Ahoy matey, and beware all ye who dare to read on: The tale of Anne Bonny is one of horror and woe. One of the few recorded female pirates in history, Anne’s story has become so legendary that the tall tales about her have almost become as important as the facts. Anne Bonny's life was filled with high-seas drama, vengeful plots, and unlucky victims. If you can stomach such horror, then we have a pirate tale of epic proportions just for you.
Most of what we know about our intrepid Anne comes from a single source: A book called A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson. Not only was our dear captain liberal with his spelling, he was liberal with the truth as well, and the juicy details he added to Anne’s story raised her life to near-mythical proportions. It’s enough to send a shiver down your spine—and it all starts with the dramatic circumstances of her birth.
Bonny’s father, allegedly a lawyer named William Cormac, lived in Cork, Ireland with his wife. A practicing lawyer, he seemed to be mostly an all-around good guy, but he had a serious flaw: He was quite the womanizer. So, when his wife hired a maid, Mary Brennan, to care for their home, he promptly seduced her. After a bit of detective work, his wife discovered the affair—and the results were explosive.
First, Mrs. Cormac had Brennan (wrongfully) jailed for stealing some spoons. When Anne's father found out about this, he and Mrs. Cormac had themselves a good old fashioned screaming match, leading to Mrs. Cormac storming off to her mother-in-law’s home. The mother-in-law, furious with her son’s infidelity, left a sizeable chunk of money to Mrs. Cormac in her will, while leaving her own son out entirely.
That wasn’t the end of things though—the birth of little Anne Bonny was about to change everything.
When Brennan realized she was pregnant, she was released from prison. Around 1700, she gave birth to Anne. Mr. Cormac grew to love the little girl, and decided to let her live with him. However, rumors about his affair—and the illegitimate daughter it produced—were circulating through town. To keep things on the down-low, he had Anne do something that was strange, and just a tiny bit messed up.
To keep her true identity a secret, Anne’s father dressed her up as a boy. Posing as a distant family relation training to be a law clerk, Anne lived most of her childhood—at least, in the public eye—trapped under a fake persona. For a while, Anne grew up having a quiet, albeit odd, childhood. Unfortunately, she was still a kid, and kids just aren’t that great at keeping secrets for long.
Sure enough, innocent Anne accidentally let it slip that she was a girl. The people in town put two and two together, realizing that Anne was Mr. Cormac’s illegitimate lovechild and that the rumors about his infidelity were absolutely true. The town turned on them. Anne’s father lost all his clients—after all, what good was a lawyer you couldn’t trust?
This pushed Anne and her father to the brink of financial ruin. They had to leave—and fast.
With money quickly getting low and their options running out, Anne, her father, and Brennan packed up all their belongings and skipped town. They didn’t just move to a neighboring city though—they literally went to an entirely different continent, settling down in Charleston, South Carolina, where they started anew. Then, as if being completely uprooted from life as she knew it wasn’t enough, Anne encountered a terrible tragedy in the New World.
The trio arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, supposedly when Anne was just 12 years old. Her father soon found his fortune in being a merchant, and for a while, things for Anne improved. During this turn of good fortune, however, a dark tragedy befell the family. Not long after their arrival, Anne’s mother breathed her last. With her mother’s passing, something in Anne snapped. What she did next was absolutely chilling.
According to stories, the red-headed Anne was a “good catch,” but her bad temper certainly didn’t match her good looks. Her temper was so bad, in fact, that the stories told about her were nothing short of horrifying. In one instance, she allegedly became so enraged with a maid that she attacked her with a dinner knife. Unbelievably, Anne was only 13 years old when this happened.
To be fair to Anne, she didn’t always go around attacking innocent housemaids. Sometimes, her fiery temper came in handy when she needed to defend herself.
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Charleston was a bit of a hub town for pirates and criminals. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly a safe place for anyone, let alone an attractive young girl like Anne. However, Anne wasn’t your average attractive young girl—allegedly, a young man once tried to take advantage of her, and instead of running away (like any sensible person), she stood her ground. She ended up beating him so badly that he couldn’t move for days.
