Mary Read. Soldier, Adventurer, Pirate
“As to hanging, it is no great hardship. For were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate and so unfit the sea, that men of courage must starve.”
Mary’s early life is largely unknown. Much of the information is derived from Capt. Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), a highly disputed work. According to Johnson, Mary’s mother was married to a sailor with whom she had a son. After the man deserted the family, she had an affair that resulted in the birth of Mary. Following the death of her half-brother, Mary was passed off as the deceased boy in order to receive money from his paternal grandmother. Mary was 13 when the elder woman died, but the young girl continued to dress as a boy. She later worked as a servant before journeying to Flanders to serve in the military. During this time she met another soldier, whom she later married. The couple opened an inn near Breda, in the Netherlands. However, quite soon after this her husband died.
It was not unheard of for women to fight alongside men in the army without revealing their true nature
Phoebe Hessel was born Phoebe Smith, in Stepney, and was baptised on 13 April 1713. She enlisted in the 5th Regiment of Foot to serve alongside her lover, and served as a soldier in the West Indies and Gibraltar. Both remained in the British Army, fought and were wounded in the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745.
She was 108 when she died. She is buried in the graveyard of the Church of St. Nicholas, Brighton.
Mary went back to living as a man and eventually found work as a sailor. Unfortunately, her ship was seized by pirates in the West Indies and Mary decided, or more than likely was forced, to become a buccaneer. A little later she joined a pirate ship captained by John (“Calico Jack”) Rackham and among the crew was Anne Bonny. Mary and Anne earned a reputation for ruthlessness and were described as “very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything on board.”
Being the only women on the ship and sharing a lot in common, they quickly became good friends. Some people believe that Mary enjoyed romantic liaisons with Anne, Jack and even one of the crew members. What is clear is that both became pregnant.
Mary’s pirate career ended, as did Anne’s in October 1720, when she was captured by Captain Barnet and taken to Port Royal, where she stood trial alongside Anne, Jack and the crew. They were all found guilty of piracy, but Mary and Anne were spared the death penalty because they were with child.
“I plead my belly.”
Mary died from a fever with her unborn child whilst in prison and was buried at St. Catherine’s parish in Jamaica.
It is impossible to say how much of what is commonly known or believed about Mary Read is true. It is certainly true that a woman by that name served with Rackham, and evidence is strong that both women on his ship were able, skilled pirates who were every bit as tough and ruthless as their male counterparts.
Anne and Mary captured the public imagination as the only two well documented female pirates in the so called “Golden Age of Piracy.” In an age and society where the freedom of women was greatly restricted, Mary and Anne lived a life at sea as full members of a pirate crew. As subsequent generations increasingly romanticize piracy, the likes of Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read grew in popularity and stature.
The notion of female pirates as romantic figures gained traction in 1728 when noted playwright John Gay wrote the Opera ‘Polly’ in which a young Polly Peachum sails to the New World and takes up piracy as she searches for her husband.
Female pirates have been part of romantic pirate lore ever since. Even modern fictional characters like Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean owe their existence to Mary and Anne.
In fact, it’s safe to say that they have had a far greater impact on popular culture than they ever had on eighteenth century shipping and commerce. ThoughtCo