Fearsome Females: A Tale of Two Pirates

 

They were two notorious cross-dressers who moved easily in the circles of men. Known as tough-talking, hard-drinking, immoral cutthroats, they were sexually promiscuous, hot tempered, sly and stealthy. They were often more ruthless than the men they sailed with.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read were swashbucklers who ventured boldly onto the high seas — a place where females were often banned. They helped usher in what was known as the “Golden Age of Piracy”.

On this day, November 28, 1720, Anne and Mary were both convicted of pirate crimes and sentenced to death. Both also managed to escape execution while the men of their crew swung from the gallows. They cleverly utilized both biology and feminine instinct. Together, they challenged the long standing sailors’ notion that women aboard ship are bad luck…

“Disguise, Thou Art a Wickedness.”

Anne Bonny was the illegitimate daughter of an Irish attorney named James Cormac, and his housemaid Mary Brennan. She was born in County Cork in 1698. Because her birth caused scandal and disgrace, her father left his family, taking baby Anne to live with him in London.

To avoid the further “scandal” of living with a little girl, Cormac reportedly began dressing his young daughter as a boy. (A scheme which probably taught Anne that girls had much to be ashamed of…)

Eventually Cormac took Anne and her mother to the Americas where they lived in the colony of North Carolina.

Mary Read was also taught cross-dressing as a young child. Mary was born in England in 1685. She, too, was an illegitimate child, the daughter of a sailor’s wife. The sailor had gone off to sea, abandoning the family. Mary had a half brother. He was the sailor’s legitimate child, and her mother, having been left penniless, was receiving money to raise the boy from his paternal grandmother. However, this boy died. Mary’s mother — not wanting to end her cash flow —  then began dressing Mary in boy’s clothes and passing her off as the brother. (A scheme which probably taught Mary that a boy was worth more than a girl…)

Rebel Rebel

Anne was described as “red-haired and pretty.” She was strong willed and became a rebellious teenager. Increasingly defiant, she eventually married John Bonny, a penniless sailor, against her father’s wishes. Cormac disowned her. The couple then moved to what is now Nassau, in the Bahamas, which was then considered a sanctuary for English pirates.

Anne quickly got bored with her unambitious husband. She took to hanging out in taverns and seducing the local pirates. There she met the edgy and flamboyant swashbuckler John Rackam, known as “Calico Jack” (so named for his loud clothing!)

The two became lovers and ran away together. Anne became a member of Calico Jack’s crew — still cross-dressing as a man. It is said that the other pirates never realized Anne was a woman until years later when she became pregnant with Jack’s child.

Meanwhile, back in England, Mary Read also continued her cross-dressing. She found out she could quickly get work as a boy and took several jobs. She soon began living as a full fledged man called “Mark”.  Mary/Mark was so convincing she was actually given a position in the British Navy!  She proved herself a worthy soldier, fighting in the Nine Years War.

But then, Mary fell in love with a Flemish soldier. They married, and for a while, Mary lived as a woman. She was a respectable wife. The couple bought and operated an inn in The Netherlands.

However, Mary’s husband died and the business went belly up. Desperate for work, Mary once again resumed her identity as a man and took to the high seas. But during peacetime, there was little chance for jobs in the military. It was then she decided to become a pirate, and (you guessed it!) took up with the boisterous and belligerent crew of Captain Calico Jack.

A Walk on the Wild Side

When Mary came aboard ship, it is said that the promiscuous Anne, thinking Mary was a man, almost immediately fell in love with “him.”

Anne then bared her own breasts, revealing herself as a woman. Mary must have thought the facade was fun — or perhaps she just had too much too lose in her true identity.  She kept up the ruse for a while, but when a jealous Calico Jack entered her bedchamber and threatened to slice her throat, Mary also revealed herself as a woman. This apparently subdued Jack’s envy.

What went on between the three of them after that is anyone’s guess, but by 1720, both women were pregnant.

