Mary Read and Anne Bonny: Part 1, an introduction to women and piracy in the 18th century

In the eighteenth century a pan-European movement, one particularly strong in England, Germany and the Netherlands, took hold in which women would disguise themselves as men and work their way into male dominated occupations. This was not unusual or unique to the time-period; in fact, these women were carrying on a tradition of females going underground to cross-dress as the male gender. What caused a distinction between the women of the eighteenth century and the cross dressing women that came before them was the fact that these women were celebrated. They were often hailed as heroes upon their return to their normal lives after having spent part of their lives passing as men in male occupations.  At this time the women’s story was being recorded and the exploits being sold to the public, there were biographies and pamphlets detailing their lives and illustrations of the women in men’s clothing yet retaining their femininity. The eighteenth century was a time when female warrior ballads were at a peak in popularity.[1] In a time period were society offered few opportunities for women to break out of their defined positions in life, a fair amount of women decided to take control of their lives and find adventure on the seas. The popularity of these stories can be seen in the number of memoirs and stories published about these women. Some recounted the true events of real life women who cross-dressed on the seas and others were fictional renderings published to sustain the public’s interest.

            Women assumed the identity of a man and found a life on the sea for a number of reasons. While it was an individual decision made by women who found themselves unique situations, there are certain themes that can explain why a woman disguised herself in order to enter the male sphere. There are the narrative reasons, the ones to fulfill a catalyst for the woman’s journey and at the same time justify to society their choice to take on a male appearance. The more acceptable reasons were ones where the woman decided to travel with trading companies in order to join their husbands in the Caribbean or to enlist in the navy to defend the homeland or search for their husband who was missing in action.[2] These were seen as noble acts for a woman to engage in and excused their bold decision to pass as men. A common theme in the true stories of cross-dressing women was that they did it in order to escape their cruel husbands and in their own private way, the women challenged the idea of female subordination.[3] There were also common themes in the stories for the women to be born illegitimately and, due to varying circumstances, raised dressed as a boy in their youth. These women were motivated by a need to escape poverty or find adventures and love that wasn’t available to them on land.

            It was not easy of course for these women to work their way into the male dominated world of nautical occupations. There was a practice of separating the sexes on board ships, which was deeply rooted in popular superstitions of the time.[4]  Women were thought of as a hindrance to the work and social order of the ships because any reminder of sexuality would be a distraction. Women were seen as objects of fantasy and adoration and not necessarily as people who could contribute to the work on the ocean. It was actually thought that sexual repression was necessary to do the work required aboard a ship. Of course, there was also the most popular superstition that is known today, women were seen as bad luck and a source of conflict when allowed on board ships. However, these eighteenth-century ideals of separating the sexes though did not stop several women from abandoning a conventional life for one in favor of the sea whether they are pirates or sailors in the navy.

            Piracy arose in Atlantic, and in the West Indies in particular due to the turbulent times of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There were constant wars being fought between the Spanish, French, English and Dutch upon the seas. The islands of the West Indies were being colonized rapidly in the early part of the seventeenth century. The close proximity of the islands to each other caused tensions and conflicts between the battling European powers.   In the time between conflicts, many sailors found themselves out of work and without away to sustain themselves. Laws passed by European powers putting limits on trade, like the British Navigation Acts of 1650 and 1660, allowed a market for illegal activities on the seas to open up fuelled by these idle sailors.[5] Piracy became a method for men to individually enrich their own lives and use their skills that were not being used in peacetime. By the time 1720 rolled around it is estimated that there was between two thousand and three thousand pirates operating in the Atlantic.[6] The world of piracy was overly violent; pirates were responsible for rapes, massacres, and everything else beyond human decency.

The world of Atlantic piracy is predominantly thought of as being occupied by tough swashbuckling men who only thought of women as a source of sexual pleasure. Women were not welcome aboard pirate ships just as they were not welcome aboard any working ship in the navy or in trade. Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most famous pirates, explained to his crew that “ No boy or women to be allowed among them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.”[7] Even with these restrictions, a few remarkable women made their name in the illegal activity on the seas. The two most infamous of all the female pirates in the Atlantic world were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They were two women who gripped the attention of the Atlantic world and while they were not the only females to roam in the world of piracy they certainly became the most well known.

Most of what we know about Mary Read and Anne Bonny comes from the 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson. The author’s name Charles Johnson is most likely a pseudonym with the real author of the biographies being Daniel Defoe[8], an English writer most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Published in London, Pyrates contains biographies of many contemporary pirates including some of the most famous pirate captains like Bartholomew Roberts, Blackbeard and Calico Jack. The biographies are considered to be highly accurate and have played a major role in shaping the popular conception of pirates today. Johnson admits that the lives of the two female pirates seem extraordinary but they were publicly tried and therefore their stories can be conformed. Transcripts of the trials have been preserved along as other contemporary documents that give evidence to support the adventures of Read and Bonny.[9] Most notably the trials of Read and Bonny can be found in the pamphlet, The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and other Pirates, (published in Jamaica, 1721). As Johnson wrote, “Truth of it [Read and Bonny] can be no more contested than that were such men as in the world, as Roberts and Blackbeard, who were pyrates”[10]. Johnson’s book also contains an abstract of the Statute and Civil Law, in relation to the acts of piracy. The book was a huge success and was published four times and two years (A newspaper in Philadelphia was already advertising a second edition of Johnson’s book in December of 1724[11]) and was translated in French, German and Dutch and sold all around the world with Read and Bonny being a central interest for the readers.

            The book itself reflects how interested the public was in learning about Read and Bonny, as it used the biographies of the women as a selling point for the book. Underneath the title reads the following caption, “With the remarkable Action and Adventures of the two Female Pyrates Mary Read and Anne Bonny”.[12] Placing the caption underneath the title draws attention to the fact that the book contains information on the two women. Using the names as an obvious selling point because it would not needed to be placed there unless there was already a high demand of interest in Read or Bonny. Otherwise, Pyrates would have been published with the names of Bonny and Read’s male counterparts on the cover.

[1][1] Marcus Rediker, “When Women Pirates Sailed the Seas,” The Wilson Quarterly, 17, no. 4 (1993): 106

[2] Rudolf M. Dekker, and Lotte van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), 29

[3] Theresa Braunschneider, “Acting the Lover: Gender and Desire in Narratives of Passing Women,” Eighteenth-Century Theory and Interpretation, 212

[4] Rudolf M. Dekker, and Lotte van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989): 29.

[5] Violet Barbour, “Privateers and Pirates of the West Indies,” The American Historical Review, 16, no. 3 (1911): 543

[6] David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History, (Westminster: Random House Adult Trade Group, 2001), 82.

[7] David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History, (Westminster: Random House Adult Trade Group, 2001), 80.

[8] Marcus Rediker, “When Women Pirates Sailed the Seas,” The Wilson Quarterly, 17, no. 4 (1993): 104.

[9] David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History, (Westminster: Random House Adult Trade Group, 2001), 79.

[10] Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates, (London: 1724): 157.

[11] The American Weekly Mercury, (Philadelphia: December 29, 1724): 2.

[12] Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates, (London: 1724).