Pirate women: truth and fiction
Pirate women: truth and fiction

In the history of sea robbery, we have long been accustomed to the fact that all outrages and crimes belong to the stronger sex …

At all times, a person has always been attracted by something unusual, uncommon. In many languages there are a lot of sayings and phraseological units, akin to the Russian "white raven". Have you ever seen a white crow? Most likely never. Would you pay attention to it if you saw it? Necessarily! And why? Yes, only because she is white.

In the history of sea robbery, we have long been accustomed to the fact that all outrages and crimes belong to the stronger sex. This is the reason for the excitement of interest in those female "white crows" who, by chance, were involved in dirty pirate affairs.

Today we know several names of women whom we call "pirates". These are Anne Bonnie (Bonn), Mary Reed, Grace O'Malley (Granuelle), Jeanne de Belleville, Charlotte de Berry, Lady Killigrew, as well as several Chinese women. I said that we know their names, but not their stories, for some reason today many people confuse this.

Yes, indeed, almost all biographies of these women known today are either poorly documented or not traced at all. This state of affairs plays into the hands of all dreamers who themselves think of their biographies to the best of their intellect and imagination, and the first of them is a certain "Captain Charles Johnson" - whose personality is no less controversial, many believe (and not without reason) that under this name hiding the great writer and hoaxer Daniel Defoe.

In the second edition of his World History of Pirates, Johnson provides amazingly detailed biographies of two women adventurers, Anne Bonnie and Mary Reed. Today, historians have only the documents of the Calico Jack gang trial. Among the other participants, there were two female adventurers. I would refrain from calling them "pirates" due to the fact that their real participation in the pirate business remains in question, only a few facts of their outrageousness of the last couple of weeks are known, which formed the basis of the guilty verdict.

From Johnson's words, we learn that Anne Bonnie was Irish, the illegitimate daughter of a County Cork attorney and his maid. In New Providence, Anne Bonnie met the pirate and smuggler John Rackham (nicknamed "Calico Jack"), left her lawful husband and went sailing with Rackham, dressed in men's clothes. Johnson further says that Anne allegedly became pregnant, and Rackham settled her with friends in Cuba before the birth of the child. According to Johnson, this happened before Rackham accepted the royal amnesty, but this is hardly possible in time, given the known facts from the life of the pirate. It would have been more likely if they met after he returned to New Providence and applied for amnesty. Johnson claims that when Rackham returned to piracy, "in all the robberies, Anne Bonnie accompanied him, and in achieving her goal, she was not inferior to anyone either in decisiveness or courage, especially when repelling an attack." When the Rackham gang was caught and tried, it became clear that Ann was pregnant. This saved her from the gallows. The judges were generally supportive of her, but the fact that she left her husband greatly complicated the matter, because according to the strict laws of society at the beginning of the 18th century, it was already a crime to become a female pirate, but leaving her husband was completely unforgivable!

Annie Bonnie. Engraving from the book of Charles Johnson
Annie Bonnie. Engraving from the book of Charles Johnson

There is even less information about Mary Reed Johnson. She was English and was born in London. As a teenager, she allegedly left home and served for some time in the Royal Navy, and then enrolled in an English infantry regiment. All of this is very much like fiction, and, in all likelihood, Johnson borrowed pieces of her "biography" from sensational newspaper articles circulated during the trial in Jamaica. In any case, no information about her was found either in the royal navy or in the army.

The further the story becomes even less believable. Mary allegedly became a cavalryman, took part in several battles, and then fell in love with a fellow Flemish. They were secret friends, and at the end of the campaign, she revealed her femininity and married her lover. They both left the service, opened a tavern in Breda, and for a while everything went well. However, in 1697 her husband died and it became impossible to manage the household. Then Mary was hired on a ship bound for the West Indies. The ship was captured by the English pirates, they took her with them, and she remained a member of the crew until they accepted the royal amnesty. The team then ended up in New Providence, hoping to obtain a privateer license from Governor Woods Rogers. Rogers actually issued a license, but then the whole group, including Mary, returned to their former craft.

