’s temper, declined, saying ‘She’ll kill me if she’s set free.’  The Governor asked laconically ‘Are you afraid of her then?’  The question did not need a reply. 

The Governor, recalling the favour that Anne had so recently done him, decided to be lenient, commanding that Anne be flogged and returned to her rightful husband and that Rackham be set free.  Anne, however, was enraged at being treated as her husband’s chattel.  She broke out of prison and, together with Rackham and Pierre, stole another sloop from the harbour and slipped through the blockade that Rogers had positioned there.  For this incident, she stripped to the waist like an Amazon and dressed in black velvet trousers designed by Pierre, with one hand resting on the hilt of her sword and the other waving a long silk scarf at the astonished spectators.  It was said that she sailed past ‘as daintily as any fine lady being seen off on a long ocean voyage.’  The trio gleefully resumed a life of piracy, throwing caution and convention to the wind.

With each successive raid, their notoriety grew.  On one such, they took a particularly valuable prize:  the woman with whom Anne’s name will forever be coupled, Mary Read.  Mary was twenty years older than Anne, having been born in Plymouth in the mid 1670s.  She too was illegitimate but, when her mother lost her husband and son in quick succession, she dressed Mary in boy’s clothes, passed her off as her son and took her to London to solicit help from her mother-in-law.  The ruse worked and the old lady promised the pair the sum of a crown a week.   She died when Mary was thirteen and, still in male guise, Mary found a post as footboy to a wealthy French woman.  But, according to Defoe, ‘here she did not live long, for growing bold and strong, and having also a roving mind, she entered herself on board a man-of-war where she served some time;  then quitted it.’  Still passing as a man, she enlisted first in a foot- and later in a horse-regiment in Flanders, serving in both with distinction.  There, she fell in love with a fellow soldier but, according to a strangely disapproving Defoe ‘It seems Mars and Venus could not be served at the same Time;  her Arms and Accoutrements which were always kept in the best Order were quite neglected.’ 

In this round of their eternal conflict, Venus turned out to be the victor.  Mary confessed her true gender, and her lover was, to quote Defoe again ‘much surprised at what he found out and not a little pleased, taking it for granted that he would have a Mistress solely to himself, which is an unusual Thing in a Camp.’  Mary, however, was resolved to withhold her favours until they were married.  The wedding duly took place, after which she and her husband left the army and opened a tavern known as the Three Horseshoes near the castle of Breda.  This was in 1697, around the time that Anne Bonny was born.

They ran the tavern for nearly twenty years, until the dual misfortunes of Mary’s husband’s death and the slump in trade after the Treaty of Ryswick.  Once again Mary adopted male clothing in order to survive and signed on a Dutch merchant ship bound for the Caribbean under the name Mark Read.  During the voyage, the ship was commandeered by English pirates whose ranks Mary was persuaded to join.  They raided a large number of ships and from one of these took prisoner a young man with whom she fell deeply in love.   As Defoe puts it, she ‘became so smitten with his Person and Address that she could neither rest Night or Day, but there is nothing more ingenious than Love, it was no hard Matter for her, who had before been practiced in these Wiles, to find a Way to let him discover her Sex.’  Which she did by ‘carelessly shewing her Breasts, which were very white.’   The romance blossomed, leading Mary to perform what Defoe, in typically extravagant fashion, describes as ‘one of the most generous actions that ever Love inspired.’  The young man had a dispute with one of the pirates and, since the ship lay at anchor, they were to go and fight it out on shore, according to pirate custom.  Mary, to save her lover, picked a quarrel with the same pirate and managed to schedule her duel first.  Armed with sword and pistol, she killed him on the spot.

Like many of their fellows, Mary’s pirate comrades accepted Governor Rogers’ pardon in 1718 and began operating as privateers.  As fate would have it, soon afterwards the ship was captured by Rackham and Anne.  Bored with her current life, Mary decided to join their crew, quickly forging an intimate bond with Anne.  The two were said to be as brave and as dangerous as any male pirate on the sea, one of their shipmates later declaring them as ‘resolute and ready to board or undertake anything that was hazardous in the time of action’ and another stating that both women cursed and swore with the best of men and never cringed at murder.  They were always the first to volunteer for any boarding parties, becoming well-respected by the crew for their ferociousness and feared for their unpredictability.