The women had many adventures together. They were both feared and revered. In the book Black Barty; Bartholomew Roberts and His Pirate Crew 1718-1723, one victim  named Dorothy Thomas, left a description of Anne and Mary:

“They wore men’s jackets, and long trousers, and handkerchiefs tied about their heads: and … each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands and they cursed and swore at the men to murder her me. Yet I knew they were women, from the largeness of their breasts.”

On November 15, 1720,  Calico Jack’s ship was captured.

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum!

One night, having taken port in Negril Point, off the coast of Jamaica, Calico Jack and his scurvy knaves decided to have a celebration. They hosted a rum party with another crew of English pirates. Apparently, all of them were pretty drunk and had no clue of their fate when pirate hunter Captain Jonathon Barnett sneaked in the harbor. Barnett took the pirate ship by surprise, disabling it with a rampage of fire. Jack and his men ran to the hold and hid for the duration of the battle — too inebriated to fight back.

Anne and Mary. however, did not give up! They stayed on deck, battling to the end, firing their pistols and swinging their cutlasses.

According to one legend, Mary was so disgusted with the men that at one point she stopped fighting, peered over the entrance of the hold and yelled, “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” No one responded. Mary then fired a shot down into the hold, killing one of them.

Eventually Barnett’s forces took over. The women knew they had to surrender. The entire crew were imprisoned.

Calico Jack was scheduled to be executed by hanging on November 18. His final request was to see Anne. Upon her visit to his cell, she had only one thing to say to him:

“If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”

Ten days later, on November 28, she and Mary stood trial at the Admiralty Court in St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica. Both of them were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. BUT — remember I said they were both pregnant by this time? It turned out to be their saving grace — also known as “pleading the belly.” Executions for pregnant women were always postponed until the child was born.

Sadly, Mary died of a fever in prison. She was buried on April 28, 1721 at Saint Catherine’s Church in Jamaica.

As for Anne, there is no record of her release, execution, or death. It is suspected she may have escaped and returned to Nassau. In his 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, author Charles Johnson wrote:

“She was continued in Prison, to the Time of her lying in, and afterwards reprieved from Time to Time; but what is become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed.”

Not bad for a gender bending bastard who managed to outlive Captain Jack, as well as leave a swashbuckling legacy behind her! 🙂

 

 

At The Renaissance Faire

 

Ren Faire Mask (2)

“Are you going to Scarborough Faire?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lived there.
She once was a true love of mine.” — Traditional English Ballad

My favorite thing to do in summer is go to the Renaissance Faire!  As a matter of fact, the Ren Faire is sort of my idea of heaven on earth.  Luckily, we have one every year in Bristol, Wisconsin, which is only about a two hour drive from Chicago, so I get to go quite often.

A lot of people have never had the pleasure of attending one of these galas.  If you have never been, I suggest you find one, get your groove on and go! The Ren Faire has something for everyone and is a guaranteed good time for all.

Just ask these guys!

Ren Faire Lords (2)

In addition to the normal Renaissance festivities, each week the Bristol Faire features a different theme. These include cool things like pirates & swashbucklers, monsters & magic, heroes & villains, comic-con and steam punk! What’s not to like?

It usually starts out with a parade. These gypsy girls stole the show with their colorful costumes and bodhráns.

“If music be the food of love, play on!” — William Shakespeare

Ren Faire Gypsy (2)

But what exactly is the Renaissance, and why have a faire about it?

The word “renaissance” means “rebirth”. It generally refers to a period in European history spanning from the 14th to 17th centuries — although some folk claim that the 10th and 12th centuries qualify as well.  The Renaissance was a part of the Middle Ages that bridged culture into the Age of Enlightenment. Most historians consider it the beginning of the Early Modern Era.  It was a great time of innovation, open-mindedness and scientific discoveries. The invention of the printing press led to a flourishing of literature and the arts. This was Shakespeare’s time, and although the theater was still considered bawdy, it gained wide acceptance and was favored by Queen Elizabeth.

The Renaissance era is closely associated with the Elizabethan era. As a matter of fact, Queen Bess herself is often seen riding though the streets of Bristol!

ren faire queen close up

With a few courtiers on hand.

ren faire dudley close up

Of course, a Ren Faire is nothing without a bit of dancing and music. One of their catch phrases is “Party like it’s 1599!” 🙂

ren faire drum close up

Drums are especially popular!