Her misadventures don’t stop there—she was just getting started.
By 1718, Anne's town turned against the pirates. Tensions snapped when the real-life Captain Blackbeard started plundering ships coming in and out of Charleston, disrupting trade. In revenge, the town tried and hanged 50 pirates in just one year alone! You would think that the sight of rotting pirate bodies, left to decay in the sun, would be enough to keep Anne away from that life, but what her father did next started her journey into the world of piracy.
According to Johnson’s account, Anne’s father ended up amassing a considerable fortune from his merchant enterprises. That made Anne an even more valuable bride—after all, any man who managed to marry her was on the fast-track to her family fortune. Of course, women back then didn’t have much of a choice when it came to their love lives, and it was no different with Anne. Her father betrothed her to a local man.
This move didn’t turn out well for anyone.
Unsurprisingly, the knife-wielding, fiercely independent, fiery-tempered Anne had zero interest in marrying someone of her father’s choosing. Against his wishes, Anne allegedly hooked up with and married a local sailor (and small-time pirate) named James Bonny. It was likely that James only wanted to marry Anne to gain access to her fortune, but Anne married him anyway.
Either way, James was about to find out that fortune didn’t come easily.
Anne’s act of teenage rebellion infuriated her father. His response would probably be considered bad parenting these days, but Mr. Cormac threw his 16-year-old daughter out into the streets, completely disowning her. Anne, not one to let a little bit of disownment bring her down, picked herself up and decided that she would skip town, but not without leaving a disturbing “gift” behind for her father.
Anne decided that she was going to leave, but she wasn’t about to let her father’s actions go unpunished. The story goes that, before Anne left Charleston, her father’s plantation was “mysteriously” set on fire. While no evidence of this event happening has been found, the fact that this story even exists shows just how much terror Anne inspired. Anne and James left for New Providence in the Bahamas. There, Anne found pirate heaven.
New Providence, with its lack of government, was a place where pirates spent their gold freely and took whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. Dubbed “a nest of infamous rascals,” New Providence was basically the nautical equivalent of the wild, wild West. It was in this place of complete and utter freedom that Anne and James allegedly carved a life out for themselves...Until it all came crashing down.
July 22, 1718, saw the arrival of Woodes Rogers, the newly appointed Royal Governor of the Bahamas. By now, New Providence was home to somewhere between 500 and 1,000 pirates, and Rogers had an unenviable task—get rid of all of them, and restore order to the island. As the story goes, James saw an opportunity and started working for Rogers as an informant, selling out his pirate fellows for a small sum. Anne did not approve.
By this time, stories claim that Bonny spent quite a bit of time mingling with the local pirates in the taverns, and got to know them quite well. Needless to say, Anne didn’t appreciate her husband snitching on her pirate buddies! Anne became distant with James, and her eyes started to wander. During one of her usual visits to the taverns, she met Captain John Rackham—and her life changed.
Imagine a sword-swinging, gun-slinging, treasure-plundering pirate in your head—you probably just imagined Captain John Rackham, AKA Calico Jack, without realizing it. A relatively successful pirate, Rackham spent most of his time plundering ships all along the coasts of the Bahamas, causing horror and woe wherever he went. Anne must have found this extremely attractive—she ended up falling in love with him, and he fell in love with her in return.
James Bonny, however, wasn’t about to let some small-time pirate run off with his woman. What he did next was downright sinister.
When James learned about the affair, he allegedly dragged Anne to the feet of Governor Rogers, demanding punishment for his wife. Rogers did as James asked—he charged her with adultery, and had her whipped on the spot. Anne’s punishment was brutal, but as an adulterer, a woman, and a pirate lover, she wasn’t given much mercy.
