Monday, March 11, 2013

Mary Read - Cross Dressing Female Pirate

Mary Read, the less celebrated half of the most famous pirate duo ever, has an even more interesting early life than Anne. Like Anne, she had an illegitimate birth. Maybe that’s a good start for being a pirate.

Mary was born in England, 11 months after her ship-captain father had gone out to sea. He died before coming home to discover what his wife had been up to, leaving Mary’s mother with two small children, newborn Mary and a brother, Mark, who was barely 10 months older. Since this was the 17th century (sometime between 1690 and 1698) and the family had no means of support, they were dependant on Mary’s paternal grandmother.

Grandma lived quite a distance away and rarely visited, but she was very happy to have a male descendent to carry on the family name. Because of Mark, she supported all three members of the family. 

Tragedy struck when one of the mysterious “fevers” so common at the time killed Mark. Now Mary’s mother was entirely without resources. Unless she took drastic action.

Desperate, she dressed year-old Mary in her dead brother’s clothes and began calling her “Mark.”  The ruse worked. Enough time passed between grandmotherly visits, and the children were so close in age that grandmother was fooled. From that time on, Mary lived as a boy. 

The arrangement seems to have been quite successful. Mary fooled everyone, and in her early teens even worked as footboy (the younger version of a footman, a type of male servant.) Then her grandmother passed away and the money stopped.

By this time Mary was in her mid teens, a marriageable age. Her mother’s new solution was that Mary should put on skirts, grow her hair out, and find a husband. Mary tried to please her mother, and began living the highly restricted life of a woman. Then she found an alternate answer. She ran away from home and joined the British Navy.

Conditions on warships were incredibly crowded. A hundred-foot-long ship might carry three hundred men. Sailors slept in one large area, in hammocks slung literally side by side, with no space at all between them.

Yet no one discovered her, and she served a proper term as a sailor. She mustered out after only a year, probably because of the harsh living conditions. Instead, she joined the army.
Britain was at war with France, and allied with the Flemish. While on deployment in the Netherlands, Mary fell in love with a Flemish soldier. She revealed her gender to her fellow soldiers, who were amazed but supportive. In fact, when she left their ranks, they raised enough money for Mary and her new husband to buy a tavern.

Mary lived in happy matrimony, helping to run an establishment called "De drie hoefijzers" (The Three Horseshoes") However, fate stepped in again. Another mysterious sickness carried off her husband after only a short time. Mary was so grief-stricken she couldn’t stand to look at the tavern any more. She sold the place and went back into the army.

Once again, no one suspected her. She fought a duel with another soldier, but this was a peace time army, and she became bored. 

Once again, her gender undiscovered, she left the army and went to sea, this time on a merchant ship. She sailed to the Caribbean, where she may have joined up with a pirate crew. She ended up in New Providence in Nassau, the capitol of a veritable Pirate Republic. It was there she met Anne Bonny.

Her run with Anne and Calico Jack Rackham lasted for less than a year, but she has gone down in history. It was she who insisted that the women wear men’s clothes. Her proven skill with weapons probably inspired Anne. Though she left no memorable quotes, she proved, over and again that a woman could do what a man did, and often times better.

Her success in so many areas leads one to believe that there must have been a very great number of women disguised as men doing all sorts of things.  Such women were recorded in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the settling of the American West. How many more, like Mary, existed? We may never know.    

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