Anne Bonny: (c.1698 - c.1725s): An Irish Pirate

12 March

It was common belief among pirates that having women aboard a ship was bad luck. It didn’t prevent a few swashbuckling ladies from joining and even leading bands of buccaneers.

Anne Bonny, or Bonney, has been the inspiration for countless stories, books, films, songs and other works. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson, wrote about her in History of the Pyrates (1724). She is one of seventy-five portraits in Marian Broderick’s book titled Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives from History. It is described as … ’A Fascinating Collection of Unorthodox Women’. It includes a portrait of Grace O’Malley c.1530-1603, sea trader, pirate, clan leader and sea captain, who sailed the seas around Ireland.
An Irish Pirate
Anne Bonny was born in Co. Cork, c. 1698, the daughter of a servant, Mary Brennan, and her married employer, local lawyer William Cormac. Due to the scandal caused by the illegitimate birth, Mary, William and baby Anne left Ireland forever and fled to the New World. They settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where William bought and ran a successful plantation. Anne’s mother died and Anne grew up the spoilt mistress of a large house who was used to having her own way.
Around age sixteen she eloped with a penniless seaman James Bonny who was reportedly quite disappointed when her father disinherited her and cast them out. The couple gravitated to the pirate infested island of New Providence in what is now Nassau, in the Bahamas, that was a known gathering place for renegade seamen. There she attached herself to a succession of lovers eventually hooking up with someone quite exalted in pirate circles: Captain John Rackham, also known as Calico Jack, who had recently wrested command of a pirate vessel from the ruthless Captain Charles Vane. Anne soon became pregnant and went to have the child in Cuba. Once she had given birth she returned to a life of piracy with Rackham.
When he found out James Bonny charged his young wife with desertion and took her to court. He succeeded in getting a court order to prevent Anne and Jack from meeting. Legend has it that to remedy the situation, Calico Jack suggested James Bonny put his wife up for auction and pocket the proceeds. It was not a bizarre suggestion since divorce law in the eighteenth century was largely focussed on compensating the divorced husband for the loss of his ‘property’. In any case Anne’s response to this was to ignore the court order, pull on a pair of men’s breeches and elope with Calico Jack to his ship, The Revenge.
It was when she met Mary Read, an English pirate, who was a crew member. Mary had spent most of her youth disguised as her deceased half-brother later quenching her thirst for adventure by adopting the name Mark Read. She took on a succession of traditionally male jobs as a soldier and then as a merchant sailor. She turned to piracy in 1710 and found her way aboard Rackham’s vessel. The two women played a leading role in a spree of raids against small fishing boats and trading sloops in the summer and autumn of 1720. Rackham and his crew were captured and brought to trial in Jamaica.
She proved to be an excellent pirate. She dressed like a man, fought like one and quickly showed she could guzzle rum, curse, and wield a pistol and cutlass with the best of Calico’s crew. She had always been known for her “fierce and courageous temper” and according to one legend she nearly beat a man to death when he tried to force himself on her. After their vessel was captured by a pirate hunter Captain Barnet, sailors reported it was the two women who had egged their crew mates on to greater acts of bloodshed and violence. Some of these sailors testified at her trial.
On 28 November 1720 they were sentenced to death while the two women escaped being hanged after both were found to be pregnant. Mary Read died shortly afterwards of what was called prison fever. After a last encounter with Calico Jack on the day he was being taken to the gallows, nothing more is known of Anne Bonny. One thing is certain there is no record of her having been hanged.

Ita Marguet, March 2017

Note: Acknowledgement is given to bibliographic, encyclopaedic and other sources used in preparation of this text. It is written as a symbolic contribution to mark U.N. International Women’s Day, 8 March 2017.