Anne Bonny (1700-1782, exact dates uncertain) was a pirate 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.
The Birth of Anne Bonny:
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, pirate 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 a scandalous affair between an English lawyer and his maid. He was eventually forced to bring Anne and her mother to America to escape all the gossip.
Anne Falls in Love:
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.” He father had done quite well in his businesses and it was expected that Anne would marry well. Nevertheless, she fell for a penniless sailor named James Bonny, who was reportedly quite disappointed when her father disinherited her and cast them out. She may have been as young as sixteen.
Bonny and Rackham:
The young couple set out for New Providence, where Anne's husband made a meager living turning in pirates for bounties. She evidently lost all respect for James Bonny and developed a reputation for sleeping around with various men in Nassau. It was at this time - probably sometime in 1718 or 1719 - that 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 soon became pregnant and went to Cuba to have the child: once she had given birth, she returned to a life of piracy with Rackham.
Anne Bonny the Pirate:
Anne proved to be an excellent pirate. She dressed like a man, and fought, drank and swore like one too. Captured sailors reported that after their vessels were captured by the pirates, it was the two women – Bonny and Mary Read, who had joined the crew by then – who egged their crewmates on to greater acts of bloodshed and violence. Some of these sailors testified against her at her trial.
Anne and Mary Read:
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 is slightly different: 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 it looked like there would be some fighting soon.
The Capture of Bonny, Read and Rackham:
By October of 1720, Rackham, Bonny, Read and the rest of the crew were infamous in the Caribbean and Governor Woodes Rogers had authorized privateers to hunt and capture them and other pirates for bounties. A heavily armed sloop belonging to Captain Jonathan Barnet was tipped off as to Rackham’s location and caught up to them: 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.
A Pirate's Trial:
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, the both declared that they were pregnant. The execution was postponed, and it was found to be true: both women were pregnant.
Later Life of Anne Bonny:
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.”
Legacy of Anne Bonny:
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, so you can pick your favorite. Some say she reconciled with her wealthy father, moved back to Charleston, remarried and lived a respectable life into her eighties. Others say she remarried in Port Royal or Nassau and bore her new husband several children.
Anne's impact on the world has been primarily cultural. As a pirate, she didn't really have a great impact. Her pirating career only lasted a few months. Rackham was a second-class 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 on 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 freedoms 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. How many repressed young girls of the Victorian Era saw Anne Bonny as a great heroine? This is probably her greatest legacy, 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).
Cawthorne, Nigel. A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas. Edison: Chartwell Books, 2005.
Defoe, Daniel (writing as Captain Charles Johnson). A General History of the Pyrates. Editoed by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
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.