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Biography of the Pirate Mary Read
Female Pirates of the Caribbean
Earlier this year, I published Penzance, Cornwall: Pirates. I discussed pirates operating in the town of Penzance in the county of Cornwall in England, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Pirates of Penzance, and the Cornish Pirates, a professional rugby union team based in Penzance.
I wondered whether there were ever any female pirates. Through my research, I learned that there were two female pirates, Anne Bonny from Ireland and Mary Read from England, who operated in the Caribbean during what became known as the Golden Age of Piracy (sometimes called the Golden Age of Pirates).
In this article, you will learn all about Mary Read, an early eighteenth century pirate often more terrifying and bloodthirsty than her male counterparts.
Golden Age of Piracy
The Golden Age of Piracy is a term given to the period of maritime history beginning in 1690 and ending in 1730. It was during this time frame that there were more acts of piracy than in any other period in the history of seafaring. Piracy occurred off the east coast of what is now the United States, off the west coast of Africa, and in the Indian Ocean. The majority of acts of piracy occurred, however, in the Caribbean, among the islands surrounding the Caribbean Sea.
Mary Read's Life Before Piracy
Mary Read was born in Plymouth, England between 1685 and 1690. Her mother was married to a ship’s captain who went out to sea and was never heard from again. Less than a year before Mary was born, her mother gave birth to a boy, a sickly child. The boy’s father was Mary’s mother’s husband, the sea captain. Mary’s father is not known. Presumably, he was someone living in, or passing through, Plymouth.
Mrs. Read's Scheme
Mary’s mother became resigned to the fact that her husband the sea captain was never going to return home. She didn’t have any source of income, and she had to feed and clothe her two children—the son of the sea captain and her illegitimate daughter. When Mary’s half-brother died, her mother devised a scheme to obtain money from the sea captain’s family. Mrs. Read began dressing Mary as a boy—her son who had died. She appealed to her late husband’s mother for financial support.
Mrs. Read’s scheme worked. Mary masqueraded as a boy through her teen years, and Grandmother Read sent money to her daughter-in-law and “grandson.”
Mary Read Joins the British Military
When Grandmother Read died, Mary first obtained work as a footboy (a young manservant or page) and later went to work on a ship. Mary, in the guise of a young man, worked on the ship for a few years. She then joined the British military and fought in the War of Spanish Succession, a war fought by several European countries which involved the possible unification of Spain and France under a French monarch.
While in the military, Mary met and fell in love with a Flemish soldier. She revealed herself as a woman, they married, she left the military, and she and her husband moved to the Netherlands, where he bought a tavern, The Three Horseshoes. Mary’s husband died at a young age, and Mary rejoined the military, once again dressing as a man. Peace broke out, and Mary was now without a job.
Mary Read, looking for adventure, soon found herself, dressed as a man once more, on a Dutch merchant ship traveling to the Caribbean
Mary Read Becomes a Pirate
While en route to the Caribbean, Mary’s ship was attacked by pirates. Rather than allow herself to be taken prisoner, Mary decided to join the pirates. She became a pirate in the Caribbean.
In 1718, all British pirates were offered a pardon by the king. Mary accepted the offer. She then signed on as a crew member (a privateer) on a British ship—also called a privateer—a privately owned and manned armed ship authorized by the government to attack and capture enemy ships, especially those carrying cargo. Mary’s ship was charged with hunting down pirates who didn’t accept the king’s pardon. The crew of Mary’s ship decided they didn’t like being privateers—they would rather be pirates, so they mutinied.
Mary Read Meets Anne Bonny
Mary traveled to New Providence Island in the Bahamas and joined the crew of pirate Captain John Rackham, known as “Calico Jack” due to the colorful clothes he wore. There was another woman on Captain Rackham’s ship, a pirate groupie and his lover, Anne Bonny. After being a member of the pirate crew for a while, Mary Read revealed herself as a woman. She and Anne Bonny would dress as women during their “off hours” and as men while fighting. Both women were two of Calico Jack’s most fearsome and bloodthirsty pirates.
Mary Read Kills a Man
Mary Read was in love with one of the men on Calico Jack's ship, a man who had been captured by the pirates and forced to join the crew. The object of Mary's affection got into an argument with one of the crew members, and the crew member challenged the other man to a duel. Mary, upon learning of the impending duel, picked a fight with the crew member, killing him with a sword so her lover wouldn't have to engage in a duel with the man later that same day.
The Pirates are Captured
In October 1720, a British man-of-war, a heavily armed warship, surprised Calico Jack’s ship as it was anchored off the coast of Negril, Jamaica. The male pirates were all drunk. Rather than fight, the male pirates hid below deck in the hold of the ship.
The male pirates hid below deck—what about Anne Bonny and Mary Read? The two women pirates defended their ship while their drunken crewmates hid. Anne and Mary killed one member of the British navy and wounded several others.
Eventually, the British navy overpowered Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and the entire crew was captured. Everyone on Captain Rackham’s ship was taken to Jamaica to stand trial. All of the male pirates were found guilty on November 16, 1720. They were hanged on November 18, 1720 in Port Royal, Jamaica.
The trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read was held one week after the hanging of Calico Jack and his crew. They, too, were found guilty, but they were not hanged. British law forbade the killing of an unborn child. Anne Bonny was pregnant with Captain Rackham’s child, and Mary Read was pregnant with a crew member’s child.
Mary Read died in prison of a fever in early 1721. It is not known what became of Anne Bonny.