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Anne and Mary: Pirates!

A guest blog by Helen Hollick

Theirs was a harsh life, overshadowed each day by the presence of death, but the lure of gold, the excitement of the Chase – and the freedom that life aboard a pirate ship offered – even for a woman – was worth the risk. Helen has written a series of nautical Voyages based around her fictional pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, and his ship, Sea Witch, but her latest UK release in paperback is a non-fiction book – Pirates: Truth and Tales published by Amberley Press, which explores our fascination with the real pirates and those who are favourites in fiction. Today, Helen drops anchor for another interesting addition to her on-line two-week Voyage around the Blogs with a pirate or two for company…

If you were poor, black, or a woman, the early 1700s were not a good place to be. Women had no rights on decision of marriage, no rights over health and well-being, over their children or to legal justice. Women were regarded as possessions. One in four died in childbirth and most women were ignored by those who wrote the history of the time, because the writers were all men. Those women who were mentioned were associated with men as a wife, mother or daughter, or because of their charitable works. A few, however, did defy the law and society and became notorious for their daring. Mention pirates to anyone and the names Anne Bonny and Mary Read usually pop up. Both were the real pirates of the Caribbean. 

Anne Bonny

Anne was the lover of Calico Jack Rackham, and Mary a member of his crew. We know about them because they were caught, tried and sentenced to hang. Some of what we know, however, is romantic fiction intertwined with the facts. For a start, the spelling of their names is uncertain: Anne or Ann? Bonny or Bonney? Read or Reed? They are usually thought of as being disguised as men, but it does seem that once aboard Rackham’s ship they did not pass themselves off as male. Yes, they wore male apparel, but skirts, corsets and such do not combine well with climbing rigging, hauling in anchors – or boarding a victim after a successful Chase.

Mary Read
Mary was the illegitimate daughter of a sea captain’s widow, born in England in the late 1600s, she disguised herself as a man when she served in the army fighting in battles, proving herself as capable, and only revealing herself when she fell in love and married a Flemish soldier.They purchased a tavern, the Three Horseshoes, near Breda in the Netherlands, but her husband died not long afterwards and Mary returned to the army, again in male uniform.

When peace came, she joined a ship’s crew – still as a man – bound for the Caribbean. The ship was captured by pirates and she joined them, whether she maintained her disguise we do not know. At Nassau in 1718 or 1719 she took the King’s Pardon of amnesty but met with Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham and returned to piracy. Were Anne and Jack initially aware of her gender I wonder?

Anne, on the other hand, was the daughter of a lawyer, William Cormac, although when she was a child he was not fortunate financially. She was born to a serving woman around 1700 in Ireland, the family emigrated to Charlestown South Carolina, when she was about twelve. Anne’s mother died soon after and her father re-establishing himself in a profitable mercantile business. According to legend, Anne had red hair, a fiery temper and was ‘a good catch’. Did this mean she was attractive or referred to her father’s growing fortune? Against her father’s wishes she married a sailor, James Bonny, who probably had hope of doing well by his father-in-law’s estate. He was to be disappointed, as Cormac disowned both of them and they fled to Nassau.

James spent most of his time in the taverns employed surreptitiously by Governor Woodes Rogers to keep an informer’s eye on any pirate who broke the agreement of amnesty. It seems that Anne, disillusioned by her lazy drunk of a husband, grew bored. She met the dashing ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham and became his lover. Her husband had her arrested for adultery – the punishment for which would be a public flogging for Anne – but James Bonny dropped the charge and sold her to Jack. Rackham stole a ship, renamed her Revenge and returned to piracy, taking Anne with him.

They were to be mediocre pirates, moderately successful but nothing spectacular. Anne and Mary’s gender was, after a few captured Prizes, soon widely known with their fighting ability reported as competent and efficient with weaponry, although Anne was said to be somewhat vicious and ruthless. They ended their days of piracy when their ship was captured one night while at anchor by a pirate hunter. Rackham and his crew were below, dead drunk. Bonny and Read fought like demons to keep their freedom, but they were overwhelmed and all were taken to Jamaica for trial. Rackham and the men hanged, Anne and Mary had a stay of execution as they were both pregnant. Mary, alas, died of fever, but what of Anne? There is no record of her death, and it is likely that her father bought, or bribed, her freedom. But where she went and what she did after that is anyone’s guess.

