Anne Bonny lived the life she wanted, as an eighteenth-century pirate in the Caribbean.
Sometimes you just want to do something different, like be a pirate. Anne Bonny, who was never a conformist, said "a pirate's life for me," even though she was a woman and born in the seventeenth century.
It's hard to piece together Anne's early life, but it's thought she was the illegitimate daughter of lawyer William Cormac of County Cork, Ireland, and his maid Mary Brennan. Like many people of his day, William wanted a fresh start in the new world, and he brought his daughter and her mother to Charleston, South Carolina; or, as it was known in those days, Charles Town. The couple married; the Cormacs bought a plantation, and, after her mother's death, Anne took over the management of the house.
Anne was well able to take care of her father's household and herself. Tall, strong, and red-haired, she had an independent nature and a fiery temper. In A General History of the Pyrates, Daniel Defoe wrote that "when a young Fellow would have lain with her, against her Will, she beat him so, that he lay ill of it a considerable Time." So she was not intimidated by any brigands who prowled the South Carolina coast. On the contrary, when the high-spirited Anne was sixteen she fell in love with pirate James Bonny; she ran off with him to New Providence in the Bahamas, and they married.
Her dad was making good money in business by this time, and had plans to make a lady of her which did not include her marrying a pirate. He was not pleased. In fact, he disowned her and booted her off the plantation.
Anne wasn't too worried about this; she was looking forward to adventure and excitement. But she was quite disappointed with James. When Woodes Rogers, the new governor of the Bahamas, offered a pardon to anyone who gave up piracy, Anne's husband turned respectable and informed on his former mates. Anne let him know in no uncertain terms that he was a coward, and she ran off with pirate captain Calico Jack Rackham, a handsome, romantic dandy. So James went to Governor Rogers to complain about her conduct and get her back. Rogers ordered Anne flogged for adultery and returned to James, but she and Rackham ran off together, stole the Revenge from the harbor (which was the usual pirate way to get a ship) and put to sea with his crew.
Anne and Rackham had a torrid affair aboard the Revenge, and soon she was expecting. Rackham dropped her off on Cuba to have the baby. The lives of those adventurers who lived so long ago are full of gaps, and it's not known whatever became of Anne's child. After she recovered, Rackham sent for her.
Back on board the Revenge, Anne met another female pirate, Mary Read. The two women were full members of the crew, and dressed and fought the same as the men; in fact, they were noted for their ferocity. Defoe wrote about Anne that "no Body was more forward or courageous than she." Someone mentioned later that Anne was also quite proficient in profanity. Anne and Mary became great friends, and some seamen of the time reported that they had an intimate relationship. In any case, they stuck by each other, even in bad times, and bad times were soon to come.
In October of 1720 the Albion, a sloop of the British Navy commanded by Captain Jonathan Barnet, attacked the Revenge while it lay at anchor in Jamaica. Rackham had wanted to celebrate after several good plunders. So he hailed a pettiauga (a sort of large canoe) and invited its crew of ruffians aboard for a bowl of punch. They must have had several bowls, because they all became roaring drunk and were sitting ducks for Barnet's assault; only Anne and Mary were sober enough to fight back. The women made a bold stand, yelling at the sleepy and confused pirates to join them, but it wasn't nearly enough. The whole bunch of them were captured and taken to Port Royal in Jamaica for trial.
Pirate trials in those days were always a subject of interest, and this one was sensational because it included two women. The whole crew was sentenced to hang. Anne was permitted to visit Calico Jack before his execution. Still upset about their capture, she said to him by way of comfort, "I'm sorry to see you here, but had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang'd like a dog."
At their trials both Anne and Mary claimed to be pregnant, saying in court, "Milord, we plead our bellies." Their death sentences were held off until they delivered their babies. Mary Read died in prison from a fever or childbirth. But what happened to Anne next no one knows to this day.
Some say Anne's father, in a forgiving vein, paid a ransom for her and brought her back to South Carolina. There she married, put her pirate's life behind her, and settled down to raise eight children. Some say he smuggled her out of Jamaica through his business contacts. Some say Anne escaped and lived in the Caribbean, or possibly in England as a tavern keeper. There's a story that Mary Read faked her death and was carried out of prison in a shroud; she and Anne later met up and continued their pirate ways together.
Daniel Defoe concluded about Anne's fate, "She was continued in Prison to the Time of her lying-in, and afterwards reprieved from Time to Time, but what is become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed."
Maybe it's only right that such a bold and romantic figure should have faded into history rather than retired to motherhood and wifely duties.
On the other hand, what child wouldn't want to say, "My mother used to be a pirate!"
Picture from Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, written in 1724, Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y. 1999