They also became lovers.   In 1978, a play about their exploits was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at London’s Aldwych Theatre.  The author, Steve Gooch, explained that he had first come across the story in a tiny booklet that fell out of a Shredded Wheat packet.   The true story would hardly have been deemed suitable for a family breakfast table.  The pirates of the West Indies flouted sexual convention as openly as they flouted maritime law.  When they first met, Anne and Pierre enjoyed a teasing rivalry for the favours of the male population of New Providence.  Rackham carried on simultaneous affairs with Anne and Pierre.  Meanwhile, Anne and Mary became inseparable on board ship, alternately donning male and female clothing.  Their relationship was accepted by their fellows, although, at one point, Rackham, whose male pride was wounded by discovering Mary naked with Anne in her cabin, threatened to slit her throat.  There is evidence that the four lovers – Anne, Mary, Rackham and Pierre – attempted to retire from piracy and live peacefully inland as an extended family – a very modern relationship – but, the notoriety of ‘these infamous women’ made them fatally attractive to bounty-hunters.  They knew that they would never find peace ashore and were forced to ply their trade to the bitter end.  

That end when it came was swift and dreadful.  In October 1720, Governor Lawes of Jamaica, the man with the caustic sister-in-law, heard of their presence and sent troops under the pirate-turned-privateer, Captain Barnet, to commandeer their ship and bring them to trial.  Having captured a fishing boat only the day before, the pirates were making merry with the fishermen’s rum and their ship – appropriately named the Providence – was taken by surprise.  The men were so drunk and the cannonfire was so thick that, instead of fighting, Rackham and his crew scrambled into the lower hold of the ship and hid, cringing.  Anne and Mary stood alone, trying to fight off the invaders, frantically reloading the one-shot pistols while cannonballs whistled by their heads.  Finally, they too ran towards the open hold and looked down at the men cowering beneath.  ‘If there’s a man among ye,’ Anne is said to have screamed, ‘come out and fight like the men ye are thought to be.’  When this drew no response, the two desperate women, streaked with blood and sea-water, wounded by splinters and shrapnel from the exploding cannonballs, raised their muskets and fired into the hold, killing one of the men and wounding several others, including Rackham.

It took over an hour for Barnet’s entire crew to capture the two women.  They and their fellow pirates were brought to trial at a Court of Admiralty in St Jaga de la Vega, Jamaica, on November 16, 1720.  When Mary was asked why a woman might turn to piracy, rather than coming up with an answer that might save her life, she replied ‘That, as to hanging, she thought it no great hardship, for, were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn Pirate and so infest the seas that men of courage must starve;  that if it was put to The Choice of the Pirates, they would not have the punishment less than death, the fear of which kept some dastardly rogues honest…. so that the trade in a little time would not be worth following.’  In spite – or because – of Mary’s spirit, she and her fellows were convicted of piracy and sentenced to be hanged.  When asked if she had anything to say, Anne speaking on both her own and Mary’s behalf, replied ‘We plead our bellies, sir!’.  This was a common stratagem among women sentenced to death, since no court would take an innocent (albeit unborn) life, and the women would be spared – at least until their babies were born.   Rackham, who had recovered his courage in court and asked for mercy for the women, was granted a special favour to see Anne on the day he was to hang.  It was then that she uttered the celebrated words ‘I’m sorry, Jack!  But if you had fought like a man, you would not now be about to die like a dog.  Do straighten yourself up!’

It is doubtful whether either of the women was pregnant – certainly, neither of them bore a child, and recent researches have shown that the doctor who validated their claim was a long-standing associate of Anne’s.  Mary died of a violent fever, brought on by the foul air in the Spanish Town prison, early in 1721 (although some accounts state that she merely feigned death and was sneaked out of jail in a shroud).  Anne’s fate is even more mysterious.  She received several stays of execution before disappearing forever from official records.  The most common explanation is that her wealthy father forgave her and ransomed her back to the Carolinas, where she assumed a new name and a new life, marrying a Joseph Burleigh by whom she had eight children, dying in her eighties on 25 April 1782 and being buried in Sweethaven, Virginia.  An alternative version has it that the Governor was forced to set her free when pirate ships from up and down the coast assembled with their guns pointed towards his estates bearing the message ‘Let Anne Bonny go or feel the thunder of pirate guns from Port Royal to Kingston and back again.’

Whatever the truth of the matter, it would seem most unlikely that, after her life of high adventure, Anne could ever return to one of docile domesticity.  Her actual fate will probably never be known, nevertheless, in spite of its more lurid aspects, her life is one that can be celebrated.  She was determined to enjoy it on her own terms, refusing to bow either to social convention or family pressure.  Both Anne and Mary proved themselves to be the equal of any man and, for that reason alone, they should be honoured as feminist pioneers.  During the final battle aboard the Providence, Anne is reported to have said of her feckless comrades ‘Dogs!  If instead of these weaklings, I only had some women with me.’  She certainly wasn’t being ironic.