Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Their meeting began with a misunderstanding.

Anne Bonny, mistress of pirate John Rackham, had taken a shine to one of the crew members aboard his ship. After weeks of admiring the man from a distance, she began chatting to him and telling him how handsome he was.

At which point the young man - alarmed by Anne’s advances - was forced to admit that he was not a man at all, but a fellow woman - and a pirate woman at that. Her name was Mary Read, and she had joined John Rackham’s vessel in the hope of making her fortune from plunder.

Anne Bonny: took a shine to Mary
Rackham was not yet aware of Mary’s secret. He had noticed his lover making advances to one of his crew and was furious. ‘He told Anne Bonny he would cut her new lover’s throat.’

In order to save Mary’s life, ‘she let him into the secret also.’

Mary Read had lived as a man for some years before turning to piracy. After a rough upbringing in England, she’d headed to Flanders, joined a foot regiment and fought with considerable bravery. Anne, too, had experienced a difficult childhood: she’d been turned out of her home and forced to make her own way in the world before joining Rackham’s vessel.

Now, the two women became true pirates of the Caribbean, attacking and capturing ships sailing from the West Indies to England, laden with precious commodities.

Mary was the most violent of the two: when her onboard lover was challenged to a duel by a jealous crew member, she tricked the man into going ashore two hours too early, ‘where she fought him at sword and pistol and killed him upon the spot.’

One day, as they were cruising the Caribbean, Rackham’s pirate vessel chanced upon a ship belonging to John Haman. He was a notorious privateer who had pillaged a fortune from Spanish ships.

Mary: not to be messed with
Now, Mary and Anne decided to pillage Haman in turn. Anne crept aboard and discovered every detail about the vessel and its piratical crew. Having discovered that Haman was never on board at night - and there was only a skeleton crew - the two women resolved to attack at midnight.

‘As soon as they got on board, Anne Bonny, having a drawn sword in one hand and a pistol in the other… went straight to the cabin.’ She woke the guards ‘and swore that if they pretended to resist, or make a noise, she would blow out their brains.’

They then untied the ship and put to sea, allowing the guards to make their escape in a rowing boat.
Success followed success and soon Rackham and his two pirate companions had a veritable fortune on board. But they eventually got their come-uppance when they were trapped - and caught - by the authorities. The three of them were taken for trial at Port Royal.
Rackham: hanged like a dog.

Mary proved remarkably sanguine when threatened with hanging. She told the judge ‘she thought it no great hardship for, were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate.’

Anne, too, displayed no remorse. On the day of Rackham’s execution, she went to visit her former lover and told him that ‘if he had fought like a man, he need not have been hanged like a dog.’   

Rackham was hanged, but the two women pirates managed to cheat the gallows. Mary was found to be pregnant ‘and her execution was respited.’ But she died in prison of a violent fever that followed her trial.

Anne, too, was pregnant and thereby escaped execution. Her fate remains uncertain, although she certainly had descendents who later claimed she managed to gain her early release from jail. She then sailed to South Carolina where she gave birth to Rackham’s second child.

Piracy, it seems, can pay. But only if you’re a woman.

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read principally from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, by Captain Charles Johnson (probably Daniel Defoe)

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