In detailing the life of the 18th century pirate Anne Bonny, separating the truth from the legend can be difficult. She is the subject of many apocryphal stories. What we can be certain of however, is that she rejected all the expectations placed on her sex and lived solely on her own terms, exhibiting remarkable spirit and courage.
Much of what we can glean about Anne’s life comes from a 1724 work, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, written by Captain Charles Johnson, whom some historians believe may have been the author, Daniel Defoe, writing under a pseudonym.
The exact date of Anne’s birth is uncertain but it was around 1700, possibly a few years earlier. She was born in County Cork in Ireland, the illegitimate daughter of lawyer William Cormac, and his maidservant Mary Brennan. William took Anne into his household, dressing her in boy’s clothes and maintaining a pretence that she was a relative’s child and he her ward.
When the truth of Anne’s parenthood emerged and seriously threatened his livelihood, William decided to start a new life in America. Together with Anne and Mary, he emigrated to the area which is now Charleston in South Carolina. Mary died when Anne was still a child, but William prospered and became a wealthy plantation owner.
As a teenager, it seems that Anne was a girl of considerable mettle. She is said to have beaten a man half to death when he attempted to sexually assault her, and reputedly spent her time defying social norms and carousing in local taverns. Circa 1718 Anne married an impoverished young sailor called James Bonny. Her father objected to the match so vehemently that he disowned her and ejected her from his house.
Anne and her husband headed to Nassau Island in the Bahamas which was known at the time as a haven for English pirates. The recently appointed governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, was determined to bring the area’s seafaring criminals to justice and James Bonny became his informant.
Anne, disgusted by her turncoat husband, embraced the pirate fraternity, drinking with them in local hostelries. Amongst her cohorts was a pirate called James Rackam, “Calico Jack”, of whom she became particularly fond. When John Bonny refused to grant Anne a divorce, she left him for Rackam anyway, embarking on a life of piracy.
Various tales surround Anne’s move into piracy, one that she dealt with a dissenting crewmate by stabbing him in the heart, another that she fooled the crew of a merchant ship into surrendering their cargo with an ingenious hoax involving a dismembered mannequin and some fake blood. What does seem clear is that, together with Rackman and his crew, she was involved in the theft of a sloop, The William, from Nassau Harbour. Using this they proceeded to raid and plunder merchant ships around the Jamaican coast.
Some sources assert that Anne spent her time at sea disguised as a man, though it seems more likely that her sex would have been known to her crewmates and that she only donned male garb when engaging with other ships. Although women were occasionally to be found at sea during this time, it was usually as domestic servants or concubines. Female pirates were a rarity. Nevertheless, there was another woman on the crew of The William: Mary Read, who had previously earned her living as a mercenary, masquerading as male.
Explanations vary as to how they first met. Johnson’s account states that Mary was taken prisoner by Rackam’s crew in the West Indies. Other versions describe Mary as being amongst the crew which originally seized The William. Whatever the truth of their acquaintance, the two women became close friends and allies, fighting cheek by jowl during raids, and, if certain accounts are to be believed, were also lovers.
1720 proved to be very profitable year for the crew of The William, with Anne and Mary leading many of the lucrative assaults. In the autumn of that year however, the ship was stormed by one the Governor Rogers’ vessels. Rackam ordered a surrender, the crew probably being the worse for alcohol, but Anne and Mary refused to capitulate. They remained on deck to fight off the pirate-hunters whilst all the men cowered below. Eventually they were overpowered and the entire crew was taken prisoner, later being sentenced to death.
It is said that Anne was permitted to visit Rackam just prior to his execution and told him “If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog”. Like the rest of the crew, both she and Mary were also sentenced to death. However, when it was discovered that both women were pregnant, they received a stave of execution.
What subsequently happened to Anne is uncertain. Some sources believe that she perished in prison, some that she escaped incarceration and returned to piracy, others that she was bailed by her estranged father and returned to Charleston to raise her child.
Whatever course it took and however it ended, Anne’s extraordinary life is the stuff of legend.