I Would Not Have the Penalty Set at Anything Less Than Death



Mary Read was born in England c1690. Her mother was very young when she married a sailor who went off to sea, abandoning her and her swelling belly, the fruit of which was a bonny little boy, Mark. The husband out of guilt had left her some money for the child’s upkeep but never returned. When Mark was only three months old she found herself to be with child again and to avoid her secret being discovered she took leave of her mother in law and went into hiding some way off in Bristol.  Soon afterwards Mark died, leaving her with only the consolation of her new daughter, Mary.

By the time Mary was three, the money had all had been all but spent and her mother hatched a most devious plan in order to secure her future comfort.  Knowing that her mother-in-law was a woman of means she travelled back to London with Mary, now disguised as a boy and presented her as Mark to the old lady who immediately communicated her wish to take on the boy’s care. But the mother would on no account be parted from her and eventually secured a promise from the grandmother of a crown per week for her upbringing.  She was educated adequately for a girl of her station, schooled in the arts of shooting and fencing and bought a pony then later a horse, in good time becoming accomplished in both jumping and dressage.

Then disaster struck, the old lady died and her riches being disturbed among her own sons the allowance came to an abrupt end and Mark, or rather Mary, was hired out to a French lady as a footman.’

As Mary grew older, her strength and manly disposition increased and she left her life of servitude to join a horse regiment in Flanders as a cadet where she conducted herself so valiantly that she earned the esteem of all her officers.  It was at this time when she fell passionately in love with one of her comrades.  The strength of her feelings rendered her negligent of her duties and she was deemed mad by the rest of her regiment. As they slept in the same tent she revealed her sex to him, and he was happy, supposing that he could have his mistress all to himself.  Mary however insisted that she was a woman of virtue and that he could not have her unless they were married.  The singularity of two soldiers marrying excited much attention and the pair were showered with gifts.  After their marriage the pair were successful in gaining their discharge and set up an inn called ‘The Three Shoes.’   But Mary’s happiness was short-lived; her husband soon died, leaving her heart-broken.

Mary donned male attire once more and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies.  During the voyage, the ship was captured by English pirates and being the only ‘Englishman’ on board, they detained her.  Mary had found her vocation!

The crew received the King’s pardon in 1718 and Mary turned privateer for a short while.  But the ship was soon commandeered by the pirate John Rackham and bored of the legitimate life, Mary joined his crew.  There was already another woman on board, Rackham’s wife, Anne Bonny.  Anne and Mary were always together and so intimate was their friendship that Rackham, still believing Mary to be a man, threatened to slit her throat.  It was not until Rackham burst into Anne’s room one day and discovered the pair in a state of undress that he finally realised she was a woman.

Many sources suggest that Anne and Mary were lovers, but this remains a point of conjecture.  What is more certain is that Mary developed an attachment to a man whilst on board Rackham’s ship, Revenge. So vehement were her feelings for this man that when he was challenged to duel, Mary picked a fight with his opponent the day before they were due to lock swords, killing him outright and therefore saving her beloved’s life.  They were married soon afterwards on board Revenge.

Both Anne and Mary were known for their violent tempers, and in times of battle, no other crew member was as bloodthirsty or as ruthless as these two ‘hell cats’.  As to the threat of capture and being hanged Mary famously said, ‘I would not have the penalty set at anything less than death.  Were it not for that deterrent, the seas would be infested with a thousand cowards who would terrorise the honest merchants until all trade collapsed.  Cowardice is far more profitable on land, where scoundrels can cheat on the most vulnerable members of society who have not the means to buy for themselves the protection of the law.’

Mary’s legacy has perhaps been overshadowed by Anne’s, but she remains one of the most mesmerising and romanticised women ever to take to the seas.

For more on the life of pirates visit my author page: Emma Rose Millar, Author


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