Mary Read

Mary Read
Mary Read

Mary Read
Type Pirate
Place of birth England
Place of death Jamaican prison
Allegiance English-allied infantry & cavalry in Holland
Years active c.1690s or c.1709-1714
Rank unknown
Base of operations Caribbean

Mary Read (died 1721) was an English pirate. She is chiefly remembered as one of only two women (her comrade, Anne Bonny, was the other) known to have been convicted of piracy during the early 18th century, at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy.


Early life

Mary Read was illegitimately born in England, in the late 17th century, to the widow of a sea captain.

Her date of birth is in dispute among historians because of a reference to the "Peace of Ryswick" by her contemporary biographer Captain Charles Johnson in A General History of the Pyrates. He very well may have made an error, intending to refer to the "Treaty of Utrecht". The discrepancy would place her birth either c.1680 or c.1690. If she was born the latter, she was the very typical age of 28 at the time of her piracy. (If Read was born earlier, there is no record by Johnson nor any other contemporary author to explain what happened in the 15 year gap from the war to her piracy.)

Read's mother began to disguise illegitimately-born Mary as a boy after the death of Mary's older, legitimate brother (name unknown). This was done in order to continue to receive financial support from his paternal grandmother. The grandmother was apparently fooled, and Read and her mother lived on the inheritance into her teenage years. Still dressed as a boy, Read then found work as a footboy, and later found employment on a ship.

After learning the harsh realities of the sea life, she jumped ship and joined the British military, allied with Dutch and Austrian forces (this could have been during the Nine Years War or during the War of the Spanish Succession). Read, in male disguise, proved herself through battle, but she fell in love with a Flemish soldier. When they married, she dressed as a woman for the first time in her life. They used their military commission and gifts from intrigued brethren in arms as a funding source to acquire an inn named "The Three Horseshoes" near Breda Castle in The Netherlands.

Upon her husband's early death, Read resumed male dress and military service in Holland. With peace, there was no room for advancement, so she quit and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies.

Becoming a pirate

Read's ship was taken by pirates, who forced her to join them. She took the King's pardon c.1718-1719, and took a commission to privateer, until that ended with her joining the crew in mutiny. In 1720 she joined pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham and his companion, the female pirate Anne Bonny.

Read remained dressed as a man at first. Nobody knew that Read was female until Bonny began to take a liking to Read thinking she was a handsome young fellow. That forced Read to reveal to Bonny that she was a woman. Rackham, who was Bonny's lover, became jealous of the intimacy between them and threatened to cut the throat of Bonny's new paramour. To prevent Read's death, Rackham was also let in on the secret; following, Rackham decided to break male seafaring tradition by allowing both women to remain on the crew.

Eventually, Read and Bonny would wear men's clothes while attacking merchants in Jamaica, and women's clothes at other times.[1]


Read fell in love with one of the sea artists (carpenter or navigator) who had been forced into Rackham's crew. The sea artist was due to fight a duel with an experienced pirate he had rubbed the wrong way. Read, knowing that her beloved stood no chance against him, started a quarrel with the pirate and challenged him to a duel that would take place before the pending duel with the forced man.

Read prevailed in the death match, and her lover showed up on time for his duel.

Capture and imprisonment

In October 1720, pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet took Rackham's crew by surprise while they were hosting a rum party with another crew of Englishmen off the west coast of Jamaica. After a volley of fire left the pirate vessel disabled, Rackham's crew and their "guests" fled to the hold, leaving only the women and one other to fight Barnet's boarding party. Allegedly, Read angrily shot into the hold, killing one, wounding others when the men would not come up and fight with them. Barnet's crew eventually overcame the women. Rackham surrendered, requesting "quarter."[2]

Rackham and his crew were arrested and brought to trial in what is now known as Spanish Town, Jamaica, where they were sentenced to hang for acts of piracy, as were Read and Bonny. However, the women escaped the noose when they revealed they were both "quick with child" (known as "Pleading the belly"), so they received a temporary stay of execution. Read was believed to have been pregnant by the artist, whom she considered her legal husband before God. Bonny was believed to have been pregnant by Rackham (who was not her legal husband).

Read died in prison in April 1721, but there is no record of burial of her baby. Official documents state that Read died of fever associated with childbirth.

Bonny disappeared from the historical record, presumed to have lived a long life in Colonial America.

References in popular culture

  • The novel "The Only Life That Mattered: The Short and Merry Lives of Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Calico Jack Rackam" by James L. Nelson is a fictionalized account of the lives of the three famous pirates. Mary is characterized as tough and honorable, and forced to live most of her life disguised as a man. The author based his novel on historical documents, especially the transcript of the three pirates' trial.
  • Mary Read's life is briefly outlined in a short story about another female pirate, The Widow Ching by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
  • Mary Read is mentioned in Adam and the Ants' song "Five Guns West", from their hit 1981 album Prince Charming.
  • Mary Read and Anne Bonny are prominently featured in the Off Broadway play A Pirate's Lullaby.
  • Read and Bonny are main characters in the webcomic Sea Monsters by Gwendolyn Meer.
  • Read and Bonny are featured in the 11th movie of the Detective Conan anime series, Detective Conan: Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure.
  • Bonny and Read are featured in Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
  • The 2002 board game Pirate's Cove, published by Days of Wonder, contains the six legendary pirate cards one of which is Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
  • "The Strength Of Mary Read" as recorded by The Good Wives off the A Response To Piracy EP, which references the heyday and eventual destruction of Port Royal.
  • Celtic singer Duncan McFarlane has written a song called "Mary Read" which recounts her life.
  • Italian metal band Secret Sphere has a song called "Under the Flag of Mary Read" on their album A Time Never Come
  • A folksy song entitled "Mary Read" is recorded by Phil Hulse.
  • Mary Read and Anne Bonny both have their lives retold in vivid detail (presumably with the gaps filled in - such as Mary's brother's name is Billy Carlton) in the 2003 book Lobas de Mar (She-Wolves of the Sea) by Zoé Valdés.
  • Mireille Calmel's books : Lady pirates : Les valets du roi (1), La parade des ombres (2)
  • Michael Crichton's last book 'Pirate Latitudes' includes 'Lazue' who is based on Mary Read
  • Both Mary Read and Anne Bonny appear in the (yuri) Manga Mondlicht, Mary as F-Vier (F04)
  • Mary Read, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack can be recruited as Pirate Captains in the computer game Tropico 2
  • In 1934 the book Pirate Wench by Frank Shay was published. A second publishing was done in 1960.
  • Jane Yolen's The Ballad of the Pirate Queens is a poem on Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
  • Read, Anne Bonny, and Jack Rackham all appear briefly in Carrie Vaughn's young adult fiction novel "Steel", with Read playing a more significant role than the others, the only one of the three to speak with the main character.
  • In the popular Zynga game Vampire Wars, there is an ability named "Mary Read's Deception" that can be won. It depicts a digital drawing of Read holding a sword to another pirate.
  • Anne Bonny, Mary Read and (to some extent) Calico Jack Rackam are referenced in a background story in the novel "Seizure" writtem by Kathy Reichs.

See also


  1. ^ 1725, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Charles Johnson (sometimes erroneously attributed to Daniel Defoe)
  2. ^ 1721, The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and other Pirates

External links

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