Anne Bonney, born in Co Cork, was the illegitimate daughter of lawyer William Cormac and his housemaid. They immigrated to America after Anne’s birth and settled on a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. A headstrong young woman ‘with a fierce and courageous temper,’ she eloped with James Bonney against her father’s wishes. James took her to a pirates’ lair in New Providence in the Bahamas, but in 1718, when Bahamian Governor Woodes Rogers offered the King’s pardon to any pirate, James turned informant. Anne was disgusted with his cowardice and soon after, she met and fell in love with the swaggering pirate Captain Jack Rackham. Disguising herself as a male, she began sailing with him on his sloop Vanity, with its famous skull-and-crossed-daggers flag, preying on Spanish treasure ships off Cuba and Hispaniola. It is reported that she became pregnant by Jack and retired from piracy only long enough to have her baby and leave it with friends in Cuba before rejoining him and her adventurous life on the high seas.
Mary Read was born at Plymouth, England, about 1690. Her mother’s husband was a sea-faring man who left on a long voyage and was never heard from again. He’d left his wife pregnant and she gave birth to a sickly male child who died soon after the illegitimate birth of his half-sister, Mary. The mother waited years for her husband to return and when her money ran out, she took Mary to London to appeal to her mother-in-law for financial help. She knew this old woman disliked girls, so she dressed Mary in boy’s clothes and made her pretend to be her son. The mother-in-law was fooled and promised a crown a week to help support them. Mary continued to masquerade as a boy for many years, even after the old woman died and the financial aid ended.
Then a teenager, Mary was hired out as a footboy to a French woman. But according to history, ‘here she did not live long, for growing bold and strong, and having also a roving mind, she entered herself on board a man-of-war, where she served some time; then quitted it.’ Still disguised as a male, she enlisted in a foot regiment in Flanders and later a horse regiment, serving in both with distinction. She fell in love with a fellow soldier, disclosed her true sex, and began dressing as a female. After their marriage, she and her husband became innkeepers, owning the Three Horseshoes near the castle of Breda in Holland. Unfortunately, he died young and her fortunes soon dwindled.
She knew that life in the 1700s was much easier as a man than as a woman, so she reverted back to men’s clothing and started her life over, this time going to sea on a Dutch merchant ship heading to the Caribbean. On one voyage, the ship was commandeered by English pirates with whom she sailed and fought until they accepted the King’s pardon in 1718 and began operating as privateers. Soon afterwards, their ship was overtaken by Captain Jack Rackham’s Vanity and, bored of the legitimate life, she again turned pirate. Anne Bonney was already part of Rackham’s crew, and she and Mary quickly discovered each other’s cross-dressing secret and became close friends. Despite her tough exterior, Mary found a lover on board and is said to have saved his life by protecting him from a threatened duel. She picked a fight with his opponent first and, with deadly use of her sword and pistol, ended his life before he could harm her husband-to-be.
Both Anne and Mary were known for their violent tempers and ferocious fighting, and they shared a reputation as ‘fierce hell cats.’ Their fellow crew members knew that — in times of action — no one else was as ruthless and bloodthirsty as these two women were. Captain Jack, nicknamed ‘Calico Jack’ for his love of colourful cotton clothing, was a well-known pirate in those days, but his reputation has survived through the ages primarily because of these two infamous women pirates on his crew.
In late October 1720, Rackkam’s ship was anchored off Point Negril, Jamaica, the pirates celebrating recent victories in their typical hard-drinking tradition. Suddenly a British Navy sloop — the man-o-war Albion, headed by Captain Jonathan Barnet — surprised them. The drunken male pirates quickly hid below deck, leaving only Anne and Mary to defend their ship. The women yelled at their pirate mates to ‘come up, you cowards, and fight like men,’ and then angrily raged against them, killing one and wounding several others. But the women were eventually overwhelmed by the British Navy, and the entire crew was captured and taken to Jamaica to stand trial.
Captain Jack and the male members of his crew were tried on 16 November 1720, and were sentenced to hang. Anne was allowed to visit her lover in his cell before his execution, and instead of the consoling, loving words he was undoubtedly expecting, her scathing comments live on throughout history: ‘Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.’
Anne and Mary were tried one week after Rackham’s death and were also found guilty. But at their sentencing, when asked by the judge if they had anything to say, they replied, ‘Mi’lord, we plead our bellies.’ Both were pregnant, and since British law forbade killing an unborn child, their sentences were stayed temporarily.
Mary is said to have died of a violent fever in the Spanish Town prison in 1721, before the birth of her child. Other reports say she feigned death and was sneaked out of the prison under a shroud.
No record of Anne’s execution has ever been found. Some say that her wealthy father bought her release after the birth of her child and she settled down to a quiet family life on a small Caribbean island. Others believe that she lived out her life in the south of England, owning a tavern where she regaled the locals with tales of her exploits.
And yet others say Anne and Mary moved to Louisiana where they raised their children together and were friends to the ends of their lives.
Photo: ‘Sisters of the Sea’ Bronze Statue, Bahamas, Commissioned by Erik Christianson