This version is very reminiscent of a fiction: it turns out that from the moment of her husband's death until the return to piracy (in 1720), this woman was mainly at sea. However, even the most seasoned sailors of that time did not find it easy to endure ten years on deck, where dangers, terrible living conditions (or rather, their almost complete absence), the constant risk of dying from some kind of illness, participation in hostilities and the possibility of injury were quite common. … And this woman swam for almost a quarter of a century ??

Mary Reid. Women pirates
Mary Reid. Women pirates

In addition, according to Johnson, Mary was about 13-14 years old when she ran away from home and went to sea, and 20 years old when her husband died (Johnson believes that this happened at the end of the Augsburg League War in 1697). It turns out that in 23 years of her life she was at sea almost all the time, and she was already in her fifties when she met Anne Bonnie. This is extremely unlikely for that time, given the true level of "service" on the ships of that time, as well as the extremely high mortality rate among sailors. The profession of a sailor at that time was generally extremely difficult, people died often and in large numbers, the super-harsh living conditions of young men turned into old people for several years. They would turn a forty-five-year-old woman into a toothless old woman, hunched over, with a brown dry face and shaking hands, and with a whole set of incurable diseases at that time.

One way or another, but on November 28, 1720, both adventurers appeared before the vice admiral's court in Spanish Town. Like the men, they were first sentenced to be hanged. However, as soon as the verdict was announced, both declared that they were pregnant. In England, it was not customary to hang female criminals, especially those expecting a child, so the execution was postponed and a doctor was found to be examined. It turned out that both were telling the truth, although the fathers remained unknown. Rumors spread that the women had repeatedly offered themselves to the jailers, knowing full well that only pregnancy could save them from the gallows. Johnson writes that "since Mary Reed's pregnancy was obvious, the execution was postponed, and it is possible that she would have been pardoned, but soon after the end of the trial she was overtaken by a severe fever, from which she died in prison." These words were partly confirmed by Clinton Black, a long-time archivist for Jamaica. He found documentary evidence of Mary Reed's death in the St. Catherine District Church's book, which records her burial on April 28, 1721.

Mary Reed duel with a pirate who challenged her husband to a duel
Mary Reed duel with a pirate who challenged her husband to a duel

As for Anne Bonnie, Captain Johnson writes about her as follows: “She was held in prison until the next birth, and subsequently the execution of the sentence was postponed several times; what happened to her next, I can't say; it is only known that the sentence was not carried out."

In general, the materials of the trial give some idea of the nature of both women adventurers. One of the witnesses, a woman whose canoe Rackham had detained and robbed, gave the following testimony: “Both women, now they are prisoners behind the barrier, were on board the sloop, dressed in men's vests and long pants, their heads were tied with scarves, and each was holding there was a machete and a pistol. " Another testified that "they both showed their depraved disposition, continually swore and swore and were ready for anything." Such behavior was then unheard of, and this alone guaranteed the commercial success of any art or other publication on the topic of piracy. Perhaps this explains why both of these biographies were absent in the first edition of Johnson's book, but appeared in the second. After all, if it were not women, but men, no one would remember them and their insignificant personalities would not interest anyone.

Mary Reed (right) and Anne Bonnie
Mary Reed (right) and Anne Bonnie

Whatever the grain of truth in the stories of Anne Bonnie and Mary Reed, both women equally amazed and annoyed society, scandalous rumors were spread about them, and what shocked the public most of all was that both dressed in men's clothes and pretended to be sailors. In other words, Bonnie and Reed's stories violated all the rules of behavior and decency that women were supposed to follow at the time. This alone was enough for shock, but they also stepped on the path of crime and even allegedly tried to offer their own body to the jailers in order to avoid the fate of Rackham and his gang! So it is not at all surprising that the newspapers of that time relished this vile story in all details, and the absence of such was easily replaced by speculation, wishing to intrigue readers even more. Today it is called PR. The audience was literally shocked by the fact that women could even engage in piracy. However, it must be said that this was not the first time a pirate flag fluttered over a woman's head.

