Who Were Anne Bonny and Mary Read? Honestly, We Still Don’t Really Know
They were PFFs, Pirate Friends Forever.
We tend to think of pirates as fun heroes who bucked the system and lived life to their own rules while looking sexy. Some were criminals looking to live against society’s expectations, while others were sailors who no longer wanted to adhere to the British navy’s strict rules and harsh captains.
In the last year, one of the most popular shows was HBO’s pirate masterpiece, Our Flag Means Death, which takes place during the Golden Age of Piracy (the 1650s-1730s). Two other figures that would have sailed the same waters as Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet were the only women convicted of piracy, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Bits of their stories have made it into books, shows, and video games over the years, but who were they really?
The long-standing historical narrative of these women is pretty clear. Anne Bonny was the child of an Irish lawyer who had an affair with his maid. They tried to hide the child, but the scandal brought them to the Americas to begin a new life. Anne grew up to be a fiery woman (who is usually shown with red hair because fiery women always have red hair) who ran away from home when she married a sailor named James Bonny. She sometimes went by the alias “Bonn” and eventually joined “Calico Jack” Rackam’s pirate crew when she left her husband for Rackham. On his ship, she became close with another crewmember, Mary “Mark” Read.
Mary Read grew up dressing as a boy that may have gone by the name Mark. Mary joined the British military as a man. Eventually, she found her way to the Caribbean, where she defected and joined a life of piracy. The two sailed with Rackam for about two years before the entire crew was arrested. There may have been many other women living as male pirates, or pirate women that never made it into official records, but Anne and Mary were the only two tried and convicted of piracy.
After their convictions, both women claimed they were pregnant. A doctor confirmed their pregnancies and a judge stayed their executions until after they gave birth. Mary died in prison, possibly during childbirth. No one really knows what happened to Anne. There are no death records or accounts of her giving birth. Some say she escaped and lived a long life, unlike the rest of her pirate friends.
It’s a good story, but…
Many books, articles, and stories have all been based on that account of Anne and Mary. It is a wonderful, historical Thelma and Louise type of story. However, modern historians have started to question how much of this is actually true. The vast majority of what historians base their pirate knowledge on stems from one book published in 1724. A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson came out right after the British government executed most of the pirates it talks about.
Except all we know about Captain Charles Johnson is that they were not a real person. The author’s true identity has never been figured out. Were they a sailor who learned the pirate tales secondhand? Or were they just someone trying to sell a good story? The unknown credentials of the writer make anything printed in it slightly suspect. A General History has many factual accounts in it, yet there is also a lot that cannot be substantiated. One example is “Calico Jack” Rackam is never called that in any other documents or records, even ones that list aliases.
Most of the pirates discussed have no history before their life of piracy, except Mary Read and Anne Bonny, who have their whole lives written out. It is also interesting to note that the first edition of the book showed the women in bulky clothing, whereas later editions depicted them with their breasts exposed (and those are the pictures used on their Wikipedia pages). Was it all just a way to ensure they sold more copies? I find it hard to believe that was the most comfortable way for the women to fight.
What’s the real story?
Since 1724, historians have taken A General History at its word and built on the myth with other supposed facts. Some published authors have claimed to review family Bibles or other hidden records to add more layers to the story. As far as public records go, which is how most historians substantiate claims, almost nothing exists about Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It’s like basing every history book about Marilyn Monroe off of the movie Blonde. Yes, some of it was true, but much of it is sensationalized to tell a certain story.
If you take away Captain Johnson’s book, there are no records about Mary Read or Anne Bonny prior to their life of piracy. None of the family names referenced could be found on the records either. The only document that records information about both women is the trial record (that you can actually read for yourself). In that record, we know Anne (alias of “Bonn”) and Mary were pirates who dressed as men and worked as members of the crew. Witnesses claimed they knew them to be women because of the “largeness of their breasts” (not that they had them hanging out).
Both women were found guilty of piracy and sentenced to hang, only to have a stay of execution once their pregnancies were confirmed. According to death records, Mary appears to have died in prison as the myth goes. Anne disappears from all records. Nothing about her (or any supposed second husbands) appears in any documents of the time period in the Caribbean or in the Americas.
No one will really know the true story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, but more research into them proves much of the perceived notions of them are inaccurate. But they are legendary women who broke the mold. I would love to see them told through a modern lens with the facts kept in mind instead of making up a story because it sounds good. I’m hoping they pop up in season two of Our Flag Means Death (possibly played by the dynamic comedy duo of Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, just a suggestion). At least that show is honest about honoring the spirit of the characters and not being historically accurate.
(featured image: A General History of the Pyrates/Fair Use)
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