In “The Tryals of Captain John Rackam and Other Pirates” published in 1721, witnesses have testified that when the she-pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny “saw any Vessel, gave Chase, or Attacked, they wore Men’s Cloaths; and, at other Times, they wore Women’s Cloaths” (28). While this testimony proves that both female criminals were crossdressing on board the pirate sloop, it reveals an interesting characteristic that marked these two women seafarers different from their female cohort in the early eighteenth century: they were not interested in concealing their feminine identity at all. If this is true, one cannot help but wonder why Mary Read and Anne Bonny would even consider crossdressing when they had the freedom to choose what they would wear in the first place. Through analyzing the trial record of the said she-pirates and Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, I argue that the crossdressing she-pirate was not just a literary fantasy but a possible identity that women could choose to adopt because of the unique social understanding of identity in early eighteenth-century society.
To figure out why Mary Read and Anne Bonny would want to cross-dress as pirates, we should begin by knowing that identity was not considered as “naturally” gendered in the early eighteenth century. Therefore, the she-pirates’ crossdressing might not seem as uncommon an act as it is today. According to Dror Wahrman, “[a]lthough expectations of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ were generally well defined, contemporaries did not perceive them as necessarily pinning down each and every individual” (40). That is to say, “delineations of maleness and femaleness [. . .] are perceptual and relational rather than natural or self-generated” (Dugaw “Female Sailors Bold” 44). In early eighteenth-century society, a biological male could be delicate and sentimental while a biological female did not have to be maternal and caring. These seemingly “unnatural” identities would be met “with resignation, tolerance, or sometimes even appreciation” (Wahrman 40). From this perspective, the she-pirates’ crossdressing should not be regarded as a serious transgression because they lived in a society that allowed more freedom in terms of gender and identity. Although they would be expected to appear more feminine, femininity was by no means the only quality they could use to present themselves.
Yet Mary Read and Anne Bonny’s crossdressing denotes more than gender. Indeed, the clothes they wore shaped the role they were playing. As a letter in a 1711 issue of the Spectator notes, “People dress themselves in what they have a Mind to be, and not what they are fit for” (Addison and Steele 45). Although the author was referring to his experience going to a masquerade, Dianne Dugaw reminds us that the eighteenth century was a period “in which pervasive metaphors of masquerading conditioned the very terms in which people thought and behaved” (Warrior Women 132). Adopting a different identity was not a privilege for one attending masquerades, acting on the stage, or appearing in literary works—people would don on a different persona even in their daily lives by wearing different clothes. This prompted Maximillian E. Novak to call the period “The Age of Disguise” (7), for one’s clothes, as Terry Castle indicates, “spoke symbolically of the human being beneath its folds” (55). Early eighteenth-century society is unique for its belief that clothes are used “to make identity” (Wahrman 178, italics original). Like going to a masquerade, a contemporary could alter their appearance and begin performing the role that their clothes designated. There existed the possibility for one to have multiple identities instead of just one fixed persona. This cultural belief thus provides the ground for women to wear a pirate’s outfit and begin acting as one.
Although the pirate identity was an option for women in the early eighteenth century, the pirate community was, unsurprisingly, not particularly friendly to women. Captain Bartho Roberts, who was active at the beginning of the eighteenth century, clearly states in his often-quoted pirate code that “[n]o boy or woman [is] to be allowed amongst them [the pirates]” (Johnson 183). On speculating why women would cross-dress to be soldiers in contemporary ballads, Dugaw also notes that if a single woman is undisguised in the predominantly male environment, she “was subject to harassment and violence” (Dugaw, Warrior Women 130).
Furthermore, Frederick Burwick and Manushag N. Powell have noted that pirates “largely regarded women or indeed any sexual attachments at sea as a perilous distraction” (102); therefore, they avoided having them on board as much as they could. While Marcus Rediker believes that Captain Roberts was “more straitlaced than most pirate captains” (9), it should be evident that the pirate profession was predominantly masculine and potentially dangerous to women. Therefore, besides trying to perform the role of a pirate, another possible and practical reason for Mary Read and Anne Bonny to disguise themselves was that crossdressing would carve out a safe space for them to blend in the community that was predominantly masculine.
If we examine the descriptions of the she-pirates in the trial record, we can recognize that crossdressing certainly enabled Mary Read and Anne Bonny to mingle with the masculine pirate community. According to a captive on the sloop, Mary Read and Ann Bonny “wore Mens Jackets, and long Trouzers, and Handkerchiefs tied about their Heads; and each of them had a Machet and Pistol in their Hands” (“The Tryals” 27). Their outfits were obviously masculine, and the weapons in their hands enhanced their image as aggressive outlaws. Additionally, other witnesses also reported that they have heard the she-pirates cursing and swearing, which further distanced them from the delicate feminine identity. The testimony thus illustrates Dugaw’s observation that a woman disguised as a man “could move about the same world with safety and freedom” (Warrior Women 130). As the trial record indicates, the female-pirates were “hand[ing] Gun-powder to the Men” and “very ready and willing to do any Thing on Board” (“The Tryals” 28). While dressing up as pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny were clearly not distractions to the crew but part of the crew that made pirating possible. They were not particularly different from the rest of the crew.
