She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea

by Joan Druett


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Long before women had the right to vote, earn money, or have lives of their own, "she captains" -- bold women distinguished for courageous enterprise on the high seas -- thrilled and terrorized their shipmates, performed acts of valor, and pirated with the best of their male counterparts. From the warrior queens of the sixth century b.c. to the female shipowners influential in opening the Northwest Passage, She Captains brings together a real-life cast of characters whose audacity and bravado will capture the imagination. In her inimitable style, Joan Druett paints a vivid portrait of real women who were drawn to the ocean's beauty -- and danger -- and dared to captain ships of their own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684856919
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 03/06/2001
Series: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 697,267
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Joan Druett, an award-winning writer of nautical nonfiction, is the author of numerous works, including Hen Frigates and In the Wake of Madness. She lives in New Zealand. Visit her website at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Seven: Bonny & Read

I had my fill of fine gentlemen in the sugar plantations....They can't ask a girl for what they want without simpering and playacting. And then along came Calico Jack like a great roaring stallion.

— Anne Bonny, in the 1934 play Mary Read, by James Bridie

On a balmy tropic evening in November 1720, a privateer commanded by Captain Jonathan Barnet raised a black-hulled sloop lying dark and silent at Negril Point. This was buccaneer territory, off the extreme western end of the island of Jamaica, and Barnet — like Kidd twenty-five years previously — had a commission to hunt down pirates. The privateer coasted along slowly, studying this enigmatic stranger. Silence, save for the ripple of silky water along the run of the hull — and then, the sudden sound of a gun. Barnet ordered a change of course to investigate. At the sight of his craft, the black ship hurriedly began to put on sail, looking more furtive than ever, so Barnet gave the order to make chase.

It is easy to recapture the stream of commands, from a stirring near-contemporary description. "Out with all your sails, a steady man at the helm, sit close to keep her steady...Ho, we gather on him." At ten, the stranger is in hailing distance. "Is all ready? Yea, yea. Every man to his charge. Dowse your sail, salute him for the sea. Hail him! Whence your ship?"

And the bold reply echoed back, "John Rackham, from Cuba!"

This enlivened Captain Barnet more than somewhat, "Calico Jack" Rackham being very high up on the pirates-wanted list. Not only had Rackham broken the terms of the amnesty he had accepted the previous year, but the twelve-ton sloop William he was sailing had been stolen from the harbor of Nassau in an act of barefaced insolence less than three months before. Barnet bawled out a demand to surrender, but the only reply was the firing of a swivel gun, along with a few shouts of defiance, some of them remarkably shrill.

Despite the darkness Captain Barnet immediately launched an attack. It lasted no more than a few moments, for the first broadside carried away the pirates' boom, effectively disabling the William. Then, when Barnet and his men boarded Rackham's sloop, the hand-to-hand combat was even briefer. While it would not have surprised Captain Barnet to find two women in the pirate crew — Governor Woodes Rogers's pirates-wanted list including "Ann[e] Fulford alias Bonny, & Mary Read" — it must have amazed him that the girls were the only ones who offered resistance. Anne and Mary were armed to the teeth with cutlasses and pistols, and their language, to say the very least, was unladylike, but they failed to rouse their shipmates, who were cowering cravenly down in the hold. According to legend, Mary was so furious at this that she fired her pistol down among her erstwhile comrades, wounding a few and killing one, but the fact of the matter is that the outcome of the battle was never in doubt.

While Bonny and Read certainly existed, their stories are even more murky than William Kidd's, simply because of all the speculation and embroidering ever since. Some of the earliest retelling of their yarns was included in a book that first came out in London in 1724, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, believed by many to be Daniel Defoe, the writer who took the real adventures of the self-marooned pirate Alexander Selkirk and turned them into the classic story of Robinson Crusoe. If it was Defoe who produced this early record of the two pirate girls, the details should be reliable, for he was famous for his painstaking research, but as it is, the stories are a little hard to credit. As the writer himself admits, "some may be tempted to think the whole Story no better than a Novel or Romance."

