Women Pirates – Scourges of the High Seas! [Part 1]

Though we most often associate piracy with men, we know that there were circumstances where there were women pirates.

Famous Female Pirates

In the West, the two most famous were Anne Bonny A.K.A. Anne Talbot A.K.A. Ann Fulford and Mary Read.  Meanwhile in the Far East there was a woman pirate who is arguably one of the most successful pirates man or woman to ever exist, Ching Shih.  Though separated by thousands of miles and nearly 100 years, these women pirates excelled in their raiding and serve as interesting counterpoints to what is traditionally associated as a largely male domain.

The Pirate Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny: Raised As A Boy

The story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read follow along similar lines.  Both were essentially raised as boys.  Anne was the illegitimate daughter of a lawyer who was having an affair with his maid in Ireland.  To hide Anne from nosy neighbors and prevent a scandal, the father dressed her up as a boy and began to train her as a legal clerk.  Unfortunately for Anne, the lawyer’s wife found out about the affair and child and he was forced to move to America, as his practice was ruined once his affair and duplicitous life were discovered by the community.

Anne and her father ended up in the Carolinas and Anne grew up to be quite the headstrong young woman.  Counter to her father’s approval she ran away with a penniless neer-do-well sailor whom she quickly discarded for the pirate captain Calico Jack.  Once she bore him a child, she dressed as a man and joined him on ship – where she met up with Mary Read.

Mary Read: Man-Of-War Maiden

Like Anne, Mary spent much of her life working alongside men.  In fact at the age of thirteen she was a footman to a French lady.  Being a youth, she grew tired of waiting after pampered ladies of high society so she went and dressed as a man again and worked on a man-of-war.

She later joined the army in Flanders where she married a soldier whom she was sharing a tent with.  Leaving the military behind, the couple opened a bar that soon became insolvent when her husband died.  After that she took a series of jobs on ships including one that was captured by pirates, where she grew accustomed to the lifestyle, and eventually joined the crew of Calico Jack.

The Fate of Anne and Mary

Calico Jack

Captain Calico Jack and the two women primarily focused on raiding small fishing boats until a privateer caught up with their ship. After a long chase and a brief firefight that left the pirate ship disabled, they were forced to surrender. The prisoners pled not guilty, but were quickly condemned, as the evidence against them was substantial. They were all sentenced to death.

However, it was at the sentencing that both Mary and Anne declared they were pregnant. After an examination, it was determined that they were and their sentence was delayed. What is known is that Mary Read passed away from disease shortly after the trial. As for Anne and her unborn child, little is known about their fate.

What is certain is that both women’s celebrity has far outstretched the notoriety of much more successful pirates and that they will continue to be an interesting chapter in the history of piracy.

Coming Soon! Piracy in the Far East: A Family Affair, Part 2 of our series on Women Pirates! Learn about Ching Shih, one of the most successful pirates in history, man or woman!

If you have an interest in stories like this one, check out my previous posts, or come visit us at the Houston Maritime Museum and see a wide variety of ships, including those used by pirates, on display.

You can also meet several more female pirates in the Real Pirates exhibition at HMNS – now in its final weeks!