Anne Bonny and fellow female pirate Mary Read have captivated the public imagination for three centuries, but much of what has been written about them is false.
Most accounts can be traced back to a flawed account of their lives in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) which holds that they both had disguised themselves as men in order to secure jobs as sailors; they both supposedly wound up on Calico Jack Rackham’s pirate sloop where they took a fancy to one another – each thinking the other was a man – only to find that they were both women.
Bonny, from an early 18th century engraving made by an
artist who had never seen her..
As shown in The Republic of Pirates, if this encounter did take place, it happened not at sea, but in Nassau. We know this because by the time the two became pirates, both women — and their genders — were known not only to one another, but to Governor Woodes Rogers and other officials.
A Young Bride
Anne Bonny came to Nassau from Charleston in 1716, the sixteen-year old bride of James Bonny, a rank-and-file member of the Flying Gang of pirates. While living in the pirate republic, she earned a reputation for libertine behavior, and her extramarital affairs were widely-known. She is believed to have been born to an influential family in South Carolina — possibly the daughter of one William Cormac — although no documentation has surfaced to substantiate such claims.
Meeting Calico Jack Rackham
After the arrival of Woodes Rogers in 1718, James Bonny retired from piracy and became one of Rogers’ trusted informants. The following year, Anne took up with Calico Jack Rackham, who Rogers had pardoned for his previous piracies. By the spring or early summer of 1719, the two were presumably in love, as they approached James Bonny, seeking an annulment of Anne’s troubled marriage. When negotiations were subverted, the couple recruited a half dozen disgruntled pirates as well as Anne’s friend, Mary Read and, on the night of August 22, 1720, stole an armed sloop from Nassau harbor and returned to piracy.
Former captives report that Bonny and Read did indeed dress as men in battle and cursed, swore, and fought like any other member of the crew. One reported he only knew they were women “by the largeness of their breasts”; another noted “they were both very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything on board.”
A Failed Adventure
Rackham, however, was a reckless captain, and within two months had landed his entire party in a Jamaican prison. Anne was said to have been allowed to see Rackham on the day of his execution, and told him: “I am 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 sentenced to be hung, but they received a stay of execution after revealing they were both pregnant.
Anne’s ultimate fate is unclear; there is no reference to her death, burial, or execution in the Jamaican records, suggesting she may have escaped the hangman’s noose. One theory — also lacking evidence — is that her father was able to use his influence to get her released. One author, Tamara Eastman, asserts that Bonny lived out her life in South Carolina, gave birth to Rackham’s son, and was buried near Charleston, but has produced no documentation for this account.