Anne Bonny's, in particular, reads like one of the more racy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Anne was born in Ireland, in a town near Cork. While a certain lawyer was her real father, his wife was not her mother. The lawyer's wife, in fact, was not even at home at the time Anne was conceived, being at her mother-in-law's house. In the lawyer's house, instead, was "a handsome young Woman," a serving maid named Mary. Maid Mary had another swain, a young tanner who was fatally light-fingered, "whipping three Silver Spoons into his Pocket" one day when Mary's back was turned. When the maid noticed that the spoons were missing, she knew exactly whom to blame. The tanner denied it, but she threatened to go to a Justice of the Peace, so he surreptitiously returned the spoons, hiding them in the maid's own bed, imagining that she would discover them that night. But, strange to say, she did not.

Next, the Mistress came to hear of it. She returned home, and Mary reported the theft. The young tanner, keen to clear his name, went to the lawyer's wife privately to inform her that he had returned the spoons, telling her exactly where he had put them. Naturally, the "Mistress could scarce believe it." But, when she went to the maid's room and turned down the covers, there indeed lay the missing silverware. The deduction was obvious, but she decided to make certain. So, in a series of complicated maneuvers worthy of a modern French farce, she arranged it so that she slept in the maid's bed that night and the maid slept somewhere else.

After she had been in the maid's bed some time, "she heard some Body enter the Room." As the stealthy footsteps approached the bed she silently agitated about thieves, but "when she heard these Words, Mary, are you awake? She knew it to be her Husband's Voice." The Mistress said nothing, pretending to be asleep, and lo, her "Husband came to Bed, and that Night play'd the vigorous Lover." The knowledge that he thought she was someone else was more than a little mortifying, but she lay still "and bore it like a Christian."

As soon as the lawyer was sleeping deeply from his exertions, she stole out and told her mother-in-law about it. Then, to wreak revenge on the maid, she "sent for a Constable, and charged her with stealing the spoons." Mary was arrested and thrown into prison, and the lawyer flew into a rage. At that, his wife promptly left him, to take up residence with her mother-in-law again. In due course, both the maid and the Mistress were found to be pregnant (this last greatly surprising the lawyer, who was not aware that he had slept with his wife), Mary was released and delivered of a daughter whom she named Anne, and the wife was delivered of twins.

This string of events meant that the lawyer was very short of money, for he was dependent on his wife for an income. His wife, however, relented and made him an allowance — until she found out that he had taken in his illegitimate daughter and was bringing the child up to be a lawyer's clerk, dressing her as a boy. So, she stopped the allowance. Driven onto his beam-ends, the lawyer sold up his business and embarked for Carolina with Maid Mary and little Anne.

All went happily there for a while, but first Mary died, and then Anne exhibited an extremely bad temper. There was gossip that she had killed a servant-maid with a "Case-Knife" (which Johnson declares to be untrue), and she half-killed a young man who tried to seduce her. Then, she infuriated her father by marrying a penniless seaman, James Bonny. Forthwith, he threw her out of the house.

Bonny, who had married Anne for her father's money, was naturally very disappointed. Making the best of a bad job, he took her to the Isle of New Providence, hoping to find employment there by informing on pirates, as an alternative to turning to piracy himself. It was contrary-natured Anne who became the buccaneer, after being seduced by the dashing Jack Rackham.

Donning men's clothes, she went to sea, but "beginning to grow big, Rackam landed her on the Island of Cuba," and there she had his child. According to some accounts, the infant died, but Johnson does not mention the child's fate. Whatever, as soon as she was up and about again, Anne rejoined Calico Jack on his ship. The amnesty interrupted their pirating career for a while, but as we have seen, they both fell back into their old piratical ways. And it is at this part of the drama that Mary Read arrives on the stage.

Mary Read's mother was a solo parent, a young woman who had borne a baby boy some months after her husband, a seaman, had gone off on a voyage. Though she was living with his family, she "met with an Accident" and found herself pregnant again, so she beat a strategic retreat into the countryside, taking the infant boy with her. The boy died, Mary was born, and about three or four years later the young mother ran out of money, though not out of ideas. The obvious ploy was to dress Mary in boy's clothes and pass her off to her mother-in-law as the deceased son, and that is exactly what Mary's mother did. There was a bit of a hitch when the old lady took a fancy to the "son" and wanted to keep him, "but the Mother pretended it would break her Heart to part with it; so it was agreed betwixt them, that the Child should live with the Mother, and the supposed Grandmother should allow a Crown a Week for its Maintenance."

