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The Pirate Was No Lady

Updated on November 21, 2011

The life of Anne Bonny is a big question mark as it’s so difficult to discern myth from fact about her. It’s known she was a notorious pirate in the early 16th century. But, that fact alone was enough fodder to spark legends and myths.

Let’s look at what is known for certain about her early years. She was born in County Cork, Ireland between 1697 and 1700. Her father was William Cormac, a prominent lawyer. From there, it’s educated guesses and circumstantial evidence.

It’s said her mother was Mary Brennen, a domestic who worked for her father. When Anne was born, his irate wife made the affair public knowledge. It ruined his practice. William left Ireland in disgrace taking Mary and Anne with him. They settled around Charleston, South Carolina where William was able to reestablish himself in a successful practice. He later became a plantation owner.

Anne’s mother passed away while she was still in her early teens and Anne took over the task of running her father’s large household. One unsubstantiated tale says she killed a serving maid for crossing her. Another says she soundly trounced a young man for trying to sexually assault her. Anne was around fourteen years old.

Anne was not content with life on the plantation. She longed for excitement and adventure of the sea and was frequently found hanging around the Charleston wharves striking up acquaintances with seafaring men. It was there she met and fell in love with James Bonny, a small time pirate, when she was sixteen. Her father disowned her when they married.

The two moved to New Providence, now Nassau which at the time was a haven for pirates. However, Anne soon tired of waiting for her husband to return from his pirating exploits. James realized he was close to losing her so he gave up the life of a pirate and became an informer for the governor turning in pirates for the reward money. But, that was also a mistake as many of them were Anne’s friends.

Anne began seeing a wealthy man but found she didn’t fit into that lifestyle either. At a social function attended by the towns’ socially elite, Anne took exception to one lady’s opinion of her and punched her in the mouth. That ended that relationship.

Shortly afterwards she became enamored with a handsome sea captain named Jack Rackham, AKA Calico Jack. Being bored with her life she was easily convinced to run away with him. But, since superstition had it women aboard a ship was bad luck, she dressed herself in men’s attire.

Anne hid her identity for quite a while. No one suspected she was a woman as she was fearless and fought excellently with both cutlass and pistol. A legend tells of the one man that foolishly tangled with her. She supposedly gutted him with the tip of her cutlass.

However, it was inevitable her sex would sooner or later be discovered. And it was when she became pregnant with Calico Jack’s child. The captain decided a pirate ship was not a suitable place for his child to be born. So, Anne was dropped off in Cuba to await the birth of their child. It’s not known for certain exactly what happened to the child. Some say the baby died at birth.

In any case, Anne was apparently deeply saddened and her mental condition began to slowly deteriorate. When Jack returned he took her back to New Providence to recover and temporarily gave up pirating to be with her. While there Anne learned from an old friend there was a plot afoot to assassinate the governor. She had met the man once before and found him to be a likable fellow, so she informed him of the plan.

He was extremely grateful and told her if she ever needed anything to just call on him. He didn’t have to wait long. James Bonny, who was still living in the vicinity as an informant had discovered Anne and Jack had returned. Troops were sent to arrest them both on charges of piracy. When the two were dragged before the governor he immediately recognized Anne and smiled. He spared their lives but he was still obligated to punish them someway. He ordered Anne to be publicly flogged and returned to her rightful husband, Bonny, while Rackham was to be set free. But that didn’t set well with Anne and she and Jack escaped to their ship the next evening.

In 1720 their life of piracy came to an end. The Governor of Jamaica had them arrested and brought to trial. Some say both were condemned to hang, but received a stay of execution because she was with child at the time. Another legend has it pirates all along the coast gathered their ships together and pointed their cannon towards the governor’s mansion. They then demanded Anne’s release or else they would feel the wrath of their guns. The governor conceded with the stipulation she leave the West Indies and never return.

It’s rumored she met another lover, boarded a sloop bound for America and from there joined a party of pioneers headed west.

However, an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), claims Anne’s father paid her ransom, then settled in Charleston, where she gave birth to Rackham’s child. It also states she remarried a Joseph Burleigh in 1721, had eight more children and died April 25, 1782 in South Carolina. But, there are many who don’t believe that’s what happened. Some believe Jack Rackham’s child died at birth, was abandoned, or left in the care of another family. As for Anne, they say no one knows for sure what became of her.

But here's something to think about. Since she possibly headed west, could she have been related to another famous Bonny...like "Billy the Kid?"

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    • Daffy Duck profile image

      Daffy Duck 5 years ago from Cornelius, Oregon

      Interesting. Rarely does anyone speak of a woman pirate unless they're talking about "Pirates of the Carribean". A refreshing change of pace. :)

    • Stigma31 profile image

      Stigma31 5 years ago from Kingston, ON

      Good article....there were a very few famous woman pirate...voting up!

    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well, I could have handled her.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      What an interesting character! A total outlaw and a woman far ahead of her time.