A General History adds more to the function of crossdressing for the she-pirates by demonstrating that each has successfully dealt with hardships in their lives through crossdressing. Dugaw suggests that two of the common reasons women would cross-dress in contemporary ballads were pursuing “true love” and “breaking out of custodial confinement” (Warrior Women 130, 135). Johnson’s account shows much reminiscence of these reasons. His version of Mary Read, as a newborn baby, was dressed and raised as a boy to pass for her deceased brother so that “the supposed grandmother should allow a crown a week for its maintenance” (Johnson 131). Similarly, his Anne Bonny, being an illegitimate child, had to be “put into breeches as a boy” before her biological father could take her home to live with him (Johnson 139). After failing to divorce her husband, Anne Bonny “consented to elope with him [Calico Rackam], and go to sea with Rackam in man’s clothes” (Johnson 140). With these episodes of the she-pirates’ early lives, A General History further supports the idea that gender identity can be constructed in these ways during the period.
While Johnson’s narrative successfully adds spice to the story, the dramatic depiction inevitably makes the account seem more fanciful than real. As David Cordingly indicates, a reason that made Mary Read and Anne Bonny so popular is that they “were the only women pirates of the great age of piracy that we know anything about” (59). However, besides a few brief accounts, our knowledge of them mainly comes from “The Tryals” and A General History. While most scholars would deem the trial record somewhat credible, there are concerns about Johnson’s work, for its content cannot be cross-checked and the author is still somewhat of a mystery. A comparison of the two could also reveal gaps in the history.
Indeed, one telling difference is that A General History seems to suggest that a cross-dressed identity only works for a specific occasion, which is conventional in contemporary literary depictions of women crossdressers. As Dugaw notes, disguised heroines in ballads “do not remain at sea or in camp,” for they “almost always bring about the disclosure of the disguise and a ‘return’ to ‘normal’” (Warrior Women 155). Thus, in Johnson’s account, we can find that by crossdressing Mary Read lets the comrade she loves “discover her sex,” and she is immediately recognized by him as “a mistress solely to himself” and a woman he would court “for a wife” (Johnson 132). As soon as the war is over, the two “bought woman’s apparel for her, [. . .] and were publicly married” (Johnson 132). When she reveals her feminine identity, she abandons the borrowed identity for good. While it is true that Mary Read crossed-dresses as a soldier later in the narrative, it happens after her husband dies, and she joins a different regiment. She could not resume her previous persona.
It is also interesting to note that the crossdressing patterns for Mary Read and Anne Bonny are highly similar and formulaic in A General History. They were both illegitimate baby girls who were raised as little boys. As they grew up, they resumed their feminine identities to get married. Upon facing a critical challenge in life, both cross-dressed again to become pirates who eventually pleaded after being sentenced to die. An identity is never recycled—at least not in the same context. Johnson’s account thus seems to be following the contemporary literary convention that favored the “return” of the crossdressers, which seems to imply that a she-pirate would eventually return to “normal.”
However, this “return” motif is nowhere to be found in the trial records. As the witnesses clearly stated, Mary Read and Anne Bonny were able to don and shed their pirate identities in order to suit their needs. When they were performing their pirate duties, they wore men’s clothes; when they were off duty, they had the option of wearing women’s clothes. This not only reflects the ideas that the pirate as an identity can be borrowed by changing clothing but also demonstrates that it is an identity that women could assume and resume without creating much fuss. The fact that Calico Rackham’s crew knew that Mary Read and Anne Bonny were women and continued to work with them as their comrade suggests that the she-pirate was not a mere literary construction—it was something like an acceptable persona for women in the early eighteenth century. Mary Read and Anne Bonny pleaded their respective cases not because their pirate identity was incompatible with reality reality but because it was a practical decision that would prolong their lives.
It is true that we do not have many records of she-pirates and that the case of Mary Read and Anne Bonny does not represent the whole picture of she-pirates in the early eighteenth century. Yet the fact that they were rarely mentioned does not mean that they were not an option. As both “The Tryals” and A General History demonstrate, women could cross-dress to present and perform different identities. “The Age of Disguise” thus allowed women like Mary Read and Anne Bonny the freedom to become pirates not only in the realm of imagination but also on board Calico Rackam’s pirate sloop. Thus, she-pirates should not be regarded as a female fantasy—at least not in the early eighteenth century when Mary Read and Anne Bonny were freely expressing themselves while sailing under the black flag.
Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. The Spectator. Edited by Gregory Smith. J. M. Dent, 1907. Hathi Trust, hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015050175952.
Burwick, Frederick, and Manushag N. Powell. British Pirates in Print and Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Dugaw, Dianne. “Female Sailors Bold: Transvestite Heroines and the Markers of Gender and Class.” Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700- 1920. Ed. Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 34-54.
—. Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Ed. by Arthur L. Hayward, 1926. New York: Routledge, 1955.
Novak, Maximillian E. “Introduction.” English Literature in the Age of Disguise. Ed. Maximillian E. Novak. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977. 1-14.
Rediker, Marcus. “Liberty beneath the Jolly Roger: The Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Pirates.” Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700- 1920. Ed. Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 1- 33.
“The Tryals of Captain John Rackam, and Other Pirates (1721).” British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730. Ed. Joel H. Baer. Vol. 3. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007. 1-66.
Wahrman, Dror. The Making of the Modern Self. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.