A man muttered something to his crewmates while Sol was out of sight. I crept up and grabbed his arm.
He shrieked – EXACTLY like a girl.
I know what you’re all thinking: “We SAW Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Carribean 3 – women don’t look like women just because they wear pants. It’s silly!”
It’s also a historical fact.
The two best known pirates are Anne Bonny and Mary Read, both written about in considerable detail in my ultimate pirate book, “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates” (published 1724 by an anonymous author who was almost definitely a pirate himself – or herself).
The author himself writes that the story sounds made up. However, there were thousands of Jamaican witnesses at their respective trials, so the stories are from the women themselves.
It all starts with Mary Read’s mother, who gave birth to a son, then discovered her husband was lost at sea. According to the book, “Nevertheless, the mother, who was young and airy, met with an accident, which has often happened to women who are young and do not take a great deal of care; which was, she soon proved to be with child again.”
Oh, what to do, what to do?
First she visited friends, to hide the fact she was pregnant. It was there she gave birth to a girl, and stayed several years.
By sheer chance, her son died. At this point, being poor, she came up with a cunning plan. If she could switch children, she could get her rich mother-in-law to give her money to raise her “grandson”. So that’s what she did.
Unfortunately, the mother in law soon died, so Mary worked as a footman from a young age.
All in all, by the time little Mary Read was fully grown, she was extremely well practised at acting in every way like a boy. She became a trooper, and was well known for “his” courage, although it was thought rather odd that she’d always volunteer for any fight involving her comrade (with whom she shared a tent).
Her comrade just thought “he” was a great friend. Until she “accidentally” blew her cover one day. Then he thought, “Even better! I got me a free woman, all to myself!”
He was very startled when Mary resisted his advances, despite clearly being in love with him. Eventually she won him over (as all women do in the end), and they were properly and honourably married. Both were very poor, but they pooled their money and Mary finally wore a dress.
Cue media furore. It’s not often soldiers marry each other. The pair was so popular they were given financial help from their fellow soldiers. They were very happy, but the husband died very young.
At that point Mary did what was necessary to live. She dressed as a man again, and became a sailor – which, when it didn’t go well, soon became piracy. She continued to be very well known for her bravery – and to reserve herself for marriage only (although there weren’t any ministers available to make her marriage official).
On one occasion her lover (whom she very seriously considered her husband) challenged another pirate to a duel. Mary showed her love and courage by arranging ANOTHER duel with the same pirate – two hours earlier. She killed him, saving her own life and possibly the life of her partner.
During the battle that ended in her capture, she was one of only three “men” still fighting on deck. She “called to those under deck to come up and fight like men, and finding that they did not stir, fired her arms down the hold amongst them, killing one and wounding others.”
She denied that particular charge, but was certainly on deck when most of her pirate shipmates were letting her risk her life to save them.
Not surprisingly, all the pirates were brought to court, having lost the battle. Some were let off, but Mary was not. She was sentenced to death. The court that heard her was so sympathetic they might have let her off, except that a conversation was repeated in which she had said she supported the punishment of hanging for piracy, because otherwise everyone would turn pirate (rather than just the desperate, like herself). Since she was pregnant, however, the hanging was put off. She might still have been pardoned after some jail time, but she died of a fever in prison.
Her partner, however, was one of those who was pardoned. She “commended the justice of the court before which she was tried, for distinguishing the nature of their crimes; her husband, as she called him, with several others, being aquitted; and being asked who he was, she would not tell, but said he was an honest man and had no inclination to such practises, and they had both resolved to leave the pirates their first opportunity, and apply themselves to some honest livelihood.”
The freedom of her husband gave her some comfort in tha last months of her life.