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Life in a Man's World: Mary Read

Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski

Mary Read was born in London, England in the late seventeenth century to the wife of a sea captain. Some historical documents claim that Mary Read was disguised as a boy so that her father would believe that she was his son, whom had died while Mary’s father was at sea, asserting that Mary Read was supposedly the by-product of an illicit affair that her mother had engaged in with an unknown man. Other documents state that Mary’s mother was a widow, and simply wished for her daughter to have all of the advantages offered to a man. Either way, history agrees that Mary Read lived her entire childhood as a boy.

Mary Read’s mothers’ deception apparently paid off, for after the death of her husband she was able to secure his company and holdings as an inheritance for his “son”, Mary. The little family was able to survive nicely for some time, until Mary’s early teen years, when the money ran out. At this time Mary was forced to procure employment in order to support herself and her mother. Still disguised as a boy, Mary found a job as a footboy to a wealthy French woman living in London. Mary was not happy in her position, and soon managed to run away. Being a girl who longed for excitement, Mary found new employment aboard a Man-o-War, but life on such a ship was not what she had expected.

After a few years of gruelling hardship and abuse, Mary managed to jump ship and joined the British military. At first a lowly foot soldier, Mary showed true bravery at the battle of Flanders and was soon promoted to the Horse Regiment. While in the Horse Regiment Mary became friends with another soldier, who believed her to be a man, and soon she found herself in love. Mary confessed her true gender to the man and he accepted her gladly. The two were wed posthaste. They bought out their commission in the military and together opened an inn by the name of The Three Horseshoes.

the first time Mary lived life as a woman, and she and her husband prospered and were happy for a time, but it was not to last. Mary’s husband died and, once again, Mary became a man. She left her inn and joined the military again, but the life of a soldier no longer brought her pleasure, perhaps because of sentiment for her deceased husband. Leaving the military, Mary hopped aboard a ship bound for the West Indies. While enroute, the ship she was on was attacked and captured by Captain Calico Jack Rackham and his pirate mistress, Anne Bonny.

Anne Bonny, a lusty woman if there ever was one, spied Mary Read in her men’s clothing and marked her as a new sexual conquest. Approaching what she thought was the young man, Anne was surprised to find another woman like herself, and the two became fast friends, with Anne swearing to keep Mary’s secret. The secret could not be kept for long, however. Captain Jack had become suspicious of all the time Anne had been spending with the young sailor and confronted the two, cutlass drawn. Mary Read was once again forced to reveal herself. Fortunately, the idea of two female pirates on his crew appealed to Rackham, and so Mary Read became the newest member aboard the ship.

During her tour aboard Rackham’s ship, Mary managed to fall in love once more, this time with a young sailor from a vessel captured by Rackham’s crew. The sailor soon had trouble on his hands, however, in the shape of a large, burly pirate of longstanding. Mary feared for her lover’s life when he was challenged to a duel by the strapping seaman, and so she took matters into her own hands. She challenged the big pirate to a duel herself, demanding satisfaction immediately. Pirate law was clear on this matter, and the quartermaster promptly rowed the two combatants ashore. Mary and the other pirate, armed with both cutlass and pistol, discharged their pistols first thing, both missing the other, then proceeded with an ambitious clash of blades. The larger pirate was the stronger of the two, but Mary was a quick girl, and brilliantly cunning. She studiously avoided the other pirate’s attacks, all the while waiting for him to make a mistake. It came when the pirate stumbled while lunging at her, and Mary immediately seized the opportunity. She ripped her shirt open, exposing her breasts to the man’s incredulous gaze. While he stood gaping, Mary swung her own cutlass and nearly decapitated him, killing him instantly.

With no one to duel but a dead man, Mary’s sailor love proposed to her and the two were married. Their wedded bliss did not last long, however, for soon after their nuptials Captain Jack, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read were taken prisoner. They were all tried for the charges of piracy at St. Jago de la Vega and subsequently sentenced to hang.

Mary Read and Anne Bonny were both pregnant at the time, and managed to receive stays of execution until after the births of their children. While this probably saved Anne Bonny’s life, it mattered nought for Mary Read, for she died while in prison in 1720, her unborn babe with her, of a fever causing malady.

Before she died Mary made a last statement to the court. She was heard proclaiming “As to hanging, it is no great hardship. For were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate and so unfit the sea, that men of courage must starve." For Mary Read, who had always been a woman in a man’s world, in the end it all came down to courage.