Thus, Mary Read was raised as a boy and that so thoroughly that she became set in masculine ways. In her teens, she shipped on a man-of-war. Being of a restless temperament, she soon got tired of the sea, so joined the army in Flanders "and carry'd Arms in a Regiment of Foot, as a Cadet." As she was unable to purchase a commission, she tired of this, too, and joined the cavalry, at which point nature intruded, for she fell obsessively in love with a fellow soldier, a Fleming. It altered her whole character, for she followed him about like a lovesick pup. For a while the whole regiment thought she was mad, but then when she and the object of her passion were sharing a tent "she found a Way of letting him discover her Sex, without appearing that it was done with Design."

Naturally, he was surprised. Even more understandably, he was delighted, as it was highly unusual for a humble soldier to have a mistress all to himself. However, when he embarked on "gratifying his Passions," he found her disappointingly uncooperative, for Mary had something very different in mind. To cut the story short, as soon as the campaign was over they were publicly married, much to everyone's amazement.

Some of the officers were so amused and intrigued that they clubbed to set the couple up. Mary and her swain took their discharge and went into the "Eating-House" business, their establishment being "the Sign of the Three Horse-Shoes, near the Castle of Breda, where they soon run into a good Trade, a great many Officers eating with them constantly." Obviously, notoriety was good for business. Unhappily, however, Mary's husband died just as "the Peace of Ryswick[,] being concluded" put an end to both battle and trade. This seems a mistake, for the Peace of Ryswick was concluded on September 20, 1697, which means that Mary was a woman in her mid-forties when she was captured. It is more likely that the Peace of Utrecht, co-signed with France on April 11, 1713, was what the narrator really had in mind, for it puts Mary into a much more plausible age group.

Preferring not to starve, Mary shifted back into men's attire and shipped on a voyage to the West Indies. It was an action that determined the course of the rest of her days, for the ship was seized by pirates, and the pirate captain invited her to join his crew. This was common enough, for pirate ships needed large numbers of men and in fact gained most of their recruits in this way. According to Johnson, Mary vowed upon cross-examination that she had been coerced, "that the Life of a Pyrate was what she always abhor'd, and went into it only upon Compulsion," but if she did say this, she was telling a lie to save her life. All the evidence points the other way. For instance, she accepted the same amnesty that Anne Bonny and Calico Jack Rackham did, but within months she returned to her old piratical ways, entirely of her own volition. Two Frenchmen who had been captive on Rackham's craft deposed that she, like Anne Bonny, was there of her "own Free-Will and Consent."

It is Mary's motive for joining the pirate crew in the first place that inspires curiosity. When the pirates offered her a berth on their ship, they did it under the misapprehension that she was a British seaman. Mary, on the other hand, knew perfectly well that the danger of being uncovered as a woman was constant. This was in contrast to Anne Bonny who, apart from that brief time in her childhood when her father dressed her as a boy to mislead his wife, never pretended she was not female. To put it baldly, Anne Bonny was a camp follower, while Mary Read, a much more complicated person, was a transvestite seaman-soldier.

Pirates were a great deal more familiar with camp followers than they were with transvestites. Calico Jack, who was very fond of women, was reputed to keep a harem on the coast of Cuba, and the terrifying Captain Edward Teach — commonly known as Blackbeard — was allegedly such a ladies' man that he refused to be served by a woman in a tavern, gallantly waiting on the girls himself. Then, at the end of the evening's roistering, he would pick out the prettiest and take her back to his ship, where the first mate would "marry them," and the "honeymoon" would commence.

According to Johnson, once he had finished with the girl, Blackbeard handed her over to his men. This would not have been without precedent. As late as 1850, Captain Thomas Dexter of the aptly named whaler Cavalier did exactly this, passing the native girls he had acquired to his officers and so on down the ranks to his men, then having the sauce to grumble about the debauched state of his crew, accusing them of being "half drunk and the other half fucked to death." Worse still, he had given them all a venereal disease. Other narrators of Blackbeard's story deny that he ever did anything like this, however, claiming that to be known as Blackbeard's wife bestowed a lot of prestige in certain circles of the Caribbean. Johnson supports this himself, by admitting that the planters of North Carolina did not appear to mind the liberties he took with their wives and daughters. Whatever the truth, the legends themselves are evidence that certain women are fascinated and sexually aroused by men like Blackbeard and Calico Jack (who was actually quite a decent sort, as pirates go), and that Anne Bonny was one of this type. It is also a good reason for the enduring popularity of her story, which has been retold many times in highly romanticized princess-meets-pirate form, both in print and on film.