One thing I would very much like to know: were Anne and Mary friends, as is usually surmised, or did they have little to do with each other? They were of a different social class, and of a different status aboard ship – Anne was the captain’s ‘wife’, Mary was crew. Maybe the popular idea of their friendship because they were women is completely wrong? They could have disliked each other!

© Helen Hollick

Pirates: Truth And Tales published in paperback in the UK July 2018 and November 2018 in the US – but available for pre-order.

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Twitter: @HelenHollick

Catch up with Helen’s Tour:
These links will take you directly to each article. 

30th July: Cryssa Bazos  -  Dropping Anchor to Talk About Pirates

31st July: Anna Belfrage - Ships That Pass… 

1st August: Carolyn Hughes - Pirates of the Middle Ages

2nd August: Alison Morton - From Pirate to Emperor

3rd August: Annie Whitehead - The Vikings: Raiders or Pirates?

4th August: Tony Riches - An Interview With Helen Hollick (and maybe a couple of pirates thrown in for good measure?)

6th August: Laura Pilli  - Why Pirates?

7th August: Mary Tod - That Essential Element… For A Pirate.

8th August: Pauline Barclay - Writing Non-Fiction. How Hard Can It Be? 

9th August: Nicola Smith - Pirates: The Tales Mixed With The Truth

10th August: Christoph Fischer - In The Shadow Of The Gallows

11th August: Debdatta  - What Is It About Pirates?

12th August: Discovering Diamonds - It’s Been An Interesting Voyage…

13th August: Sarah Greenwood - Pirates: The Truth and the Tales

14th August: Antoine Vanner - The Man Who Knew About Pirates


Helen moved from London in 2013 and now lives with her family in North Devon, in an eighteenth-century farmhouse. First published in 1994, her passion now is her pirate character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, of the nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown) the story of Saxon Queen, Emma of Normandy. Her novel Harold the King (US title I Am The Chosen King) explores the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, set in the fifth century, is widely praised as a more down-to-earth historical version of the Arthurian legend. She has written three non-fiction books, Pirates: Truth and Tales, Smugglers in Fact and Fiction (to be published 2019) and as a supporter of indie writers, co-wrote Discovering the Diamond with her editor, Jo Field, a short advice guide for new writers. She runs the Discovering Diamonds review blog for historical fiction assisted by a team of enthusiastic reviewers. 

Helen is published in various languages. 


  1. Thank you Lucienne for inviting me to Drop Anchor on your blog. Anne and Mary are intriguing people - I wonder what the pair of them were really like!

  2. Fascinating! Quite a lot of scope for an adventurous and knowlegeable novelist,I would think! Thanks once again, Helen - and to Luicienne as well

    1. Mary might well appear in Voyage Six.... plans (or should that be plots?) are afoot....

  3. It looks like my original comment has been stolen by pirates *grrr* so sounding a bit like Polly Parrot and repeating myself: thank you Lucienne for being such a generous hostess.

  4. My favourite pirates! I'm fascinated with Anne Bonney. I wonder what did happen to her.

    1. I suspect her father bribed her release and married her off -but as a fiction writer I'd rather come up with something more exciting than that! (and I might just do so...)

  5. What exciting, if difficult, lives they lived. I'd heard of Anne Bonney, but not Mary Read/Reed.
    I see Mary died, so presumably did her unborn child, but I'd love to know what happened to her child. 'The Pirate's Daughter' is hoving into view...

    1. Mary died of fever while in jail - pregnant women could not be hanged until their babies were born, and they went to the gallows fairlky soon after - so sadly the child was probably not born (no idea when Mary died early or late in her pregnancy, I suspect the former.) She led a fascinating life, get hold of James L Nelson's fictional account The Only Life That Mattered if you can, it's probably one of the most accurate accounts.
      Anne and her child, ah now they are the stuff of fiction because no one knows what happened to them. Both will feature in my Sea Witch Voyages though.
      Mary would have loved Roma Nova!


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