Dressing Anne Bonny and Mary Read: What Female Pirates Wore During the Golden Age of Piracy

anne-bonny-mary-readThe ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ was a harsh time for many people, on land and at sea.

For a brief period in the early eighteenth-century, two women, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, roved the West Indies in Jack Rackham’s pirate gang, and in doing so, entered history. These women turned away from the law and anything remotely associated with female norms of the day. Some argue they were lovers.(1) Others suggest this was projected onto them sometime around the 1970s with the rise of feminism. Today they are part of the LGBTQ+ discourse.(2) With the scant information we have of Anne and Mary, we can create the women as we imagine them to be. We can be sure their stories were talked-up and talked about from the outset.

The first illustrations of Anne and Mary were created in London for the earliest book about piracy.(3) These drawings were fanciful. Flashing breasts, then as now, were guaranteed to sell copy. It is in this book by Captain Johnson (likely Daniel Defoe in mariner disguise) that readers were first introduced to the women’s stories. Fact for the main part, certainly, but the author knew a thing or two about spinning a good yarn so some titillating bits may be conjecture. (For example, did Anne fancy ‘Mark’ only to discover he was in fact a ‘she’ named Mary?)

Sexy? In Black Sails TV series, Anne was portrayed by Lady Clara Elisabeth Iris Paget: model and actor. The actors look dashing, but real-life seaman’s clothes of that period weren’t created by a costume designer with an eye for today’s fashion sense.

Anne and Jack were lovers, so presumably he found her sexy. Previously, Mary had married a fellow solider after serving in the infantry. As a pirate, she likely had a relationship with a fellow crew member as at the time of their trial, both women pleaded pregnancy.(4) The Admiralty Court could not condemn an unborn child to death, hence they were spared immediate execution while this was confirmed. The men’s fate was certain.

Anne and Mary did not dress to flaunt their femininity. As part of the pirate crew, they dressed in men’s clothing: breeches, shirt, seaman’s shoes. This wasn’t a disguise but practical for any sailor. Witnesses at their trial, November 1720, state:

The two women … 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 … That when they saw any vessel, gave chase, or attacked, they wore men’s clothes, and at other times wore women’s clothes.(5)

How this second witness could know Anne and Mary dressed as women is unclear as he didn’t sail with the pirates. Both women might be called on for ship’s duties at any time – to handle rope, go aloft, take in sail, race down ladders to fetch and carry – and crucially they might need to quickly prepare their vessel to give chase. This suggests that male attire for women on Jack Rackham’s pirate vessels was not a disguise, but practical workwear.

While Anne’s journey into piracy suggests a young middle-class woman seeking adventure, Mary went to sea disguised as a boy at a young age. She served in the navy and later in the army.(6)

Mary’s story is atypical, but it was not unknown for women to go to sea driven by economic need. For some, a career as a soldier or sailor was more attractive than that of a domestic servant. There are verified accounts of more than twenty women who dressed as men and served as mariners.

A captain’s log in 1761 records:

One of the mariners going by the name of William Prothero was discovered to be a woman. She’d done her duty on board for nine months.(7)

There are clues as to how cross-dressing women survived undetected. It seems sailors didn’t wash very often so you might not expect to see someone’s bare torso, though in the tropics one might think sailors would want to strip. A crafty woman might go to the lowest, orlop, deck to wash where she might have privacy. They would have had to have their methods for going to the head (the toilet), squatting to do their business.

Dirty? In a literal way, we can be sure Anne and Mary were! Personal hygiene on board may not have been uppermost in their minds. Perhaps sailors just weren’t that curious about each other. This would be one way of creating personal space in these crowded worlds.

When ships needed to replenish food and water, it was common for naval vessels to anchor well out in the harbour to deter deserters. The best way to keep men happy was to keep them entertained. Boatloads of sex workers were rowed out and might stay on board for many days until it was time to sail. Considering how close hammocks were slung and that there would be a lot of noisy coupling going on nearby, retreating into oneself would be the only way to get by.(8)

Women who fought in the navy could expect to get injured. There are reports of one woman receiving a wound in her upper thigh, and even though she was treated, she was not ‘discovered.’ It says something about how rudimentary such care was and how uncertain life was that the injured disguised woman was more worried about being found out and losing her job and pay packet than she was about dying.(9)

While Mary disguised her sex by dressing in male attire during her career as soldier and sailor, once she and Anne sailed with Jack, they would have openly cross-dressed. As tough women, Mary and Anne dressed appropriately for the job, and that job was pirating.

1. Rictor Norton, “Lesbian Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read”, Lesbian History, updated 14 June 2008 http://rictornorton.co.uk/pirates.htm.
2. Stuart Jeffries, Woke the plank! Were pirate ships actually beacons of diversity and democracy? The Guardian, 5 April 2023.
3. Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, 1724. (Johnson was possibly a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe, a good friend of mariner Captain Woodes Rogers who had served as Governor in the Bahamas charged with ridding the territory of its pirates. Rogers had met Bonny so may have described her.)
4. The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and other Pirates, 1721. Held at the public records office, Kew, UK.
5. Ibid.
6. Johnson, A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates.
7. Suzanne J Stark, Female Tars. Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, 1998
8. Sián Rees, The Floating Brothel, 2001
9. Stark, Female Tars.

cover Wayward Voyage (1)Anna M Holmes.  Stories with big themes written as page-turners are Anna M Holmes’s specialty. She loves research, exploring and building worlds and complex characters. Wayward Voyage – inspired by pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read – is her debut novel, followed by eco-thriller, Blind Eye, and contemporary fiction, The Find. Initially, she worked as a radio journalist before a career in arts management working with UK Arts Councils and as a creative producer. Writing, reading, dance, and yoga shape her life. Originally from New Zealand, Anna lives in South-West London. To find out more about Anna and Wayward Voyage visit annamholmes.com

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