Mary Read had very different motives. According to the narrator, Rackham asked her why she agreed to follow a life that was not just very dangerous but threatened a nasty end by hanging, too. Mary replied that she thought hanging "no great hardship," and was in fact a very good thing, for it meant that only the courageous became corsairs. If piracy was safe and easy, "many of those who were now cheating the widows and orphans and oppressing their poor neighbors who had no money to obtain justice, would then rob at sea and the ocean would be as crowded with rogues as the land, so that no merchant would venture out and the trade in a little time would not be worth following."

Brave words — but it is unlikely that Mary said them. Johnson had a habit of putting his own thoughts into the mouths of his characters, and it is very probable that this is what happened here. With so much evidence that Mary Read had the mind patterns of a man, there is better reason to believe that her motives were much the same as a young seaman's would have been in the same situation — motives that are more credible than an act of cynical bravado.

It is undeniable that for a young man of the time, shipping with pirates held many temptations. Buccaneering had its definite glamour. In times when people did not dress out of their class, a maidservant with a silk ribbon in her hair being an object of deep suspicion, the sight of pirates swaggering about in fancy hats and expensive finery inspired awe and admiration, just as at Studland Bay 150 years earlier. The certain prospect of having one's neck stretched if caught could have seemed quite insignificant when compared with the much more immediate temptation of being a member of this daredevil crowd. Even more importantly, piracy offered a chance of the freedom that was lacking on most ships.

When at sea, a person was trapped in a small, unstable floating village, many a man (and woman, too) remarking that a ship was just like a prison, but with the added danger of drowning. Everyone on board an ordinary vessel was subject to the whims and ways of a captain who might turn out to be a devil incarnate once he was well away from shore. An unsatisfactory pirate captain, on the other hand, could be fired by his crew. This was exactly how Calico Jack got his first command. He had been quartermaster under Captain Charles Vane, who was accused of cowardice after ordering his men to make off as fast as possible when a French man-of-war was raised. His crew held a meeting next day, deposed him, and put Rackham in his place. This unusual egalitarianism would have had definite appeal for those who perceived themselves as victims of discrimination, such as blacks who were, or had been, slaves — and women, whether they were dressed as men or not.

Another very good reason for accepting the offer to join a pirate crew was that it was a means of getting back at the fat merchants, who were making a lot of money out of a sailor's backbreaking labor while he was making very little — the same merchants, mark you, who were perfectly happy to do business with pirates to beat the duties and taxes. One pirate, Howell Davis, went on record as reminding his crew that "their Reasons for going a pirating were to revenge themselves on base Merchants, and cruel Commanders of Ships." Considering the social upheavals and frequent revolutions of the time, it is also plausible that piracy would appear to offer a means of wreaking vengeance on a society that was viewed as both oppressive and unfair. A mariner was a hard man — or woman — because he — or she — had to be hard to survive, but the prospect of plenty of like-minded, supportive company must have been almost irresistible, particularly when combined with the glowing promise of rich prizes. Thus, it is not very surprising that Anne Bonny and Calico Jack went back to being buccaneers after trying the tame life on shore, or that Mary Read was with them, though still in the guise of a man.

This last is much more difficult to credit. Rackham was a small-time pirate who operated from a sloop; yet, according to Johnson, no one had realized that Mary Read was a girl, despite the close confines of the ship. It was not for lack of good looks, for she was "a handsome young Fellow" — so much so that Anne took a fancy to her, a titillating twist in the plot that is another reason for the popular appeal of the yarn. Embarrassed, Mary eventually confided the truth of her sex, though not before Rackham had noticed Anne's languishing looks at the new recruit and become jealous. So he had to be let in on the secret, too.

According to the narrator, the rest of the crew remained in ignorance — which seems very strange, for Rackham's victims seemed to have no trouble discerning that two of the pirate crew were female. One witness, Dorothy Thomas, declared that though the two girls "wore Men's Jackets, and long Trouzers," she knew they were women "by the largeness of their Breasts." The two Frenchmen who were kept on Rackham's craft for a while testified that when a prospective prize was raised the girls put on men's gear to get ready for battle, "and, at other Times, they wore Women's Cloaths."

