Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Lesbian Pirates:
Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Shredded Wheat

On July 25th, 1978, Steve Gooch's play The Women- Pirates, Ann Bonney and Mary Read premiered at the Aldwych Theatre, London, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The play (which won a Thames Television award) was an exciting mixture of feminist politics and swashbuckling adventure, based upon the rebellious exploits of its real-life heroines. (Incidentally, the most trustworthy documents use the spelling "Anne Bonny," not "Ann Bonney").

The play originated in 1969 when Steve Gooch was having breakfast with a radical feminist, and

a tiny booklet called something like Famous Outlaws fell out of the Shredded Wheat packet. In it was a brief account of the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. The friend and I both found their story so rich in the variety of levels at which it exposed the superficiality of the legal system, particularly towards women in an even more patriarchal society than today's, that it seemed a good vehicle for the play.
The Women-Pirates did indeed reflect feminist issues—as do several other works by this playwright—but I was disappointed that it contained only the barest hint of something which I think is more than likely, and equally significant: that Anne Bonny and Mary Read were lesbian pirates.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read Our historical knowledge of these two women is based mainly upon the account written by Captain Charles Johnson (probably a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe) in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, published in 1724 shortly after Anne and Mary were brought to trial for piracy on the high seas.

We first hear of Anne Bonny, born Anne Cormac, in 1710—as a thirteen-year-old tomboy in the port of Charleston, South Carolina, in the pre-Independence New World. Although the daughter of a wealthy lawyer and plantation owner, her red hair was cut short, her face was dirty, and her habits were rowdy. As one historian notes, Anne "grew up into a strapping, boisterous girl, of a `fierce and courageous temper' which more than once led her into sad scrapes, as when she slew her English servant-maid with a case knife. But apart from such occasional outbursts of temper she was a good and dutiful daughter."

Anne Bonny

About five years later we again hear of Anne, seen frequenting the taverns of the port, on the arms of various buccaneers, and there are stories that a would-be suitor was hospitalized for a month after she beat him with a chair. She once used her sword to publicly undress her fencing master, button by button.

Anne Bonny Her father disinherited her when she eloped with James Bonny: in revenge, she burnt down the plantation, then fled to the British- controlled port of New Providence (on modern Nassau in the Bahamas), a haven for such pirates as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. Upon her arrival, she quickly established herself by shooting off the ear of an already one-eared drunken sailor who blocked her way when she disembarked. In a short while she discarded her husband and went to live with the pirate Captain Jennings and his mistress Meg. Advised to get some male protection, she became the mistress of Chidley Bayard, the wealthiest man on the island.

But eventually she deserted Bayard for the pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham, so named because of the loud striped patchwork trousers which he wore. Although they had one child (mysteriously disposed of), it has been suggested that Calico Jack may have come to New Providence as the paramour as well as quartermaster to a Captain Vane.

Another of Anne's menfriends was much more certainly gay—Pierre Bouspeut (sometimes called Pierre Delvin or Peter Bosket, or simply "Pierre the Pansy Pirate")—who ran a coffee shop, hairdressing and dress-making shop, for he was a designer of fine velvet and silk clothing. Anne and Pierre got word that a French Merchantman richly laden with costly materials would be sailing by, and together they organized their first "privateering" raid. With the aid of some of Pierre's friends they stole a boat from the abandoned wrecks in the harbor, and liberally covered the topsail, deck and themselves with turtle blood. In the bow they placed one of Pierre's dress- maker's dummies, dressed in women's clothing and similarly splashed with blood. Anne stood over this nightmare figure with a blood-soaked axe, and they sailed out to the Merchantman. When its crew caught sight of this demonic ship by the light of the full moon, they were so horrified by the impending mayhem that they turned over the cargo of their vessel without a fight.

Less theatrical acts of piracy were of course commonplace in the port, and Captain Woodes Rogers in due course attempted to secure the power and jurisdiction of the British government by offering the King's Pardon to all pirates who would turn themselves in and offer to reform. But Anne refused, knowing that she could not be pardoned for the attempted murder of her father. She and Calico Jack and Pierre broke through a blockade that Rogers had positioned in the harbor: for this incident, Anne was stripped to the waist like an Amazon, and dressed in black velvet trousers designed by Pierre; with one hand resting on the hilt of her sword, and the other waving a long silk scarf at the astonished governor, she sailed past "as daintily as any fine lady being seen off on a long ocean voyage." Soon she established her position aboard this ship by shooting a sailor whose attentions were becoming obnoxious to her. Though officially she was second in command, after Calico, she had thrown him out of the Captain's quarters and resided there alone.

