Famous Female Pirates by Anna Markland

Not all famous pirates were men. One of the most notorious female pirates was Anne Bonny.

EARLY LIFE

Bonny’s exact birthdate is not known but is somewhere around 1700. She was said to be born in County Cork, Ireland. She was the daughter of servant woman Mary Brennan and Brennan’s employer, lawyer William Cormac. Official records and contemporary letters dealing with her life are scarce, and most modern knowledge stems from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates.

Bonny’s father William Cormac first moved to London to get away from his wife’s family, and he began dressing his daughter as a boy and calling her “Andy”. When Cormac’s wife discovered William had taken in the illegitimate daughter and was bringing the child up to be a lawyer’s clerk and dressing her as a boy, she cut off his allowance.

Cormac then moved to the Province of Carolina, taking along his former serving girl, the mother of Bonny.

At first the family had a rough start in their new home, but Cormac’s knowledge of law and ability to buy and sell goods soon financed a townhouse and eventually a plantation just out of town. Bonny’s mother died when she was 12. Her father attempted to establish himself as an attorney but did not do well. Eventually, he joined the more profitable merchant business and accumulated a substantial fortune.

It is recorded that Bonny had red hair and was considered a “good catch” but may have had a fiery temper; at age 13, she supposedly stabbed a servant girl with a knife.

She married a poor sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny. James hoped to win possession of his father-in-law’s estate, but Bonny was disowned by her father who did not approve of James Bonny kicked Anne out of their house. Between 1714 and 1718, she and James Bonny moved to Nassau, on New Providence Island, known as a sanctuary for English pirates called the Republic of Pirates.

Many inhabitants received a King’s Pardon or otherwise evaded the law. It is also recorded that, after the arrival of Governor Woodes Rogers in the summer of 1718, James Bonny became an informant for the governor. James Bonny would report to Governor Rogers about the pirates in the area, which resulted in a multitude of these pirates being arrested. Anne disliked the work her husband did for Governor Rogers.

RACKHAM’S PARTNER

While in the Bahamas, Bonny began mingling with pirates in the local taverns. She met John “Calico Jack” Rackham, and he became her lover. Rackham offered Bonny’s husband, James Bonny, money in exchange for her with the purpose of divorcing, but her husband refused. Anne and Rackham escaped the island together, and Bonny became a member of Rackham’s crew. She disguised herself as a man on the ship, and only Rackham and eventually Mary Read were privy to her true sex.

When it became clear that Anne was with child, Rackham landed her on the island of Cuba, and there she gave birth to a son.

Many different theories state that he was left with his family or simply abandoned. Bonny rejoined Rackham and continued the pirate life, having divorced her husband and married Rackham while at sea. Bonny, Rackham, and Mary Read stole the ship William, then at anchor in Nassau harbor, and put out to sea.

Rackham and the two women recruited a new crew. Their crew spent years in Jamaica and the surrounding area.

Over the next several months, they enjoyed success, capturing many, albeit smaller, vessels and bringing in abundant treasure.

Bonny fought alongside the men, and the accounts of her exploits present her as competent, effective in combat, and respected by her shipmates.  Although Bonny was historically renowned as a Caribbean pirate, she never commanded a ship of her own.

CAPTURE AND IMPRISONMENT

In October 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by a “King’s ship”, a sloop under a commission from the Governor of Jamaica. Most of Rackham’s pirates put up little resistance as many of them were too drunk to fight. However, Read and Bonny fought fiercely and managed to hold off the troops for a short time. Rackham and his crew were taken to Jamaica, where they were convicted and sentenced by Governor Lawes to be hanged. According to Johnson, Bonny’s last words to the imprisoned Rackham were: “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”

After being sentenced, Read and Bonny both “pleaded their bellies,” asking for mercy because they were pregnant. In accordance with English common law, both women received a temporary stay of execution until they gave birth. Read died in prison, most likely from a fever from childbirth. Anne stayed in prison until she gave birth and was later released.

DISAPPEARANCE

In his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, published in 1724, Captain Charles Johnson states: “She was continued in Prison, to the Time of her lying in, and afterwards reprieved from Time to Time; but what is become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed.” However, there is no historical record of Bonny’s release or of her execution. This has fed speculation that her father ransomed her, that she might have returned to her husband, or even that she resumed a life of piracy under a new identity.

An article from 2015 called Anne Bonny: Irish American Pirate stated that after Bonny’s release from prison, she returned to South Carolina where she wed and started a family. Some say Bonny died in prison, while others speculate that she escaped prison and reverted to her life as a pirate. Although there is no official account of Bonny’s death, some historians have claimed that Bonny died sometime around April 1782 in South Carolina.