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The lady who enjoyed dressing as boy became a fearsome pirate: The life and times of Mary Read

Ian Harvey

Mary Read is best known for her role in the pirate crew led by “Calico Jack” Rackham – a crew which also included the noted female pirate Anne Bonny. Mary Read was as formidable as any male pirate that sailed the high seas.

There is little confirmed information about her as most of what is known about her comes from a biographer known as Captain Charles Johnson. During her trial, she was spared the gallows because of her pregnancy. She and Anne Bonny were both sentenced to imprisonment for their crimes. But Mary didn’t last long in prison as she died from a fever.

A contemporary engraving of Mary Read Photo Credit

A contemporary engraving of Mary Read Photo Credit

Most information about her life comes from Captain Johnson’s book, A General History of The Pyrates. His information is unconfirmed as he didn’t quote sources, yet his book was very descriptive. In his book, he states that Mary was born in England around 1690 and her mother dressed her up as her older brother. Mary Read’s brother had died, and her widowed mother used Mary to get money from her paternal grandparents. Mary Read’s father was believed to be a sea captain who had died and left Mary and her mother alone. Due to her mother’s deceit, Mary became a girl who enjoyed dressing up as a boy.

She even sought out work reserved for men. She was so good at dressing up as a man that she deceived the British Army and was enlisted as a soldier and a sailor. She fought for her country against the Dutch. The war took her to Holland, where she found her first love – a Flemish soldier who she married and helped run an Inn at Breda.  It was not until the death of her husband that Mary Read turned back to wearing men’s clothes. She was unable to run their inn, called the “The Three Horse Shoes” near the castle, so she was forced to return to war. This too didn’t last long as the peace was soon reached. Mary’s last resort was to take a ship and sail for the West Indies.

 

Not discouraged by her husband’s death, Mary was looking for a new life when her ship was attacked by pirates. She saw this as an opportunity; instead of fighting the pirates, she joined them.

Like a lot of things in Mary’s life, this did not last long. She had been a pirate for just a little time in the Caribbean when she accepted the terms offered in a pardon – to go on board a privateer to help the Crown hunt down other pirates. After signing the pardon in 1718, Mary Read turned back to piracy. She became a member of “Calico Jack’s” pirates in 1720.

Mary Read reveals her femininity.

Mary Read reveals her femininity.

The life of a pirate was not glamorous, but it appealed to at least two women; Mary Read and Anne Bonny. These two women were destined for the high seas. They dressed the part too, by dressing up in men’s clothing. According to reports, Anne Bonny tried to seduce Mary Read. One such report is that Anne Bonny revealed to Mary Read that she was, in fact, a woman. This led Mary Read to tell Anne that she too was a woman. As the story goes, the two women were, in fact, lovers.

Another report about how tough Mary Read was came from a story of how she killed a fellow crewman. This, according to the report, was done out of love to protect her love interest. Mary Read had fallen in love with a fellow crewman.

This didn’t end well for another crew members who took issue with Mary’s new interest. An exchange of words ensued between the two men. This was to end in a brawl between the two men and Mary, fearing for her lover, took the other man’s life just hours before the brawl was to take place. This showed the brutal and cutthroat personality that was Mary Read’s.

In October 1720, the crew of Calico Jack Rackham had drawn the attention of Governor W. Rogers. He commissioned bounties for the capture of the pirates, who were somewhere in the Caribbean. After a tip-off as to the location of the pirates, Captain Jonathan Barnet cornered and captured them. According to the account, the two bloodthirsty women, knowing that capture spelled death, they put up a brave fight.

Their male colleagues cowered below deck. As valiantly as the women fought, they were eventually captured. Their cowardly crew members were swiftly put to the gallows after being found guilty on November 18. Mary Read and Anne Bonny had been sentenced to death as well, but on November 28 they told the court they were pregnant. This saved them the torment of being hanged, but Mary didn’t live long thereafter — she died in her prison cell of fever.

A lot is still unknown about Mary Read’s earlier life. This is due to the role played by women during those years. What is evident is that she was one of two well-documented female pirates. The actual account of her life as a pirate is in doubt because of the lack of sources behind Captain Johnson’s reports.

Mary Read killing her antagonist [with a sword]. Illus. in: The Pirates Own Book, 1842, p. 389. Photo Credit

Mary Read killing her antagonist [with a sword]. Illus. in: The Pirates Own Book, 1842, p. 389. Photo Credit

But the evidence does show that two females by the names of Mary Read and Anne Bonny were part of the crew of Calico Jack Rackham. Rackham himself is not seen as a great pirate of the “Golden Age of Piracy.” He preyed on the weak and in the end went out with a whimper. His most notable contribution was that he had allowed two of the most fearsome females to join his crew, About Education reported.

 

As for Mary Read and Anne Bonny, their contribution is far more memorable; not as pirates but as female pirates who slugged it out with the best of them. They had unwittingly laid the foundation for women for many future generations. They challenged the misconceptions about the roles of women and how women should be treated.

To an extent, many women look to Read and Bonny for inspiration, and draw from their experiences.

Read another story from us: Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts was the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy

Much may not be known about Mary Read but what is certain is that her contribution to history won’t be readily forgotten.