by Chris Collingwood
“None among Rackams crew were more resolute or ready to board or undertake anything that was hazardous.” So stated Captain C. Johnson in his classic history “A General History of the Robberies and murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724). This is his description of both Mary Read and Anne Bonny, without a doubt two of the most famous woman pirates who ever sailed.
“Johnson’s account suggests Anne Bonny was born some time between 1697 and 1705 in Kinsale, Ireland, the daughter of attorney William Cormac and his maidservant, Mary. Cormac separated from his wife and, for a time, raised Anne disguised as a boy (passing her off as a relative’s son). Once the scandal was revealed his legal business was irreparably damaged and so Cormac moved the family to Charleston, South Carolina where, after earning new wealth as a merchant, he bought a large plantation.
“At first, Anne’s family had a rough start in their new home. Her mother died shortly after they arrived in North America. Her father attempted to become an attorney there, but did not do well. Eventually, Anne’s father joined the more profitable merchant business and accumulated for the two of them a substantial fortune.
“When Bonny was 13, she supposedly stabbed a servant girl in the stomach with a table knife. Bonny was a red-haired beauty and considered a good catch. She married a poor sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny. James Bonny hoped to win possession of his father-in-law’s estate, but Anne was disowned by her father.
“There is no evidence supporting the story that Anne Bonny started a fire on the plantation in retaliation, but it is known that sometime between 1714 and 1718, she and James Bonny moved to Nassau, on New Providence Island in the Bahamas. New Providence was then a sanctuary for English pirates. Many received a “King’s Pardon” or otherwise evaded the law. It is also true that after the arrival of Governor Woodes Rogers in the summer of 1718, James Bonny became an informant for the governor.
“While in the Bahamas, Anne Bonny began mingling with pirates in the local taverns. She met the John “Calico Jack” Rackham, captain of the pirate sloop Revenge, and became his mistress. They had a child in Cuba, although this child’s ultimate fate is unknown. Many different theories state that it was left with friends, died during birth or was simply abandoned. Anne rejoined Rackham and continued the pirate life.
“While she and Rackham were back in New Providence, James Bonny dragged Anne before Governor Rogers, demanding that she be flogged for adultery and returned to him. There was even an offer for Rackham to buy her in a divorce-by-purchase, but Anne refused to be “bought and sold like cattle.” She was sentenced to the flogging, but later Anne and Rackham escaped to live together as pirates. Anne, Rackham, and Mary Read stole the Revenge, then at anchor in Nassau harbour, and put out to sea.
“Rackham and the two women recruited a new crew. Over the next several months, they were successful as pirates, capturing many ships and bringing in an abundance of treasure. Anne did not disguise herself as a man aboard the Revenge as is often claimed. She took part in combat alongside the men, and the accounts of her exploits present her as competent, effective in combat, and respected by her shipmates. She and Mary Read’s name and gender were known to all from the start, including Governor Rogers, who named them in a “pirates wanted” circular published in the continent’s only newspaper, The Boston News-Letter. Although Bonny has historical renown as a female Caribbean pirate, she never commanded a ship of her own.
“In October 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by a “King’s ship”, a sloop captained by Jonathan Barnet under a commission from the Governor of Jamaica. Most of Rackham’s pirates did not put up much resistance as many of them were too drunk to fight; other sources indicate it was at night and most of them were asleep. However, Read, Bonny, and an unknown man fought fiercely and managed to hold off Barnet’s troops for a short time. Rackham and his crew were taken to Jamaica, where they were convicted and sentenced by the Governor of Jamaica to be hanged. According to Johnson, Bonny’s last words to the imprisoned Rackham were that she was “sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a Man, he 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, though it has been alleged that she died during childbirth.
“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.
“The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that “Evidence provided by the descendants of Anne Bonny suggests that her father managed to secure her release from jail and bring her back to Charles Town, South Carolina, where she gave birth to Rackham’s second child. On December 21, 1721 she married a local man, Joseph Burleigh, and they had 10 children. She died in South Carolina, a respectable woman, at the age of eighty and died between April 22–24, 1782. She was buried on April 25, 1782.”
“Some claim that she was smuggled away by her father, and that this was made possible by his far reaching and favorable merchant connections. This is a probable solution to the mystery. After all, her father’s business connections had saved Anne a number of times before. Rackham’s crew spent a lot of time in Jamaica and the surrounding area. Although the crew, including Anne, was discovered or caught on a number of occasions, Bonny always escaped punishment and harm. This was probably because of her father’s business contacts in Jamaica.
“Though it is generally believed that there were only one or two important female pirates, in fact there were several. The Irish chieftaness Grace O’Malley has been described as a “Pirate Queen”.
“Anne Bonny remains the most famous, and has appeared in many works. Art from the time often depicts Anne Bonny in men’s clothes, shirt hanging open, pistols smoking, the perfect image of a female warrior. In addition, there were many books published about female pirates. Many hold a striking resemblance to Anne’s story, even down to minute details of her formative years and personal life.”
It’s “Talk Like a Pirate Day!”