We hear a lot about pirates like Blackbeard, William Kidd, even the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow. Would you believe two of the most famous pirates are women by the names Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Most of what is known of Bonny and Read’s life comes from the volume A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, written by a Capt. Charles Johnson and considered highly speculative. According to the volume both were born around the year 1700. They were both renowned for their ruthlessness and would go on to challenge sailors’ belief that a woman’s presence on a ship was bad luck.
Bonny’s birth name was Anne McCormac, and her birthplace was Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland. She was the daughter of servant woman Mary Brennan and Brennan’s employer, lawyer William McCormac. McCormac separated from his wife following the discovery of his infidelity and later assumed custody of Anne. Following his cohabitation with her mother, he lost much of his clientele, and the trio emigrated to Charles Town. Anne’s mother died of typhoid fever when Anne was 13. Anne’s father dropped the “Mc” from their Irish name to try and blend into the Charles Town citizenry. Cormac’s knowledge of law and ability to buy and sell goods soon financed a townhouse and eventually a plantation just out of town. Her father would be profitable in a merchant business and accumulated a substantial fortune. It is recorded that she had red hair and was considered a “good catch”, but may have had a fiery temper; at age 13, she supposedly stabbed a servant girl with a table knife. She married a poor sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonny. James hoped to win possession of his father-in-law’s estate, but Anne was disowned by her father.
Some time between 1714 and 1718, she and James Bonny moved to Nassau, on New Providence Island, known as a sanctuary for English pirates called the Republic of Pirates. Many inhabitants received a “King’s Pardon” or otherwise evaded the law. It’s recorded that, after the arrival of Governor Woodes Rogers in the summer of 1718, James Bonny became an informant for Rogers who was a privateer
While in the Bahamas, Anne Bonny began meeting other pirates in local taverns. She would eventually meet John “Calico Jack” Rackham, and they became lovers. They had a son in Cuba. Many different theories state that the boy was left with family or simply abandoned. Bonny rejoined Rackham and continued the pirate life, having divorced her husband and marrying Rackham while at sea. Bonny and Rackham escaped to live together as pirates. Together they would pirate their way across the Caribbean and would encounter and board a ship carrying Mary Read. The women would become close friends.
As a child, Read’s mother had begun to disguise Mary (she was illegitimate) as a boy after the death of her older, legitimate brother Mark. Mary would go by the name Mark when disguised as a man. This was done in order to continue to receive financial support from his paternal grandmother. The grandmother was fooled, and Read and her mother lived on the inheritance into her teenage years. Still dressed as a boy, Read then found work as a foot-boy, and later found employment on a ship. She later joined the British military, allied with Dutch forces against the French. Read, still in male disguise, proved herself through battle, but she fell in love with a Flemish soldier whom she subsequently married. Following her husband’s early death, Read resumed male dress and military service in Holland. With peace, there was no room for advancement, so she quit and boarded a ship bound for the West Indies.
Read would join Rackham and Bonny as their crew in 1720. Rackham and the two women then recruited a new crew. Their group spent years in Jamaica and the surrounding area. Over the next several months, they enjoyed success, capturing many, albeit smaller, vessels and bringing in abundant treasure. Bonny took part in combat alongside the men, and the accounts of her exploits present her as competent, effective in combat, and respected by her shipmates. Governor Rogers had named her in a “Wanted Pirates” circular published in the continent’s only newspaper, The Boston News-Letter. Although Bonny was historically renowned as a female Caribbean pirate, she never commanded a ship of her own.
October 1720, Rackham and his crew were attacked by a “King’s ship”, a sloop captained by Jonathan Barnet under a commission from Nicholas Lawes, Governor of Jamaica. Most of Rackham’s pirates put up little resistance as many of them were too drunk to fight. However, Read and Bonny fought fiercely and managed to hold off Barnet’s troops for a short time. Rackham and his crew were taken to Jamaica, where they were convicted and sentenced by Governor Lawes to be hanged. They are the only two women known to have been convicted of piracy during the early 18th century, at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. According to Johnson, Bonny’s last words to the imprisoned Rackham were: “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”
After being sentenced, Read and Bonny both “pleaded their bellies”: asking for mercy because they were pregnant. In accordance with English common law, both women received a temporary stay of execution until they gave birth. Read died in prison, most likely from a fever from childbirth. She was buried on April 28, 1721 according to burial records of St. Catherine’s church in Jamaica. There is no record of the burial of her baby, suggesting that she may have died before giving birth, or that the baby was stillborn and therefore not granted an identity or burial of its own.
There is no historical record of Bonny’s release or of her execution. 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. There are even stories that Anne and Mary (possibly faking her death) lived out the remainder of their lives raising their children together.