A Profile of Notorious Female Pirate, Mary Read

Flouting Gender Norms in the 18th Century

Mary Read, Pirate
Mary Read, in a colorized engraving (date unknown). Getty Images / Hulton Archive

One of the few known female pirates, Mary Read (known also as Mark Read) was born somewhere around 1692. Her flouting of typical gender norms allowed her to earn a living during a time when single women had few options for economic survival,.

Early Life

Mary Read was the daughter of Polly Read. Polly had a son by her husband, Alfred Read; Alfred then went to sea and didn't return. Mary was the result of a different, later relationship. When the son died, Polly tried to pass off Mary as her son in applying to her husband's family for money. As a result, Mary grew up dressing as a boy, and passing for a boy. Even after her grandmother died and the money was cut off, Mary continued to dress as a boy.

Mary, still disguised as male, disliked a first job as a footboy, or servant, and signed up for service on a ship's crew. She served for a time in the military in Flanders, keeping up her appearance as a man until she married a fellow soldier.

With her husband, and dressed as a female, Mary Read ran an inn, until her husband died and she could not keep up the business. She signed up to serve in the Netherlands as a soldier, then as a sailor on the crew of a Jamaica-bound Dutch ship -- again disguised as a male.

Becoming a Pirate

The ship was taken by Caribbean pirates, and Mary joined the pirates. In 1718, Mary accepted a mass amnesty offered by George I, and she signed up to fight the Spanish. But she returned, soon, to piracy. She joined the crew of Captain Rackam, "Calico Jack," still disguised as a man.

On that ship, she met Anne Bonny, who was disguised as a man, also, though she was the mistress of Captain Rackam. By some accounts, Anne tried to seduce Mary Read. In any case, Mary revealed that she was a woman, and they became friends, possibly lovers.

Anne and Captain Rackam had also accepted the 1718 amnesty and then returned to piracy. They were among those named by the Bahamian governor who proclaimed the three as "Pirates and Enemies to the Crown of Great Britain." When the ship was captured, Anne, Rackham and Mary Read resisted capture, while the rest of the crew hid below deck. Mary fired a pistol into the hold, to try to move the crew to join the resistance. She was reported to have yelled, "If there's a man among ye, yell come up and fight like the man ye are to be!"

The two women were considered tough, exemplary pirates. A number of witnesses, including captives of the pirates, testified to their activities, saying that they wore "women's cloaths" at times, that they were "cursing and swearing much" and that they were twice as ruthless as the men.

All were put on trial for piracy in Jamaica. Both Anne Bonny and Mary Read, after conviction, claimed they were pregnant, so they were not hanged when the male pirates were. On November 28, 1720. Mary Read died in prison of a fever on December 4.

Mary Read's Story Survives

The story of Mary Read and Anne Bonny was told in a book published in 1724. The author was "Captain Charles Johnson," which may have been a nom de plume for Daniel Defoe. The two may have inspired some of the details about Defoe's 1721 heroine, Moll Flanders.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Profile of Notorious Female Pirate, Mary Read." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/mary-read-a-profile-of-the-notorious-female-pirate-4158297. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). A Profile of Notorious Female Pirate, Mary Read. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mary-read-a-profile-of-the-notorious-female-pirate-4158297 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Profile of Notorious Female Pirate, Mary Read." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mary-read-a-profile-of-the-notorious-female-pirate-4158297 (accessed March 27, 2023).