Ren Faire Drums

And flutes!

Ren Faire flute

And my personal favorite, the harp.

The Ren Faire is a shopaholic’s dream, with all kinds of merchants eager to sell their wares.  You can purchase jewelry, clothing, nick-nacks, books, and all the necessities like drinking horns, blown glass, tarot cards and tapestries.

It is a great time to explore your inner Elizabethan persona, or add a wench outfit to the wardrobe.

Gandalf the Wizard takes time away from ring quests and journeys into Mordor to preside over festivities.

Ren Faire Gandalf 1

And then there is the joust!

Jousting was a martial game that originated in the Middle Ages. It was played between two horsemen wielding lances. The two opponents rode towards each other at high speed, with the goal of breaking each others shields and in some cases, de-horsing each other.  Medieval jousting was a fierce and bloody sport. It was banned in France in 1559 after King Henry II died of wounds inflicted in a tournament.  Nonetheless, jousting remained popular in many countries.

In England King Henry VIII was a big fan.  Unfortunately, he had a huge jousting accident which nearly killed him. The accident occurred at a tournament at Greenwich Palace on January  24, 1536 when Henry was 44 years old. Henry, in full armor, was thrown from his horse. The horse, also in full armor, then fell on top of Henry!  The King was unconscious for two hours and it was probably a miracle that he survived.  The accident left him with a terrible ulcer in his leg that distressed him for the rest of his life. Some historians think it was this incident that contributed to Henry’s tyrannical ways and all the beheadings he ordered in his later life.  Needless to say, the King’s jousting days were over after that, but the sport remained popular throughout the Renaissance period.

The modern day Ren Faire has a much tamer version of the joust. However, they still use real horses and real shields, and it is very exciting! Here, the Order of the Sun vs. the Order of the Moon. The tournament is presided over by Lady Cordelia.

Ren Faire Joust 1.jpg

The Ren Faire is something of a freak show, full of jesters, jugglers, stilt walkers, sword swallowers and mud eaters. You never know who you’ll meet.  This guy was eager to shake hands 🙂

Ren Faire joker 1

What would a country faire be without livestock? If you are thinking of bringing your children, please do!  Bristol has a petting zoo, complete with sheep, goats, llamas and Shetland ponies.

Ren Faire Goats

They even have rides! However, you won’t find any roller coasters or Ferris wheels.  All Ren Faire rides are powered by wind alone, along with some human elbow grease.  My nephew decided to give the bungee challenge a try, with the help of a friendly pirate. AARRGGHH!

Stevie Bungee 1

“My soul is in the sky.” — William Shakespeare 

Stevie Bungee coming down

Falling backwards over the trees!

Stevie Bungee flipping over

Upside-down 🙂

Stevie Bungee flip 2

Several more flips are involved.

Stevie Bungee descent

Descending…

Stevie Bungee 2

And back on land with our friendly pirate.

Stevie Bungee Grounded

Speaking of pirates, seafaring women are greatly underestimated! This gal was modeled after Grace O’Malley, a real-life female swashbuckler who led many raids along the coast of Ireland.

Ren Faire Me

Grace  O’Malley was captured by British forces and ended up in prison for eighteen months. However, after appealing directly to Queen Elizabeth, she garnered some sympathy.  The Queen allowed that Grace be given back her fleet and continue on to sail the high seas! Maybe Queen Bess took pity on Grace, another woman who sought to rule in a male dominated profession 🙂

Before closing time at the Faire, all gather for the big dance.  Marauders, invaders, Vikings, Saxons, Goths and pillagers of all stripes are welcome!

Ren Faire Weird 1

Finally, our revels are ended and the ladies of the court bid us good-bye.

ren faire parade lady close

An excellent time was had by all. I highly recommend the Renaissance Faire for historical fun. It is a blast from the fabulous past that somehow seems not so distant, but oddly reminiscent of our current time…

“Come now, what masques, what dances shall we have, to wear away this long age of hours?” — William Shakespeare

Ren Faire Dancing