"Mark" Read

But eventually her crew decided to accept the pardon, which was made easier by Rogers' having obtained a special pardon for Anne, and they returned to New Providence peacefully. there it was that Anne met Mary Read—alias "Mark" Read. Mary Read Mary's mother long ago, in England, had dressed her daughter as a boy and had pretended that she was her dead son Mark, in order to ensure an inheritance from Mary's grandmother—such inheritances, like so much else, were reserved for the male. Mary eventually came to prefer her masculine role so much that her mother disinherited her. She was apprenticed as a footboy, then ran away to join the army as a soldier. She married a soldier and together they opened the Three Horseshoes Inn. But after three years her husband died and the public house failed, so she again donned men's clothes and signed on a Dutch Merchantman as Mark Read. This ship was captured by English pirates, whom she was persuaded to join, and thus it was that she eventually found herself finding pardon in New Providence and joining up with Anne.

At about this time—though Anne and Mary were already fast friends—Anne's husband James Bonny reappeared to reclaim his wife, i.e. his property. He kidnapped her and brought her bound and naked before the governor, charged with the felony of deserting her husband. He suggested "divorce by sale," a more "lenient" punishment, hoping to profit by the proceeds of such an auction. But Anne refused to be, as she said, "bought and sold like a hog or cattle"; in fact she expressed herself so vehemently that no buyers dared step forward to claim such a "hellcat." The governor was forced to release her on condition that she return to her rightful master,but James, who only wanted the money, fled in terror from the storm he had raised. Mary had to persuade Anne not to shoot the governor. Instead, together they set out in a sloop in pursuit of James; he escaped after a merry chase, but they burnt his turtle business to the ground.

In due course the pirate crew was re-formed, with Anne and "Mark" constantly together aboard ship. This intimacy aroused the jealousy of Calico Jack, who threatened to slit "Mark's" throat, but bursting into the cabin one day with just this in mind, he discovered Mary stretched out on the bed before Anne, not entirely clothed and visibly a woman. Some (male) historians would have us believe that only minutes before, Anne had ripped off Mary's clothing, and herself had only just discovered "Mark's" true gender. This is highly unlikely. The two women had already been intimate far too long—and shared such a rough lifestyle at that—not to have been fully acquainted with one another's gender. (And even if Mary had pretended to be a boy, surely Pierre would have discovered the truth long ago.) The bowdlerization of this episode and attempts to "explain it away" are typical of how this adventuresome pair is treated; Anne Bonny frequently appears in children's literature—and in boxes of Shredded Wheat—where she is similarly conventionalized and "normalized" by being portrayed as merely a pirate captain's mistress, rather than the leader she actually was.

"Infamous Women"

Despite this supposed discovery of "Mark's" true gender, Anne and Mary (who stopped calling herself "Mark"), remained inseparable, and both alternately donned male and female clothing. In due course they took command of another ship, and Men-of-War were sent out to capture "those infamous women." They abandoned all caution and raided numerous other ships. One of the victims of their piracy happened to be the Royal queen, a vessel owned by Anne's former "lover" Chidley Bayard, and commanded by one Captain Hudson. On this occasion Anne seduced Hudson into bringing her aboard, then drugged his wine instead of sleeping with him, and secretly doused the firing pins of the cannons with water. She left the next morning, then returned with her pirates. The Royal Queen's gunmen were unable to open fire and they were easily captured. Only Captain Hudson was killed in this otherwise bloodless battle—by a jealous Mary.

Eventually Anne and Mary were captured by a Captain Barnet. In the heat of this final battle their crew deserted them, staying below deck and refusing to fight. So Mary shot two of their own men, and wounded Calico. But it took an hour for Barnet's entire crew to subdue the two women. They and their pirate crew were taken to trial in St Jaga de la Vega, Jamaica, convicted of piracy on November 28, 1720, and sentenced to be hanged. Anne and Mary promptly "pleaded their bellies" and were pardoned. This was a common plea amongst women sentenced to death, the point being that no court would hang an innocent albeit unborn life — though neither of them in fact bore a child, and almost certainly neither was pregnant.

Anne visited Calico before he was hanged, and said "I am sorry to see you in this predicament, but had you fought like a man you would not now have to die like a dog." Mary herself died of a fever contracted in prison, and Anne just disappeared. One unlikely story is that she got married and returned to Charleston—where she would still have been wanted for arson, attempted parricide, and conspiracy against the King's authority. An even more unlikely story is that she went into a nunnery.

Pirate literature is not noted for its accuracy, and there has never been any thoroughgoing research into the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Their story, like that of all pirates, has been treated as a peg upon which the bourgeois imagination can hang its thirst for mobility, ill-gotten gains and romantic independence. And like all tales of high adventure, their story comes in widely different versions, according to the whim of the historian or novelist or playwright. As Steve Gooch said, "The whole area is one of legend and myth and it depends on what you make of it."

