Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tale of a Lady Pirate, Anne Bonny

The image above is in the public domain.  A tinted and altered version has been copyrighted by someone, somewhere, but this one remains free......
Much of what is known about Anne Bonny is based on Captain Charles Johnson's "A General History of the Pyrates". Official records and contemporary letters dealing with her life are rare. It is widely accepted that she was born between 1697 and 1705 in Kinsale, Ireland; that she was a daughter of attorney William Cormac and his maidservant; William's wife was named Mary Brennan and her mother was named Peg; and that, when the affair became public, Cormac moved to Charles Town, South Carolina where he made a fortune and bought a large plantation. He also continued his legal career.

When Anne was 13, she supposedly stabbed a servant girl in the stomach with a table knife. She was a red-haired beauty and considered a "catch". She married a poor sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny. According to legend, James Bonny hoped to win possession of his wife's family estate, but she was disowned by her father because of the marriage.

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, which was then a pirate hub and base for many pirate operations. 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 at the local drinking establishments, and met the pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham, with whom she had an affair. While Rackham and many other pirates were enjoying the King's pardon in the New Providence, James dragged Anne before Gov. Rogers to demand 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.

Bonny did not disguise herself as a man in order to join Rackham's crew aboard the Revenge as is often claimed. In fact, she and Mary Read helped Rackham steal the sloop at anchor in Nassau harbour and set off to sea, putting together a crew and taking several prizes. She took part in combat alongside the men, and the accounts describing her exploits present her as competent, effective in combat, and someone who gained the respect of her fellow pirates. She and Mary Read's name and gender were, however, known to all from the start, including Gov. Rogers, who named them in a "pirates wanted" circular published in the continent's only newspaper, the Boston News-Letter.

Over the next several months, she and Rackham saw several successes as pirates, capturing many ships and bringing in an abundance of treasure.

In October 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by a sloop captained by Jonathan Barnet, who was working for 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. After their capture, Rackham and his crew were 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 their arrest and trial, Read and Bonny both pleaded their bellies, announcing during the sentencing phase that they were both 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. However, 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 eight children. She died in South Carolina, a respectable woman, at the age of eighty and was buried on April 25, 1782.

Do you suppose she would have perhaps worn something like this?  It is available for purchase here.

And that, my friends, is the story for today!


  1. Wow, what a life of adventure she led!

    I am definitely going to look for information on where she lived in Charleston and make her part of my next visit there.

    And the necklace is amazing - I squealed and scared the cat when I saw it!
    The little ship is the coolest, and I want to peek inside the treasure chest...

    You've turned treasure into even greater treasure, again!

  2. Hi Lis,
    I love this post...the story and the necklace that tells the story too.

  3. What a fascinating babe! I saw a history show on her and she certainly was brazen and ballsy :D Your tribute necklace is an absolute treasure, each component wonderful on its own.

  4. Lis,
    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I am looking forward to reading your next post (whenever you get around to it ;)