Biography of Anne Bonny, Irish Pirate and Privateer

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Benjamin Cole/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Anne Bonny (1700–1782, exact dates uncertain) was an Irish pirate and privateer who fought under the command of "Calico Jack" Rackham between 1718 and 1720. Together with fellow female pirate Mary Read, she was one of Rackham's more formidable pirates, fighting, cursing, and drinking with the best of them. She was captured along with the rest of Rackham's crew in 1720 and sentenced to death, although her sentence was commuted because she was pregnant. She has been the inspiration for countless stories, books, movies, songs, and other works.

Fast Facts: Anne Bonny

  • Known For: For two years she was a pirate under Jack Rackham, and as a rare female pirate, she was the subject of many stories and songs and was the inspiration for generations of young women
  • Born: About 1700 near Cork, Ireland
  • Piracy Career: 1718–1720, when she was captured and sentenced to hang
  • Died: Date and place unknown
  • Spouse(s): James Bonny

Early Years

Most of what is known about Anne Bonny's early life comes from Captain Charles Johnson's "A General History of the Pyrates" which dates to 1724. Johnson (most, but not all, historians believe that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe) provides some details of Bonny's early life but did not list his sources and his information has proven impossible to verify. According to Johnson, Bonny was born near Cork, Ireland probably sometime around 1700, the result of an affair between a married English lawyer and his maid. The unnamed lawyer was eventually forced to bring Anne and her mother to America to escape the gossip.

Anne’s father set up in Charleston, first as a lawyer and then as a merchant. Young Anne was spirited and tough: Johnson reports that she once badly beat up a young man who “would have lain with her, against her will.” Her father had done quite well in his businesses and it was expected that Anne would marry well. Instead, at about age 16, she married a penniless sailor named James Bonny, and her father disinherited her and cast them out.

The young couple set out for New Providence, where Anne's husband made a meager living turning in pirates for bounties. Sometime in 1718 or 1719, she met pirate "Calico Jack" Rackham (sometimes spelled Rackam) who had recently wrested command of a pirate vessel from the ruthless Captain Charles Vane. Anne became pregnant and went to Cuba to have the child: once she had given birth, she returned to a life of piracy with Rackham.

A Life of Piracy

Anne proved to be an excellent pirate. She dressed like a man, while she fought, drank, and swore like one too. Captured sailors reported that after their vessels were taken by the pirates, it was the two women—Bonny and Mary Read, the latter who had joined the crew by then—who urged their crewmates on to greater acts of bloodshed and violence. Some of these sailors testified against her at her trial.

According to legend, Bonny (dressed as a man) felt a strong attraction to Mary Read (who was also dressed as a man) and revealed herself as a woman in hopes of seducing Read. Read then confessed that she was a woman, too. The reality may have been that Bonny and Read most likely met in Nassau as they were preparing to ship out with Rackham. They were very close, perhaps even lovers. They would wear women's clothes on board but change into men's clothes when a fight was in store.

Capture and Trial

By October of 1720, Rackham, Bonny, Read, and their crew were infamous in the Caribbean and in desperation, Governor Woodes Rogers authorized privateers to hunt and capture them and other pirates for bounties. A heavily armed sloop belonging to Captain Jonathan Barnet caught up to Rackham's ship when the pirates had been drinking and after a small exchange of cannon and small arms fire, they surrendered. When capture was imminent, only Anne and Mary fought against Barnet’s men, swearing at their crewmates to come out from under the decks and fight.

The trials of Rackham, Bonny, and Read caused a sensation. Rackham and the other male pirates were swiftly found guilty: he was hanged with four other men at Gallows Point in Port Royal on November 18, 1720. Reportedly, he was allowed to see Bonny before his execution and she said to him: "I'm sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man you need not have hanged like a dog." Bonny and Read were also found guilty on November 28 and sentenced to hang. At that point, they both declared that they were pregnant. The execution was postponed, and it was found to be true that the women were pregnant.

Death

Mary Read died in prison about five months later. What happened to Anne Bonny is uncertain. Like her early life, her later life is lost in shadow. Captain Johnson’s book first came out in 1724, so her trial was still fairly recent news while he was writing it, and he only says of her, “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.”

So what happened to Anne Bonny? There are many versions of her fate and no truly decisive proof in favor of any one of them. Some say she reconciled with her wealthy father, moved back to Charleston, remarried and lived a respectable life into her 80s. Others say she remarried in Port Royal or Nassau and bore her new husband several children.

Legacy

Anne's impact on the world has been primarily cultural. As a pirate, she did not have a large impact, because her pirating career only lasted a few months. Rackham was not an important pirate, mostly taking easy prey like fishing vessels and lightly armed traders. If not for Anne Bonny and Mary Read, he would be a footnote in pirate lore.

But Anne has gained great historical stature in spite of her lack of distinction as a pirate. Her character has much to do with it: not only was she one of only a handful of female pirates in history, but she was one of the die-hards, who fought and cursed harder than most of her male colleagues. Today, historians of everything from feminism to cross-dressing scour the available histories for anything about her or Mary Read.

No one knows how much of an influence Anne has had on young women since her days of piracy. At a time when women were kept indoors, barred from the freedom that men enjoyed, Anne went out on her own, left her father and husband, and lived as a pirate on the high seas off and on for two years. Her greatest legacy is probably the romantic example of a woman who seized freedom when the opportunity presented itself, even if her reality was probably not nearly as romantic as people think.

Sources

Cawthorne, Nigel. "A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas." Arcturus Publishing, September 1, 2003.

Johnson, Captain Charles. "A General History of the Pyrates." Kindle edition, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, September 16, 2012.

Konstam, Angus. "The World Atlas of Pirates." Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2009

Rediker, Marcus. "Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age." Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Woodard, Colin. "The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down." Mariner Books, 2008.