However, even if Johnson knew about this evidence (as seems very likely, for a transcript of the trial was published in 1721), it was necessary for the purposes of his yarn for Mary Read's sex to be a well-kept secret, for a romantic twist in the plot lay ahead. As usual, when Rackham had finished despoiling seized ships, he invited likely-looking seamen to join his crew. One of these was a "young Fellow of a most engaging Behaviour, or, at least, he was so in the Eyes of Mary Read, who became so smitten with his Person and Address, that she could neither rest Night or Day."

It was her affair with the Fleming all over again, and she must have hoped for the same result when she "let him discover her Sex":

She first insinuated herself into his Liking, by talking against the Life of a Pyrate, which he was altogether averse to, so they became Mess-Mates and strict Companions: When she found he had a Friendship for her, as a Man, she suffered the Discovery to be made, by carelessly shewing her Breasts, which were very white.

His reaction is as predictable as the Fleming's. After all, as the narrator went on to point out, he was only "made of Flesh and Blood." Mary was as coyly hesitant as she had been with the Fleming, though, until fate gave her a chance to demonstrate the depth of her love. Hearing that her beloved was due to fight a duel with one of the other pirates, Mary picked a quarrel with the challenger two hours before the time set for him to meet her lover, "and killed him upon the Spot." Understandably impressed, the young man plighted his troth to her, which "she look'd upon to be as good a Marriage, in conscience, as if it had been done by a Minister in Church" and so they consummated their passion. Thus, after she had been captured and tried, and heard the grim pronouncement of Sir Nicholas Lawes, His Excellency the President,

YOU Mary Read, and Ann Bonny, alias Bonn, are to go from hence to the Place from whence you came, and from thence to the Place of Execution; where you, shall be severally hang'd by the neck, 'till you are severally Dead.

And GOD of his infinite Mercy be merciful to both of your Souls

she was able to plead "her great Belly" to save her life, a petition that was echoed by her comrade in arms, for Anne Bonny was pregnant by Rackham again.

One can imagine the riveted silence in the court when the two women spoke up, but the trial record merely observes, "After Judgment was pronounced, as aforesaid, both the Prisoners inform'd the Court, that they were both quick with Child, and prayed that Execution of the Sentence might be Stayed." The Court acceded to this, agreeing "that Execution of the said Sentence should be respited, and that an Inspection should be made." The "Inspection" confirmed that both women had told the truth, so the execution was put off, the Court being reluctant to take innocent lives. Thus, in an inadvertent kind of fashion, Mary Read's beloved saved her from the gallows.

Mary's staunchness certainly saved her lover's life, for when cross-examined she refused to speak. He had already been acquitted, on the grounds that he had never signed up with the pirate crew and thus was a prisoner on board, and she did not want to see him brought up before the Court again. Anne Bonny, on the other hand, saw her lover off to the gallows with the parting words "that she was sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang'd like a Dog."

It was November 17, 1720, when Rackham was hanged like a dog, while Mary's anonymous lover walked free. It was a result that was rather oddly counterbalanced by fate. Mary never gave birth to her child, for "she was seiz'd with a violent Fever, soon after her Tryal, of which she died in Prison." Anne, on the other hand, stayed in prison until her lying in and afterwards was reprieved. "But what is become of her since, we cannot tell," the narrator admits; "only this we know, that she was not executed."

Which is somewhat surprising, for Mary Read and Anne Bonny have been the stuff of myth and legend ever since.

Copyright © 2000 by Joan Druett

Table of Contents



One: The Warrior-Queens

Two: The Valkyria

Three: Mistress Cowtie and the Pirates

Four: Pirate Queens

Five: Captured by Corsairs

Six: The Widows

Seven: Bonny & Read

Eight: "The Naked Truth"

Nine: Ship's Business

Ten: Fatal Shores

Eleven: Fatal Impact

Twelve: The Deceit of Dress

Thirteen: Decently Skirted

Fourteen: War Bride

Fifteen: Women of War

Sixteen: Nelson's Women

Seventeen: Voyages of Discovery

Eighteen: To the Rescue!

Nineteen: Northwest Passage

Twenty: Ice Queens

Twenty-one: A Woman at the Helm

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