Anne Bonny the female pirate
Anne Bonny was certainly not like most women of her era breaking just about all the social conventions there were. The history, legends and folklore that surround pirates of the sea throughout the ages, paint a picture of a male dominated world with most women playing a traditional, subservient, non-aggressive role where they do appear. Anne Bonny was different. She and shipmate, Mary Read, gained fame as female pirates actively engaged in piracy in the Caribbean alongside the infamous Calico Jack.
She was born Anne McCormac in Kinsale, County Cork, in Ireland in around 1700. Her mother, Mary Brennan was a maid employed by William McCormac, a lawyer, who although married to another woman, was Anne’s father. To escape his in-laws wrath McCormac moved to London with Mary and their daughter. They began dressing his daughter as a boy and called her Andy in an attempt to hide from his wife’s family. Whether this ploy was to affect Anne in later life is uncertain but the disguise was eventually discovered. McCormac moved across the Atlantic Ocean North America to settle in Charles Towne (Charleston), South Carolina, taking Mary and their daughter with him. In the process he also changed his name to Cormac in the hope of finding a fresh start. He succeeded in building a new career and business as a lawyer and plantation owner.
Red hair and a fiery temper
By all accounts Cormac loved his daughter dearly and when Mary died she took over the running of the household at an early age. At 13 years of age Anne was said to be an attractive girl with red hair and a fiery temper to match. Some accounts say that later on she stabbed and killed a maid with a table knife and had almost beaten an attempted rapist to death. She also became the center of a string of accusations and rumors of her drinking in taverns and sleeping with drunks and fishermen.
Such rumors damaged her father’s business and he wanted her to settle down and to marry a local man but she rebelled. In 1718 she married James Bonny, a penniless sailor and petty pirate who may have had more designs on her father’s wealth than her. Her father, did not approve of the marriage and disowned her. It was rumoured that Bonny retaliated by setting fire to his plantation though there appears little evidence to support this.
What is known is the that Anne and James Bonny moved to Nassau, on Providence Island and known as the Republic of Pirates, a haven for English pirates. They mixed freely with pirates and vagabonds and to her dismay her husband became an informant for Governor Woodes Rogers as a means of earning money.
Anne had become friends with many pirates and appeared to spend a lot of time carousing with them in bars and seducing them. On one occasion she was caught in bed with one by her husband. There was one named Pierre who was a well known homosexual. He ran a popular brothel and helped her to leave her husband and to meet John Rackham, a notorious pirate. He was known as Calico Jack, because of his preference for colorful clothing.
The two became lovers and Rackman offered to pay her husband to divorce her which at the time was a recognised practice. Bonny, through jealousy, spite or some other unknown reason, refused the offer. Later, she gave birth to Rackman’s son in Cuba. It is not clear what happened to the boy though some stories say that he was abandoned while other say he was left with Rackham’s family, or her own.
Anne then divorced her husband and rejoined Calico Jack to live the life of a pirate. They were joined by Mary Read a female pirate who dressed and masqueraded as a man. It is not clear if Calico Jack and Anne were aware of this at the time though they certainly were later. The three of them stole a ship anchored in Nassau harbor called the Revenge and recruited a crew of suitable cutthroats to man her and spent several months attacking and pillaging smaller ships raking in a considerable fortune.
Most pirates and sailors considered it bad luck to have women on board ships but Calico Jack and his crew did not appear to hold that superstition. Anne and Mary did not join the pirate ship for a pleasure cruise and took part in the fighting shoulder to shoulder with their male shipmates, who were said to respect their fighting prowess and combativeness. In the case of Mary Read they may not have known she was a woman to begin with because she hid the fact. It is thought that Anne knew later and that she and Mary became lovers and that also Calico Jack knew. In the case of Anne she openly wore female clothing only changing into male clothing when fighting was expected making no secret of her gender.
According to one story about her she obtained a mannequin such as used by dressmakers and smeared it with fake blood to give it a bloody corpse like appearance. As they approached a French vessel she stood over the fake corpse wielding an axe which supposedly persuaded the crew to surrender without a fight.
As her infamy grew, Governor Rogers posted her name in the Wanted Pirates circular that was published in the The Boston News-Letter. Despite her growing notoriety as a female pirate of the Caribbean she was never the commander of her own ship and despite her successes with Rackham, Mary Read and the Revenge their luck was about to run out.
While Calico Jack and the crew of the Revenge were hosting a party during October 1720 when they were attacked by a ship under the command of bounty hunter, Jonathan Barnet, holding a commission from the Governor of Jamaica, Nicholas Lawes. Bonny and Read were on deck and noticed an unknown ship approaching alongside. Realizing it was bounty hunters they shouted a warning to the rest of the crew, most of whom were too incapacitated through drink to respond and hid below deck. A few did respond, including Rackham but they were too drunk to offer much resistance. Rackham cried out for quarter and he and his men surrendered. Bonny and Read refused to surrender and put up a fierce fight and managed to hold off Barnet’s men for a brief time. They too were eventually overpowered and captured along with Calico Jack and the rest of the crew.
A sensational trial
They were all taken to Jamaica where they were tried and sentenced to hang by Governor Lawes. The trial of two women for piracy caused a sensation at the time with women prisoners being reviled in general. These were two who had broken through from the traditional role of women to forge different and even dangerous identities in more ways than one and their trial caused a sensation. Apart from the challenge of their murderous behaviour they also challenged the traditional subservient and domestic role of women in their time. Bonny was allowed to see Rackham before his execution and reputedly, the last words she spoke to him were, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”
Both Bonny and Read begged for mercy pleading their bellies which was a temporary stay of execution that allowed the baby to be born in accordance to English Common Law. Read died in prison possibly from a fever contracted during childbirth.
What happened to Bonny is not certain. There appears to be no record of her execution or release. It is speculated that her father may have paid a ransom for her, or she may have returned to James Bonny, or even taken up piracy again under a new name. It is thought that the likeliest scenario was that her father paid a ransom for her and married her to a man from Virginia named Joseph Burleigh (spelling varies) and lived into her eighties producing eight children. Although some records do tend to support this it is not absolutely certain.
© 02/02/2016 zteve t evans
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Copyright February 2nd, 2016 zteve t evans