Anne Bonny, the Fierce, Forgotten, Female Pirate

18th century depiction of pirate Anne Bonny
18th century depiction of pirate Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny is one of the most famous female pirates of all time.  She was known for her Irish red hair, fierce fighting skills and ruthlessness. Her exploits occurred during the notorious period known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.” During her time as a pirate, Anne proved herself an equal to any man onboard.  She sailed, drank, swore and fought alongside her fellow male pirates. The mysterious circumstances of Anne Bonny’s ultimate fate, has only fueled modern stories of her adventurous life.

Anne Bonny was a fiercely independent woman, centuries ahead of her time. The 18th century was still an age when men ruled the world and women had few rights, if any. Nevertheless, Anne Bonny became a respected crewmember and pirate.  She challenged the old sailors’ adage that a woman aboard ship was bad luck.  

Much of what we know about her comes from the book A General History of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, who some historians believe is a pen name of Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.  It was released in 1724, only a few years after the end of the Anne’s pirate career.

Anne Bonny was born in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland around 1697.

She was the illegitimate daughter of lawyer William McCormac and a female servant, Mary Brennan. To avoid scandal, he had the maid dress Anne as a boy, called her ‘Andy’ and explained the child was a relative entrusted to his care. When the baby’s gender was discovered, McCormac’s wife made his adultery public.  After losing his reputation and marriage, McCormac, Mary and baby Anne left Ireland and sailed to America to start again. They settled in Charles Town, South Carolina where William shortened his name to Cormac.  He began his legal career again and later bought a plantation.

Mary died in 1711, when Anne was only 13.  Young Anne was then forced to take care of her father’s household. She despised Georgian standards, in which women were expected to live at home and tend to their husbands and children. She began exhibiting a “fierce and courageous temper.” In her teens, she proved to be “difficult,” often getting into fights.  She’s said to have stabbed a disrespectful servant girl with a table knife.

Her father, now a successful planter and merchant, disapproved of his daughter’s rebellious ways, claiming the endless rumors were damaging his business. Young Anne was attractive, with her Irish red hair, and considered a “good catch.”  She reportedly beat half-to-death a young suitor who tried to rape her, sending him to his bed for several weeks. Nevertheless, Anne was still a highly eligible wife and her father betrothed her to a local businessman.  Anne, of course, resisted.

In 1714, at 16, she instead fell in love with and married a poor sailor named James Bonny. 

Bonny also happened to be a small-time pirate, which appealed to Anne’s rebellious spirit. Legend has it, he hoped to come into possession of her father’s estate after his death.  But that never happened, as Cormac disowned Anne and kicked her out for not marrying the husband HE chose. There is no proof, but some stories mention that her father’s plantation house mysteriously caught on fire shortly thereafter ….

Anne and James Bonny set off for New Providence (Nassau) in the Bahamas, a sanctuary for pirates, called the “Republic of Pirates.”  They had a hard time making a living, so James became a pirate informant for Governor Woodes Rogers, collecting bounties. Governor Rogers, a former pirate himself, composed a “Most Wanted” list, including pirates like Blackbeard.  Anne disagreed with her husband’s line of work.  She’d made pirate friends on the island and began to idolize their lifestyle.  She spent much of her time drinking at local saloons, carousing with pirate men. 

This fueled arguments amongst the married couple. Anne only increased her visits to the taverns, taking in the stories of pirate life. Unhappy in her marriage, Anne grew enamored with handsome John “Calico Jack” Rackam, a nickname he earned due to his brash clothing.  Rackham felt the same way about Anne and offered to pay her husband for a divorce (a common practice), but James Bonny refused.  So in 1718, Anne left her husband and ran away to join Rackam’s pirate crew.

Calico Jack was a small-time pirate who raided merchant vessels around Jamaica and the Bahamas in his sloop, the Revenge. He wasn’t particularly successful, but he knew how to spend money with style.  Aboard ship, everybody knew that Anne was “the captain’s woman.” Rackham’s decision to have Bonny as a crew member was unusual, as women were considered bad luck aboard ships. Female pirates were an anomaly and perceived liability. Anne refused to be deterred. Upon joining Rackam’s crew, she’s said to have silenced a rival shipmate by stabbing him in the chest!

Bonny never concealed her gender from her shipmates, except when pillaging another ship. 

Then she disguised herself as a man and participated equally in armed conflict.  She would wear a man’s loose tunic and wide, short trousers, a sword hitched by her side, a brace of pistols tucked in a sash about her waist; a small cap perched atop a kerchief hiding her dark red hair – quite the romantic figure. Between those sporadic bouts of marauding, pirate life was all about sailing and maintaining a ship at sea.  Our modern romantic picture of pirating come more from Pirates of the Caribbean movies than from historical reality.

Anne eventually became pregnant and when Rackam found out, he dropped her off in Cuba to deliver the baby. There are several theories about what happened to Anne’s first child. Some think she abandoned the boy as it did not suit her pirate lifestyle.  Others believe that Calico Jack had family in Cuba, who agreed to raise their child. Others think her baby died at child birth.

Craving the pirate life at sea she, she divorced Bonny and married Rackham to continue their life as a married couple.  After a few months, she returned to Rackam’s ship, but now one Mary Read was also on board. According to Johnson’s book, the Revenge had taken an English ship, and Mary Read was among those brought on board, disguised as a boy.

Our Anne, tried to seduce the handsome new recruit. Mary, perhaps trusting another woman aboard ship, confided in that Anne that she too was a woman.  Impressed by her courage, Anne promised to keep Mary’s secret and the women became close friends, confidantes and, depending on your source, even lovers!