The story I have told above seems to be the most accurate we can cull from the very earliest documents. Evidence of their homosexuality is not so clear cut as we might wish, and at most they were bisexual, so "lesbian" is not strictly accurate. Some less substantiated legends claim that both women were brought up in boy's clothing, and that there was a thriving gay subculture in New Providence; homosexual men certainly did flee persecution in places such as Amsterdam, and they may well have ended up at New Providence. In any case, we must take into account Anne and Mary's dismissive treatment of their temporary male paramours and even their children, their obvious enjoyment of their cross-dressing, and the fact that they acted together as a couple and obviously loved one another; so the evidence suggests that they must be relevant to any history of lesbian experience.

The episode of Calico Jack discovering them in the cabin together, with at least one of them in bed unclothed, has been worried over so much by (heterosexual)historians that there must have been something in it! Above all, it is odd that the only two women pirates that history records should have ended up together, and we cannot lightly dismiss their obvious love for one another. They are essentially a couple and it is impossible to totally ignore the lesbian ambience of their relationship.

Steve Gooch's Play

The story as I have told it is not quite the one told by Steve Gooch in his play The Women-Pirates: it is not a gay play, though it has gay elements. There are very faint suggestions that Anne and Mary eventually had sex together from a "what the hell" motive, but for the most part they appear as two "normal" albeit strong women pitted against an "unnatural" crew of pirates and government authorities. The references to (male) homosexuality are mostly abusive: Pierre is called a "French fairy"; one sailor is called a "Belgian ponce"—he tells Mary "They think we're queer" and feels that their friendship is "unnatural" until he discovers she is a woman; Calico Jack is jeered at because "he wears scent too!"; Mary constantly strips off her clothing to reveal her true gender, and is more demonstratively non-masculine than in my reading of the historical documents; even Woodes Rogers—the villain of the piece—is accused of being a "sod," and "the spreading arsehole" metaphor is applied to the authorities in both its sense of being "a pain in the arse" and specifically homosexual or queer.

I raised some of these issues with Steve Gooch. He said he did not consciously intend the references to arseholes and sodomy to be anti-gay, and he felt that such language in any case reflects the abusive jokes that would have been typical fare among pirates. He was obviously sympathetic to the problems faced by oppressed groups, though perhaps not quite sensitive enough to the stigma promoted by language. He did feel, however, that gays were rightly concerned with language, even more justly than women, for the terms applied to gays throughout history are more downright abusive than the terms which are dismissive of women.

I asked Steve Gooch if he had ever thought of Anne and Mary as lesbians. He had, but not until after he had written the major draft of his script, when the actress and sometime Gay Sweatshop director Kate Crutchley showed him a copy of Susan Baker's biography of them in Women Remembered, and he saw that the story could be interpreted in that fashion. But by that time it was too late.

In any case, he said,

It seemed more important to explore class differences and the role reversals in terms of Anne and Mary. Mary's background was more depressed—she was forced to be a man. Anne's life was easier—she felt a very aggressive form of feminism. Mary was much more passive, much more of a stereotypical feminine character despite her boots and trousers. I wanted to explore that area of sexual ambiguity without allowing the audience to be sensationalized by it. I felt that there were so many pitfalls on either side of the line. . . . I think it's more interesting to see them as rebels among rebels because that poses a more interesting. . . . The second half of the play is about mass political movements and I notice that people over thirty get off on the first half which is more conventional, and the people under thirty find the second half meatier. People who set themselves apart respond to it more readily.
Gooch objected to my suggestion that Mary was probably as much a foul-mouthed pirate as any buccaneer, and said he was trying to avoid the "pirate" stereotypes. "Historical distortion? There's quite a lot . . . I don't mind anachronisms . . . I've avoided any attempt to historicize the period because we don't know what colloquial speech was like at the time." (We do in fact have a thorough record of thieves' cant used in the 1720s.) Also, he said, "I don't think I'd be qualified to speak about lesbianism."

Our short interview was amiable and pleasant, but proceeded in such a way that when I left he said "So you're going to tell everyone not to come and see the play?" Not so. The play is not meant to be a documentary, but a "vehicle" for certain issues which concern feminists and others, and it seems to work very well on its own terms. It is an exciting and colorful play of Social Commitment, and there is no reason why gay people should not enjoy a rousing play about non-gay feminist pirates as much as anyone—or is there?

SOURCES: Charles Johnson (pseud. Daniel Defoe?), A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, 1724; Charles Ellms, The Pirates' Own Book, 1837; Philip Gosse, The History of Piracy, 1932; Neville Williams, Captains Outrageous: Seven Centuries of Piracy, 1961; Alfred Sternbeck, Filibusters and Buccaneers, 1930; David Mitchell, Pirates, 1976; Susan Baker, "Anne Bonny & Mary Read" in Women Remembered, ed. Nancy Myron and Charlotte Bunch, Diana Press, 1974; C. J. S. Thompson, The Cruel Mysteries of Sex, 1974; and History der Engelsche Zee-Roovers, 1725.

Copyright © 1997, 1992, 1978 Rictor Norton

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Lesbian Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read", Lesbian History, updated 14 June 2008 <>.

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