Born in Co Cork, Anne Bonny 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 Bonny 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. Anne was forced to masquerade as a boy throughout her childhood and 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. 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.
On one voyage, a ship commandeered by English pirates sailed, with a woman called Mary Read. Soon afterwards, their ship was overtaken by Captain Jack Rackham’s Vanity. Anne Bonny 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, 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.
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. However, 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.
It is said, Bonny was smuggled to safety to South Carolina, and lived to be a grand old dame of 80.
Photo: A statue of Anne Bonny at Bluebeard’s Castle, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas