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Columns to the Stars
 

Wild and Salty: The Women of the High Seas
by Loretta Kemsley

Close to shore, the water is aquamarine, darkening gradually as the continent drops away and the water deepens. The rumble and roar of the rolling surf is as mesmerizing as the rhythm of the roiling water. The royal blue of the deep stretches to the distant horizon, where it meets the misty blue of the mellow spring sky.

Out beyond the breakers but not far from shore, a trawler harvests seaweed, its gigantic hook sinking like an anchor before rising again with a dripping mass of sea grass. My telescope reveals the bare pot belly of the trawler's skipper, who first perches on the bow, steadying and securing his catch, then clambers back to the wheel house, revving his engines and moving to a new kelp bed.

Over toward the key is a skipper of another sort, bikini clad, looking fine as she adjusts her billowing sails, long hair blowing in the breeze. Her sea-going heritage stems from a little known cadre of women: pirates looting vessels from the frigid waters of England to the warmth of the Caribbean.

Pirate legends have always included women, usually serving as wenches and kidnapped maidens. History has ignored the women who sailed, commanded, commandeered and sank on the buccaneers plying the dangerous waters of the Atlantic. The names of only a few are known, the rest lost in time because of necessary deceit. Women who aspired to piracy dressed and behaved like men, concealing their gender in order to crew the wooden ships.

Two of these women -- Anne Bonny and Mary Read -- made "Calico Jack" Rackham famous. Calico Jack was the quartermaster of the pirate ship, Treasure, in 1717 under Captain Charles Vane. Calico Jack led a revolt against Vane when Vane neglected to attack a promising French ship.

It was in the green splendor of Charleston, South Carolina, that Anne Bonny began her pirate career. The bastard daughter of Irish attorney William Cormac and his maid, Mary Brennan, Anne was the center of violence from her birth in 1697. When William's wife discovered the lover's secret cottage, her family sought vengeance by beating William and tossing him into the river to drown. William and Mary fled County Cork, Ireland in disgrace, taking Anne to America.

Charleston was kinder. Cormac prospered, becoming a wealthy plantation owner. Apparently bored with life on her father's plantation, Anne was drawn to a life of adventure. Hot-tempered, she stabbed a serving maid, killing her, before latching on to James Bonny, a ne'er-do-well womanizer, renegade seaman and half-witted pirate. Cormac, fearing James planned to steal his land and fortune, disowned his teenaged daughter. Anne retaliated by burning the plantation to the ground.

Anne and James eloped, sailing for the Bahamas and New Providence -- now known as Nassau. Anne reveled in the turbulent township. She came to despise James as a coward and traitor when he agreed to be a paid snitch for the governor. Anne left him to be with the island's more notorious pirates. Soon she was being romanced by Calico Jack, who was captaining a new pirate ship, the Revenge.

Upon hearing of their affair, James abducted Anne, charging her with felony desertion. Anne, who stood naked before the governor, was considered stolen property. Calico Jack suggested putting Anne up for sale to the highest bidder. Unimpressed, the governor issued an order forbidding contact between Calico Jack and Anne. Undaunted, Anne disguised herself as a man and joined Jack's crew. They sailed out of port under cover of night.

Anne was a daring, deadly fighter. In New Providence, she became an expert fencer, publicly stripping her fencing instructor with her sword. Her violent temper had not abated; she severely beat a man with a chair for making a pass at her. Her exploits at sea gained even more notoriety. In their raids, Anne fought fiercely side-by-side with Calico Jack. When Anne became pregnant, they stopped briefly in Cuba. She gave birth, then sailed away without the baby.

For a brief time, Jack and Anne tried a tamer life. England passed the Act of Mercy, offering amnesty to pirates. However, the duo couldn't abide a quieter life and were soon back on the high seas.

It was on Calico Jack's ship that Anne met Mary Read. London-born Mary, also a bastard, was forced to disguise herself as a boy from birth. Her half-brother, Mark, died as an infant, not long after his sailor father was lost at sea. Polly Read - a "young and airy" woman - presented Mary as Mark, the male heir, in order to claim the family inheritance and avoid poverty.

A crown a week was "Mark's" allotment, which continued until his paternal grandmother passed away. Once again, Polly needed an income. Thirteen-year-old Mary was rented out as a footboy to a French lady. Mary, still disguised as Mark, escaped by joining the crew of a man o' war, then escaped again by enlisting as a foot soldier in the infantry. She fought with distinction in Flanders (now divided between Belgium, France and the Netherlands) before transferring to the cavalry, where she fell in love with another soldier.

Love caught her unprepared. Her fellow soldiers noticed something amiss when she began to shirk her duties. Despite Mark's courage on the battlefield, they judged him a fool and perhaps a bit crazy. She struggled with her need to speak her love and the necessity of maintaining her disguise. At last, she worked up the courage to reveal her gender to the man she loved. He was delighted with the prospect of a secret lover, but Mary held out for marriage. Although their wedding was attended by several officers, the scandal forced the newlyweds out of the army.

They opened a tavern, The Three Horseshoes, which is said to still stand. Mary, clothed in dresses for the very first time, enjoyed their military clientele and ran the tavern with success, closing only when war stole their customers away. Bankrupt, Mary's husband died not long after. To avoid poverty, Mary adopted the old, familiar masculine role and joined the army once again, serving in Holland before quitting to wander Europe, then re-enlisted as a sailor on a ship heading for the West Indies and the fateful clash with Calico Jack's Revenge.

Taken prisoner, Mary, still disguised as Mark, assessed her situation and decided to adapt one more time, signing on as a pirate every bit as bloodthirsty and daring as Anne Bonny.

Life became ever more complicated. Anne, attracted to "Mark," made advances, revealing her gender in the process. Mary responded in kind. Disappointed as lovers, they nevertheless became friends. They kept each other's secret, becoming close friends and fighting pals. Jack, his jealousy aroused, threatened to kill Anne's "lover," forcing the two to reveal Mary's secret.

Mary revealed her true identity again when they captured another ship and took more captives. One caught Mary's eye, becoming her secret lover. Her newfound happiness was threatened when one of the other pirates challenged him to a duel. Afraid her new love would be killed by the bigger and stronger opponent, she picked a fight of her own. Declaring a second duel only hours before her lover's date with death, Mary planned to kill her opponent and so save her love. If she was killed, she at least hoped to severely wound the other.

At dawn on the day of the duel, they rowed to land. The pirate may have been bigger and stronger, but Mary was more agile. They sparred, with sword and pistol, to no advantage until Mary ripped open her shirt, showing her breast. For a fraction of a second, her opponent gaped at her unexpected breasts. It was all Mary needed. She swung her sword, nearly cutting the man's head off.

When Mary's love arrived for his duel, Mary " suffered the discovery to be made, by carelessly shewing her breasts, which were very white." They swore their betrothal that day.

Both Anne and Mary were daring pirates, eventually commanding the Revenge and swashbuckling their way into history by fighting with even more courage than the men -- as they proved in their final battle.

Captain Barnet, a former pirate turned pirate-hunter, attacked the Revenge. Rackham and most of the pirates were dead drunk. Caught by surprise amid heavy cannon fire, the men hid below-decks. Anne and Mary stood their ground, fighting ferociously. Outraged by the men's cowardice, Anne shouted, "If there's a man among ye, ye'll come out and fight like the men ye are [thought] to be."

Even their feminine scorn didn't rally the pirates. Enraged at their cowardice, Anne and Mary fired into the hold at their cowering shipmates, killing one and wounding several, including Jack Rackham. Despite Anne and Mary's fury, the Revenge was captured.

The crew's trial was held in St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica, on November 28th, 1720. Most were sentenced to hang.

Mary's betrothed was set free when he proved he was forced into piracy. Anne and Mary were also spared for a while when they revealed their pregnancies. "My lord, we plead our bellies." While 18th century chivalry gave women no rights, it was illegal to execute a pregnant woman. The judge granted them a temporary stay of execution and sent them to prison.

On the day of the hanging, Anne saw Calico Jack one last time. Still filled with scorn, she sneered. "I am sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you need not die like a dog"

While in prison, Mary, barely 24 years of age, married twice, killed at least two more people, and died of fever. Her baby died with her.

Anne simply disappeared. There is no record of her hanging. Some say her father forgave her and smuggled her back to the Carolinas. Nothing is known of the baby that saved her from the gallows. All she left behind was this little ditty:

Drain, drain the bowl, each fearless soul
Let the world wag as it will.
Let the heavens growl, the devil howl
Drain, drain the bowl, and fill.

Her words ran through my head as I gazed up through white sails to the clouds floating above the mast of the tall ship. The deck of the buccaneer replica heaved beneath my feet. I polished the brass binnacle, learned the difference between a main sail and a jib, coiled rope and struggled with the block.

At dawn, I took the helm, reflecting upon the lives of Anne and Mary. In an age that limited women severely, they'd seized more than booty. They'd seized life itself. By contrast, I'd let life slide loosely by, despite the greater freedoms of my century. Scrabbling so hard at life, would I have become as bloodthirsty, or would I have succumbed to the limiting mores of the time?

Waves splashed against the hull as we passed. A squadron of wide winged pelicans flew low over the breaking waves, pursuing fish tumbling in our wake. I could feel the soothing warmth of the sun over my left shoulder. A white and gray seagull joined me, cocking a curious eye toward my breakfast. I tossed him a piece of melon. Although I'm sure he'd have preferred a bit of fish, he grabbed it and winged away, a true scavenger of the sea. He too stole and killed to survive.

The sea is a rough taskmaster. Perhaps Anne and Mary lived the only lives they could.


Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International, which publishes "Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women." Her sense of adventure began in childhood:

"Surrounded by the magical world of carnivals, circuses, rodeos, and movie stables, I took my childhood for granted, only learning how unique this atmosphere was after reaching adulthood. Mr. Ed lived across the street, Lassie two blocks away. Gene Autry was my first boss, at age eight, hiring me to ride as a double for Calamity Jane in The Buffalo Bill Jr. television series.

When your father's best friend, a ventriloquist, can make it seem like little people are stuck in a drain pipe; when Lassie barks a greeting as you pass each morning on your way to school; when the palomino which nuzzles your hair each afternoon is adored by millions, who wonder how he 'talks;' when your own best friend disappears behind clown's make-up, the power of magic is never doubted."

You can write to Ms. Kemsley at LKemsley@travelwriters.com or LKemsley@moondance.org

 
 

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