They had much in common; Mary was also an illegitimate child who excelled at living in a man’s world. At age 13, dressed as a boy, she served as a “powder monkey” on a British man-of-war, carrying bags of gunpowder. She fell in love with her bunkmate and divulged her secret to him.  They informed their captain she was a woman and she quit sailing.  She married the young sailor, who unfortunately died shortly thereafter.

Mary Read resumed her life as a man and sailed the West Indies on an English ship.

Her shipmates never suspected Mary’s true gender.  Like Anne, she was aggressive and ruthless, always ready for a raid, and swore like a classic drunken sailor. Loose clothing hid her breasts, and no one thought twice about her lack of facial hair.  Her shipmates, most of them in their teens and early twenties, were also smooth-faced.

Initially, Calico Jack was jealous of Anne’s relationship with “Mark,” and one day burst into Anne’s cabin, intending to slit his/her throat. To save her life, Mary stood up and ripped opened her shirt, exposing her breasts.  With one woman already aboard, a shocked Rackam agreed to keep Mary’s secret from the crew and, like Anne, treat her as an equal. During battles, Anne and Mary now fought side by side, wearing men’s attire, wielding a sharpened machete and loaded pistol in either hand.

1720 proved especially lucrative for the Revenge. They took seven fishing sloops near Harbor Island. Anne and Mary had led a raid against a schooner, shooting at the crew and cursing loudly as they gathered their plunder of tobacco and tea. Calico Jack started to build a reputation and the English government took notice. The accounts of Anne’s exploits as a Caribbean pirate also became known. Bonny’s name got so notorious that Governor Rogers added her to his “Wanted Pirates” circular, widely published in newspapers.

In October, they were anchored in Dry Harbor Bay, Jamaica after a successful raid. Anne and Mary noticed a mysterious sloop gliding up alongside them early one morning. They realized it was one of the governor’s vessels, and called their crewmates to arms. Captain Barnet, an ex-pirate, now a pirate hunter and commander in the British Navy, was under a commission from the Governor of Jamaica to attack Rackam’s ship and arrest the crew.

A men few rushed to the deck, but many were passed out drunk from the previous night’s debauchery. They’d been celebrating all night after capturing a Spanish merchant ship. Captain Barnett ordered the pirates to surrender, but Calico Jack instead fired a deck gun at them. Barnett ordered an attack, and the barrage disabled Rackam’s ship.  The few crew on the Revenge’s deck to ran into the hold for cover.

But not fearless Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Pirate Anne Bonny repelling invaders aboard the Revenge.
Pirate Anne Bonny repelling invaders aboard the Revenge.

They remained on deck, firing their pistols and swinging their cutlasses at the boarders.  Mary was so disgusted by her drunken crew she stopped fighting long enough to peer down into the hold and shout at them.  “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” When not a man came up, she fired into the hold, killing one of them.  Anne, Mary and Calico Jack were quickly overpowered and outnumbered.  Rackam surrendered the Revenge and were all taken prisoner.

Every member of Rackham’s crew, including the two women were chained and transported to to Port Royale in Jamaica to stand trial. The island was shocked when the real identities of Anne Bonny and Mary Read were revealed. The crew’s trial was a huge sensation when the background of the two famous female prisoners was revealed.

Calico Jack and the male crew members were all found guilty of the crime of piracy. The sentence by Governor Lawes was death by hanging.  Calico Jack was to be executed in early November.  His final request was to see his beloved Anne. But rather than consoling him, she stared at him through the bars with disgust  “Had your crew fought like men, you need not be hanged like a dog.” The body of the hanged Rackham was placed near the entrance of the Port Royale’s harbor as a warning to all.

Ten days later, Anne and Mary stood trial at the Admiralty Court.  Both of them pleaded not guilty to all charges, nevertheless both were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged as well. Here is where their tale takes an interesting turn. Read and Bonny then both revealed they were “quick with child” and “pleaded their bellies,” asking for mercy because they were pregnant!  In accordance with English law, both women received a temporary stay of execution until they gave birth.

Mary Read died in prison from fever following childbirth in 1721.  But the fate of Anne Bonny is unknown.  The exact fate surrounding her imprisonment and execution have never been verified by any remaining accounts. There is no historical evidence of Bonny’s release or execution, so her last days remain a tantalizing mystery.

Anne literally disappeared from history.

Stories vary on the rest of her life. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Anne Bonny’s father paid the governor for his daughter’s release and brought her back to Charles Town. There in 1721, she gave birth to Rackham’s second child.  She supposedly remarried and lived a conventional life in South Carolina as a simple wife and mother, and had SIX more children. In this version, she lived a long life and died at the age of 80.

This seems far too boring a choice for the adventurous Anne we know.  Another story says her father married her off to a Jamaican official, where she changed her name to Annabele and lived out her days quietly, dying at a ripe old age. Still another says she lived out her life on the English coast, where she purchased a tavern and regaled the locals with tales of her exploits in the Caribbean.  Some believe she took on a new identity and continued her pirating ways on the open sea.

Whatever Anne’s Bonny end, stories of her wild life made her one of the most popular female pirates of all time. Her fame only rose as she appeared in many works of fiction. Artists portrayed her as a fierce pirate, standing on deck with pistols drawn, dressed in battle-torn man’s clothes. She was the inspiration of many stories of woman pirates in novels, plays, songs, movies, and even video games. Her rare, adventurous life was highly unusual in a time when very few women managed to escape the shackles of male-dominated society and simply live their lives as they wished.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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