Julie Walker on female pirates in the 18th century

Posted on: 28/11/2013 with tags: 18th century, Anne Bonny, Bahamas, Calico Jack, Caribbean, English History, female pirates, Golden Age of Piracy, Jack Rackham, Mary Read, New Providence, pirates, role of women, seafaring, women in history

On the anniversary of the trial of notorious pirate Calico Jack (November, 1720) – famous for having two women as part of his crew – writer Julie Walker looks back at some of the women who dared to pass as men … 

While the role of women was strictly regimented in the 18th century, not all took this to heart.

The 18th century press gang is a familiar concept, with the British Navy taking men by force into the service where brutality, terrible conditions and even worse pay were par for the course. But at this time it was not unheard of for women, disguised as men, to join the Navy or Army and make their independent way in the world.

It is difficult to separate fact from fiction in the sensationalised accounts told about these women in the biographies published once their stories came to light. The books, as well as stage shows which often accompanied them, were designed to entertain, and no-one was going to worry too much about truth when there was a good story at stake. Following a departed husband or lover was the usual explanation for embarking on such an unusual journey, though the pursuit of freedom, excitement and an independent income was no doubt a reality too.

The first of these highly unusual women was Christian Davies – also known as Kit Cavanagh and Mother Ross – who joined the Army to follow her husband when he was pressed into service.


Christian Davies.

Serving as a foot soldier and later as a dragoon in Flanders from 1697 to 1706, she marked herself out as a fearless fighter, and made a good living for herself as she scavenged and prepared food for the men. As Marian Broderick says in her book Wild Irish Women, ‘Amazingly, she managed to do this without being discovered: she ate with them, drank with them, slept with them, played cards with them, even urinated alongside them by using what she describes as a ‘silver tube with leather straps’.’ It was only when her skull was fractured in battle that her secret was finally revealed. She was immediately paid off, and married a Captain Ross with whom she had previously served. Presented as a curiosity to Queen Anne and granted a pension for the life at the princely sum of a shilling a day, Christian Davies ended her days as a pensioner at the Royal Chelsea Hospital. She was buried there with full military honours in 1739.

Another remarkable story was that of Hannah Snell. Only twenty-two when she found herself pregnant and abandoned by her husband, Hannah decided to track him down passing herself off as ‘James Gray’ to make it safer to travel alone. Having been pressed into the army, she took advantage of this twist of fate and soon joined the Marines, serving in India where she fought at the siege of Pondicherry.


Hannah Snell.

Hannah was severely wounded in the battle and returned to London in 1750 where she revealed her secret, spinning tales of her adventures in a sell-out stage show, publishing two autobiographies, and having her portrait available on every street corner. The show played to packed theatres, and involved her singing, and going through a series of Military Exercises including rifle drills. The Whitehall and General Evening Post reported that ‘She appeared in her Marine Habit, and met with universal applause, as she behaved with great Decency and good manners.’ She may not have been the most gifted of performers, but her fame ensured packed houses, at least for a while.

But money for her military service did not come so easily. Forced to campaign over a number of years for her dues, she was finally awarded a lifetime army pension from the Royal Chelsea Hospital. It didn’t end well for her, however. Despite everything she had achieved, money problems plagued Hannah throughout her life and she died in the notorious Bedlam Hospital in 1792.

There were women who took their seafaring one step further during the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean. Anne Bonny and Mary Read were pirates who were famous – or infamous – enough in their time to have their own chapters in Captain Charles Johnson’s History of the Pirates of 1724, a book that saw them share the pages with the likes of their male counterparts Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and ‘Black’ Bart Roberts.


Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Anne was the illegitimate daughter of an Irish lawyer and chambermaid who had fled Cork for the Carolinas to escape the scandal of the pregnancy. Newly respectable on the other side of the Atlantic as plantation owners, Anne had a comfortable upbringing. That is until she ran off with a feckless sailor and found herself in New Providence (The Bahamas) facing an uncertain future when she met her future partner. ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham has been a small-time pirate who had accepted the King’s pardon and was living a quiet life until he met Anne. Before too long they had assembled a crew, stolen a ship, and the pardon – and Anne’s first husband – were just distant memories.

Women aboard ship were considered unlucky, so the fact that Anne stayed aboard and commanded respect suggests she was tough and pulled her weight, for each ‘man’ had to earn his place on the ship. While she had been brought aboard by their captain, pirate crews had a remarkably democratic set up. The Articles that all crew members signed clearly set out a strict code of conduct, gave them rights such as spoils to be shared fairly, and even provided a form of insurance for loss of limbs or eyes, with each having a financial value. Had the crew disapproved of Anne, Captain Rackham would have had no choice but to set her ashore.

But more astonishing still, soon after Anne embarked upon her career as a pirate, during a raid the crew was joined by a tough young  ‘man’ called Mark Read. Mark was soon revealed as Mary Read, a woman in her 20s with an even more remarkable story than Anne’s.

From her very early years Mary had been dressed and passed off as a boy by her mother. Mary’s brother had died young, but as his grandmother had settled an allowance on him, Mary’s mother saw little reason to inform her of the boy’s death, replacing him instead with young Miss Read who claimed a crown a week for her trouble.

When her grandmother died and the money dried up, Mary briefly entered service as a foot-boy before her sense of adventure led her to voluntarily joining a man-of-war, then the British Army as a soldier in Flanders. She soon earned her stripes in battle until she fell for a fellow soldier and told him her secret. If he expected a convenient affair with his unlikely tent-mate he was wrong, however, as Mary was very traditional in this sense at least and insisted on marriage. Discharged by the army, the couple was given enough money to set up a small inn at Breda – the Three Trade Horses – that did a roaring trade from British soldiers.

However, the war was short-lived and custom gradually dried up. When Mary’s husband died unexpectedly, she did what she had always done – she dressed as a man, and set off to find her fortune in America. Before long, she found herself aboard Rackham’s ship.

That Anne and Mary ended up on the same ship at the same time is a remarkable coincidence, and they established quite a reputation for themselves. It was rumoured that Mary had killed a man who had threatened her lover aboard ship, while one commentator marvelled that the women ‘cursed and swore at the men’ and generally behaved in a most unbecoming way. There is no doubt they threw themselves into the violence that pirate life demanded, with one contemporary report suggesting that Anne had once turned her guns on her own men when she considered them cowardly.

My novel Bonny & Read: A Tale of Pirates tells the story of the women and their crew as they carve out names for themselves while trying to staying one step ahead of the British Navy and execution. Ultimately, Mary succumbed to fever and was buried in Jamaica in 1720. Anne, however, was made of sterner stuff. She survived and disappeared from history. Women like Anne never go quietly, however, and hers is a story that I am looking forward to writing more of.

For more from Julie, follow her on Twitter.

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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