Anne Bonny (or Bonney) was a famous lady pirate known for her violent temper and ferocious fighting, operated in the Caribbean, along with the likes of “Calico Jack” Rackham and fellow lady pirate, Mary Read.
Irish by birth, she was thought to have been born around 1700 in Cork, Ireland. Born as Anne McCormac, she was the illegitimate daughter of a servant woman, Mary Brennan, and Brennan’s employer, a lawyer named William McCormac. Afterward, William’s wife made his adultery public, causing his business to decline and McCormac moved to London, taking along his mistress and daughter. There, he began dressing Anne as a boy, and calling her “Andy.”
McCormac then moved them to the Carolinas, where he dropped the “Mc” from his Irish name in order to blend in more easily in Charles Town (now Charleston). There, her father attempted to establish himself as an attorney but did not do well. Eventually, he joined the more profitable merchant business and accumulated a substantial fortune. Anne’s mother died when she was just 12.
As a teenager, Anne was described as having red hair and was considered a “good catch”, but she also had a temper and was said to have stabbed a servant girl with a table knife at the age of 13. Though she was considered a highly eligible wife for many men and her father had betrothed her to a local man, Anne resisted. Instead, she eloped with a poor sailor at the age of 16, who also happened to be a small-time pirate. Named James Bonny, legend has it that he hoped to eventually come into possession of his father-in-law’s estate, but that would never happen because Anne was disowned by her father after marrying James.
Sometime between 1714 and 1718, she and James Bonny moved to Nassau, on New Providence Island in the Bahamas, which was known as a sanctuary for English pirates, so much so, it was called the Republic of Pirates. There, many of the residents received a King’s Pardon for having evaded the law. When Governor Woodes Rogers arrived in the summer of 1718, James Bonny became a pirate informant for the governor in exchange for a pardon for his past illegal endeavors.
While in the Bahamas, Anne Bonny began mingling with pirates in the local taverns, where she met John “Calico Jack” Rackham, the former captain of a pirate ship. Disenchanted by her marriage, she became involved with Rackham who offered to pay her husband to divorce her — a common practice at the time — but James Bonny refused.
Anne was determined however and left with Calico Jack in August 1720 assisting in commandeering a sloop and, along with a new crew, began pirating merchant vessels along the coast of Jamaica. Rackham’s decision to have Bonny accompany him was highly unusual, as women were considered bad luck aboard ships. Bonny did not conceal her gender from her shipmates, though when pillaging she disguised herself as a man and participated in armed conflict.
Along the line, Anne became pregnant and would give birth to a son in Cuba. What became of the boy remains unknown. Bonny quickly returned to pirate life.
The next thing you know, the pair were joined by another lady pirate named Mary Read and the trio stole a ship called William, then at anchor in Nassau harbor. They then recruited a new crew and went pirating, enjoying success over the next several months, capturing a number of small vessels and keeping the cargo. When in combat, Anne took part right alongside the men and the accounts of her exploits present her as competent, effective and respected by her shipmates. And though she became to be renowned as a Caribbean pirate, she never commanded her own ship.
Bonny’s name finally got so notorious that Governor Rogers named her in a “Wanted Pirates” circular published in the continent’s only newspaper, the Boston News-Letter.
On November 15, 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by Captain Jonathan Barnet, an ex-pirate who had become a commander in the British Navy. Under a commission from Nicholas Lawes, the Governor of Jamaica, Barnet and his crew made a timely attack on Rackam’s anchored ship the William. Most of Rackham’s pirates put up little resistance as many of them were too drunk to fight. They were celebrating all night because they managed to capture a Spanish commercial ship. However, Read and Bonny fought fiercely and managed to hold off Barnet’s troops for a short time. In the end, the women were overwhelmed and Rackham and his crew were taken to Jamaica to stand before the court. As word leaked that women pirates were part of the crew the trial became a big sensation.
Captain Jack and the male members of his crew were tried on November 16, 1720, and were sentenced to hang. Anne was allowed to visit Rackham one last time before his execution took place, but rather than consoling him, she stated “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog.”
Anne and Mary were tried a week after Rackham and his men were executed. After being convicted, Read and Bonny both “pleaded their bellies”, asking for mercy because they were both pregnant, and in accordance with English common law, both women received a temporary stay of execution until they gave birth. Mary Read died in prison from fever in 1721, but the fate of Anne Bonny is unknown.
Though there are no records of Bonny’s release or execution, it is said that her father bought her freedom from Jamaican Governor Lawes and she returned to Charleston, where she gave birth to Rackham’s child.
Afterward, the stories vary as to how she lived the rest of her life. One tale says she remarried in 1721 to a man named Joseph Burleigh, with whom she had eight children and died on April 25, 1782, in South Carolina. Others say that she settled down to quiet family life on a small Caribbean island or that she lived out her life in the south of England, where she owned a tavern and regaled the locals with tales of her exploits. Another story says that her father married her off to a Jamaican official, where she changed her name to Annabele and lived her days out, having eight children and dying at age 88. The truth remains unknown.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2020.
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