The Golden Age of Piracy was an entirely male dominated affair for a number of reasons. On the most practical level women generally lacked the physical strength to endure the brutal back breaking labour men participated in, daily, while at sea. While Gibbs of Pirates of the Caribbean might declare that having a woman aboard a ship would bring bad luck in reality their presence would simply encourage jealousy and fighting among the crew, not to mention the personal danger posed to the women themselves from sexually frustrated sailors.
Women do however appear within modern depictions of piracy, namely the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag. In the former women are few and far between and mostly feature as passengers aboard the ship, if they board them at all, rather than active members of the crew, with the exception being the minor character Annamaria, whom it is implied captained her own ship before Jack Sparrow stole it. As the series progresses however history is thrown to the winds with women occupying the highest positions of authority on the ships. Elizabeth Swann becomes an active member of the crew, indeed becoming captain of the Black Pearl (albeit briefly) for the third film and the latest film features the character Angelica as the first mate aboard Blackbeard’s ship. However, it is the decision to give a woman such a prominent position over the crew that allows Jack Sparrow to incite the crew to mutiny, indicating how poorly such a decision would have been received.
Although history is littered with women who posed as young men to work as cabin boys or sailors, much as Elizabeth Swann does in the second Pirates… film, due to the close quarters living aboard ships they were often quickly discovered. The only way a woman could join a crew was in male garb, as a much older woman could pose as an adolescent boy looking to join as a cabin boy, but there were simply no opportunities for women to carve out a career at sea as anything other than a transvestite sailor. The number of women who made a career at sea is negligible, the number of cross dressers known to be women; smaller still and the number of women who made a name for themselves as women at sea is set quite firmly in the lower single digits.
The two most well known female pirates are Anne Bonny and Mary Read, both of whom actually served aboard the same ship, are the only two women convicted of piracy during the 18th century and both appear in the video game Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag, albeit with some fictional embellishments. Mary Read for example is a member of the Assassins Order and their real life stories are worked around the fictional protagonist; Edward Kenway. Although both Bonny and Read were the only female pirates aboard their ship they both came to piracy under very different circumstances andc while Bonny was known to be a woman, served as such and earned the respect of her crewmates, Read’s true identity remained largely a secret throughout her naval career until her trial.
Irish born Anne Cormae moved to America with her family in her infancy where she would later marry minor pirate James Bonny and the couple moved to Nassau. While James Bonny worked as an informant for the local governor, Anne either worked at or frequented pirate taverns where she met Jack Rackham (Calico Jack), the pirate captain whose crew was taking advantage of Nassau’s offer of free pardons to pirates. The two began an affair, though when James Bonny found out about this he reported his wife to the authorities and she was publicly whipped. Initially Rackham offered to pay James to divorce Bonny, though she took umbrage to this and instead the two raised a crew and stole a ship, voiding Rackham’s pardon. Initially Bonny disguised herself as a man but she fell pregnant with Rackham’s child and after leaving the newborn in Cuba with his family, she rejoined the crew who seemed to have been aware of her identity, at least from this point onwards.
Mary Read on the other hand had a long history of cross dressing. Reliant on her family for money, Read’s mother disguised Read as a young boy, passing her off as her deceased brother Mark in order to retain the family’s financial support. Read doesn’t seem to have grown out of the habit and chose to work as a boy until her adolescence when she joined the British army. She proved herself a competent soldier but revealed herself when she fell in love with and later married a fellow soldier. The marriage was short lived and after her husband died, Read returned to her male disguise joining the Dutch army. Without a war to fight there was no real work for Read and so she joined the navy, where she was quickly captured by pirates and forced to join their crew. It was several years before she came into the employ of Rackham.
Attracted by the new handsome young sailor, Bonny initially made romantic advances towards Read who was forced to reveal herself to save later embarrassment. Bonny in turn revealed Read’s identity to Rackham who threatened Read in a fit of jealousy. Rackham allowed Read to remain aboard but refrained from revealing her further and she maintained her disguise. The three would be shipmates for less than a year as they were captured by pirate hunters in the Autumn of 1720. Ironically Rackham and the crew were too drunk to fight, retreating to the hold, leaving a sober Read and Bonny to fight off the advancing crew. They were eventually overcome and the entire crew sentenced to hang for acts of piracy. While Rackham was indeed hanged, both Read and Bonny claimed to be pregnant to avoid the sentence, as British law would not condemn an unborn child. Read was probably pregnant having fallen in love with, and assumed a relationship with, a prisoner aboard Rackham’s ship, whereas it is unknown whether Bonny was pregnant again.
Both were imprisoned but Read died of a fever, possibly as a result of childbirth but it may have been as a result of the poor conditions in prison. There are no records of her child, nor are there mentions of Bonny’s fate whether it were execution, death or release. While there were plentiful rumours regarding her actions, on paper at least she disappears after her imprisonment and it is speculated that she died of old age. Her fictional counterpart in Assassins Creed IV is rescued from prison by protagonist Edward Kenway, along with Read (though Read dies from childbed fever), where she goes on to have a short lived son. In keeping with the rumours that she resumed life at sea she joins Kenway aboard his ship, acting as quartermaster before retiring in the West Indies.