For example, a certain noble lady Jeanne de Belleville is known, who lived in medieval France and allegedly sided with the British after their invasion of Brittany in 1345. Legends say that she allegedly equipped three private ships and raided the coast of Normandy.

Another example is the 17th century Englishwoman Charlotte de Berry, who dressed in a man's dress and followed her husband out to sea. She was taken prisoner by privateers, and was raped by the captain of the ship. Then she somehow managed to organize a riot, which ended in the murder of the rapist.

All these stories are extremely intriguing, but the trouble is that they do not have a single documentary confirmation. If you try to find the "ends" of all these stories, then at first you will constantly stumble upon uncertainties such as "they say", "there is an opinion" and "according to some data", but what kind of "some data" are such remains unknown. The authors of various books and studies refer to each other or to "some data", and I even began to cause some annoyance and annoyance. When you read a book, the author in the biographies of various pirates cheerfully refers to all sorts of archival documents, documents, diaries and monographs, but when we talk about women pirates, some kind of indistinct bleating and references from the series "one grandmother said" begins. Particularly inquisitive seekers will sooner or later find the original source. It will turn out to be either a collection of legends, or songs and sagas. This is exactly what happened with the biography of another "hyped" female pirate - Grainne Ni Mhaille, nicknamed Granuaile, known in England as Grace O'Malley. In Irish legends she is called very poetically "Sea Queen of Connemara".

Her father, the head of the Ni-Mile (O'Malley) clan, was a racketeer along the coast of what is now County Mayo, paying tribute to small merchants and fishermen who fished in the coastal waters. The nickname "Granuelle", derived from the Irish word for "bald" or "shorn", is allegedly associated with a case when her father refused to take her with him during a trade voyage to Spain. According to legend, she cut her hair and hid among the crew until the ship went to sea.

In 1546, she married Donal O'Flaherty, the heir to the O'Flaherty clan, who at times was also involved in piracy. Granuelle allegedly helped him in this. In 1566, Donal was killed in battle, after which Granuelle left for her father's fortress on the Island of Clare, and two years later she remarried and, apparently, since that time began an independent pirate career. In the end, the authorities saw in her actions a threat to themselves and in 1577 they sent a detachment that laid siege to her fortress. Granuelle was captured and imprisoned, although for some unknown reason she was soon released.

After being arrested again at the behest of Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connaught, her children were imprisoned as a guarantee of her exemplary behavior. Granuelle immediately sailed to London, where she was awarded an audience with Queen Elizabeth I. As a result, the children were released, and the "pirate queen", already at a venerable age, until her death, continued to quietly engage in piracy.

Another depiction of Mary Reed's duel with a pirate, where she allegedly bares her breasts to him, showing that she is a woman (drawing by G. Pile)
Another depiction of Mary Reed's duel with a pirate, where she allegedly bares her breasts to him, showing that she is a woman (drawing by G. Pile)

This whole story also does not have the slightest documentary evidence, with the exception of her visit to the court, which aroused great interest among her contemporaries. In addition, the authorities who imprisoned her also left a list of her pirate "sins", which mainly consisted of attacks on the boats of local poor fishermen and merchants.

Despite the insignificance of her pirate activities, she was remembered (and even elevated to the rank of "queen") solely because of her female sex, while the affairs of other small Irish pirates and clan leaders have long been forgotten. In comparison with the real English sea robbers of the same period, she, perhaps, looks only like a petty thief.

However, all these women pirates and adventurers are the rarest cases, because they have always been perceived as something unheard of, and therefore it is not surprising to see such interest in them.


1. Angus Konstam “PIRACY. The complete history”, Osprey Publ., 2008. Russian translation by E. Konstam“PIRATES. General history from Antiquity to the present day”, Eksmo, 2009.

2. Captain Charles Johnson, "A History of the Famous Sea Robbers of the 18th Century", Eksmo, 2009

3. Anne Chambers "GRANUAILE: Ireland's Pirate Queen", Dublin, 2003.

4. David Cordingly, "UNDER THE BLACK FLAG: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates", London, 1995.


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