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New sculpture celebrates the 18th century LGBT+ women pirates who stunned the world

New sculpture celebrates the 18th century LGBT+ women pirates who stunned the world

  • Anne Bonny and Mary Read left a trail of looted treasure, ex-lovers and devastation across the Caribbean.
Female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read with artist Amanda Cotton.

A new sculpture is celebrating a same-sex pirate couple from the 18th century, 300 years after they shocked the world.

Few people today know about Anne Bonny and Mary Read. But they were two of the most famous pirates from the era that inspired Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Bonny was born in Ireland in 1697 and Read in England in 1685. They dressed as men to find their fortunes at sea and soon became pirates. They found each other too and became lovers.

Now artist Amanda Cotton has unveiled a new sculpture of the pair. It celebrates their history as ‘Hell Cats’ and their intimate relationship with the sea.

Cotton is displaying the sculpture right now at London’s Execution Dock. The British Empire executed pirates at the site for 400 years before leaving their decaying bodies hanging as a grisly warning to others.

But soon the sculpture will set sail to its forever home on the shores of Burgh Island in south Devon, England. Pirates used the tidal retreat for centuries and the public will be able to see this permanent memorial from early 2021.

Mary Read and Anne Bonny’s remarkable story

Few people today know about the rich LGBT+ history of Caribbean piracy – a story GSN has previously shared here.

But while most pirates were men, a few women also broke taboos about females sailing on ships to become pirates. Mary Read and Anne Bonny are the most famous.

Both had a clear masculine side. Mary had gone by the name of Mark since childhood. It doesn’t appear that ‘she’ identified as ‘he’ – a trans guy – but there are some reports she preferred the role of a young man.

Anne’s father had dressed her as a boy and called her Andy. That may have been to disguise her, as he had fled his wife’s family. She had a fierce temper and, aged 13, she allegedly stabbed a servant girl with a table knife.

Read dressed as a man to get work at sea. But pirates took a ship she was on and forced her to join them.

Meanwhile Bonny had traveled to the Bahamas and started mingling with pirates in the local taverns. There Bonny met pirate Captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham and became his lover. Shortly after, Read joined them too.

Initially Bonny and Read each assumed the other was a man. But Bonny eventually told Read she was a woman and attracted to her. Read then revealed she was also a woman. That is when they probably started to have a sexual relationship.

Rackham was jealous of Read, as he thought Read was a man with designs on his lover, Bonny. But Bonny reassured him by explaining Read was a woman.

Together the three stole a ship from Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. They recruited a crew and captured many ships around Jamaica, amassing plenty of treasure.

‘They broke gender boundaries and stunned people’

Historian, Professor Kate Williams, says it’s important to remember these women who outfoxed law enforcement and were as quick to draw their cutlasses as they were to fall in love:

‘Mary Read and Anne Bonny were two of the most famed pirates in the 18th century, yet there is little said about them in our history books.

‘They broke gender boundaries and stunned people at the time. It’s imperative that we continue to unearth the hidden voices, histories of many women and LGBTQ+ persons.’

Meanwhile Cotton has explained her inspirations for the new sculpture:

‘The sculpture’s design is a metaphor for Bonny and Read’s personality, Fire and Earth. Individually they are strong independent women but when Anne (fire) and Mary (earth) combine they are dangerously unstoppable.

‘Anne’s passion fuels Mary’s determination, and Mary’s patience channels Anne onto a path. Together they erupt like an inexorable volcano.

‘Ultimately, the statue will show how the sea (water) is as much a part of Anne and Mary’s story as fire and earth.

‘The marine concrete the sculpture is made of will, over time, create a habitable environment for the surrounding wildlife, whilst being cast into the natural rock so that the two figures truly become one with their environment.’

In addition to the statue, the women’s story will also be told in a new podcast – Hell Cats. The podcast drama will be available from tomorrow (19 November) on Audible.