Anne Bonny: Renowned Female Pirate

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Anne Bonny from a Dutch version of Charles Johnson's book of pirates.

Bonny was a better fighter than most male pirates. When the end was near, she fought like a hell-cat on her ship’s deck while her male crew mates slumbered in rum heaven.

It’s getting redundant, but Anne Bonny was yet another pirate born in an undetermined year, perhaps between 1697 and 1700. She was born in County Cork, Ireland, the daughter of a maid named Mary Brennen, who worked for a lawyer named William Cormac. Unfortunately for Anne Bonny, her father was already married and had a reputation for being an adulterer.

The birth of Anne caused a scandal. Cormac’s unforgiving wife was not one to be discreet, and publicly rebuked him, costing him his reputation. Cormac, along with Mary Brennen and baby Anne, fled Ireland in disgrace. They made their way to America, choosing to settle in Charleston, South Carolina.

Cormac, opening a new practice, did very well in Charleston, and the prestige of the family grew. The family would soon settle on their own plantation. Mary Brennen, however, died when Anne was in her teenage years, and it fell to her to take charge of the household.

During Anne’s mostly uneventful household-managing years, she was said to have killed a maid who spited her (though this is unsubstantiated) and also, at age 14, to have given the thrashing of a lifetime to a young man who made forceful romantic overtures to her, resulting in his spending several weeks confined to a bed.

A Lady’s Teeth Are on the Dance Floor

At age 16, Anne fell in love with a shiftless sea captain named James Bonny, which resulted in her father disinheriting her forthwith and she, in turn, starting a revenge fire on his plantation. The newly married couple moved to New Providence (now Nassau) to live in what might be termed a pirate den of iniquity.

Anne Bonny soon tired of her life in the pirate den with her husband and began to see one Chidley Bayard, a wealthy free-spending man who gave Anne a taste of the good life. The good life included the occasional ball. On one occasion, Anne was introduced by her boyfriend to a lady of standing at a ball. This lady was the sister-in-law of Governor Lawes of Jamaica. As soon as Bayard went off to get some punch or spend a penny or something, the governor’s sister-in-law dropped all pretense and showed her true cat-like qualities, laying into poor, defenseless Anne. In fact, Anne Bonny proved not to be so defenseless after all. The lady told Bonny that she wanted nothing to do with her and to kindly keep her distance. To this Bonny replied that she’d like nothing better than to help her keep her distance. Here she then increased the distance between them by delivering a punch to the lady in the mouth, knocking two of her teeth out.

Chidley Bayard was not impressed, and soon crossed Anne’s name permanently from his ballroom dance card. Fortunately for him, he did not receive any parting punch to the mouth from her.

The Sea Beckons and So Does Jack Rackham

The next man that Anne tried to land was a flamboyant ladies’-man Casanova by the name of Captain John Rackham, also known as Calico Jack. With promises of adventure and the high life, they set sail in his ship, the Revenge, with Anne now disguised as a man. It wouldn’t do to travel as a woman on board a ship (with the notable exception perhaps of concubines) because, as most good seamen believed, they invited bad luck. (Recent evidence, however, suggests that Anne may not in fact have disguised herself at any time and was perhaps readily accepted by her fellow pirates.)

Anne Bonny proved to be as vicious a fighter on the high seas as she was on the dance floor, being skilled with both pistol and cutlass. Legend has it that the point of her cutlass found its way to the heart of a man, perhaps because he had discovered her non-male secret. (“Blimey, what are them two on yer chest, mate?–” Swoosh. “Argh–“)

Anne Bonny was not the only female pirate to sail the seas; in fact, she was not even the only female pirate on board the same ship. Another woman pirate by the name of Mary Read joined the crew later on. The two of them became good friends and both were renowned and formidable fighters, often in the middle of every fray and the first to board enemy ships.

An End to the Good Pirate Life

Then in October of 1720 Governor Lawes of Jamaica — the one whose sister-in-law was minus two teeth — caught wind of where Rackham’s pirate ship was, and decided to put an end to the pirate party. When the attack came, Rackham as well as all the other male pirates were in a rum-induced drunken stupor and incapable of fighting. The fighting was left for the two women to do. As always, they gave a good account of themselves but were eventually overwhelmed and taken prisoner. Before their capture, the two women, disgusted at their fellow male pirates for being no more helpful than a complement of ship’s rats, were said to have shot off a few rounds in their direction, killing or wounding several of them.

All the men were condemned to death, but Anne Bonny and Mary Read, either pregnant or faking pregnancy, were both granted a stay of execution. In Read’s case, however, it was all the same to her, as she soon died in prison.

Before Rackham was executed, he was allowed one last visit with Anne Bonny, who gave him an earful for his less than heroic conduct: ā€œIā€™m sorry, Jack, but if you had fought like a man you would not now be about to die like a dog. Do straighten yourself up.ā€

Anne Bonny herself never saw the inside of a noose. At some point she was whisked away from her prison. Among the theories was that her rich-man father had ransomed her.

Anne Bonny never returned to the life of piracy that so well suited her. After learning that her first husband had died in a hurricane, of all things, she was now legally free to marry, and exercised this right by marrying Dr. Michael Radcliffe. They boarded a ship for Norfolk, Virginia, and from there headed west. What happened thereafter is unknown but might be the subject of a good historical novel.