Rackham, unable to bear watching Anne’s punishment, pulled a Prince Charming and tried to rescue her.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly “romantic” in the conventional sense, but Rackham did try to save Anne within the confines of the law. Rackham tried to convince James to “sell” Anne. This would’ve been a perfectly legitimate way for Anne and James to end their relationship, but James refused. He even threatened to outright beat Rackham for making such a suggestion!
James’s jealousy destroyed their relationship completely, and Anne—well, as we’ve already seen, she didn’t take anything lying down.
Between the whipping, the snitching, and her newfound love for Rackham, it was safe to say that Anne’s feelings towards James had cooled completely. With their relationship in tatters, Anne packed up her things and ran away to Rackham, who very much welcomed his new lady love aboard his ship. With Rackham at her side, Anne opened a new chapter of her life. And so, Anne’s journey as a bonafide pirate began.
Having Anne Bonny on Rackham’s ship was an unusual choice. Bringing a woman on board was supposed to be bad luck, and pirates were a superstitious lot. Bonny couldn’t care less, though—while she did dress as a man during fights, she otherwise dressed as a woman while completing tasks around the ship.
For a while, Bonny thrived as a pirate, striking fear in all who sailed the shores of the Bahamas…Until something happened that threw a wrench in everyone’s plans.
After a period of looting ships out at sea, Bonny allegedly became pregnant, likely with Rackham’s child. Being pregnant while running around a pirate ship wasn’t easy, and having her life constantly in danger probably didn’t do her and her unborn child any favors. Soon, Anne started having trouble keeping up with the rest of the crew. As a result, Rackham took Bonny to Cuba, where some friends of his took care of her for a time.
As for the birth itself—that became a bit of a modern pirate mystery.
After a short while on the island, Bonny gave birth, probably to a son. In a troubling twist, no one knows what became of the child to this day. Stories claim that she left the child behind and returned to her life of piracy soon after. According to these stories, Anne treated the miracle of childbirth like more of a temporary inconvenience in her pirate career, and had nothing more to do with the child.
Soon after returning aboard Rackham’s ship, destiny brought her and an unlikely individual together.
By 1720, tales of Anne Bonny, Calico Jack, and their crew were rather notorious. The allure of joining their crew probably made recruiting capable individuals much easier, and soon, Bonny noticed one new recruit that stood out among the rest. He was handsome and dashing, and having spent some time in the British army, was a capable fighter. Was it any wonder, then, that Bonny fell head-over-heels in love?
Bonny allegedly attempted to seduce the handsome, new crew member. The new recruit rebuffed Anne’s advances—after all, she was the captain’s woman, and he liked to keep his head on his shoulders, thank you very much. But stubborn Bonny didn’t let up on the pursuit. She was persistent—so persistent that she forced the new recruit to reveal a shocking secret that completely turned Bonny's world upside down.
The new recruit, it turned out, was named Mary Read. That’s right—she was a woman disguised as a man. And that wasn’t the only thing they had in common. Like Bonny, Read was also the product of an extramarital affair. She also spent the majority of her childhood dressed up as a man to cover up the affair. Honestly, what were the odds of two lady pirates with such similar childhoods existing, let alone crossing paths? This probably felt like destiny for Bonny and Read, and the two became incredibly close.
Just exactly how close were Bonny and Read? Well, some sources say they became lesbian lovers—secret lesbian lovers, of course, since neither of them wanted Read to meet an early end on Rackham’s blade. Some say they merely became tight friends and sisters-in-arms, a power duo that fought side-by-side. Either way, they became close—so close that Rackham’s jealousy almost tore everything apart.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read became quite the pair—with their circumstances being so incredibly similar, they had a closeness that only a shared childhood of being disguised as a boy could really bring about. Rackham, however, grew insanely jealous, even telling Bonny that he would “cut her new lover’s throat.” With tensions running high, Anne did the only thing that she could do to protect Read.
Desperate to protect Read, Bonny revealed to Rackham that Read was, in fact, a woman, and was not competing with him for her affections. This fact took Rackham by surprise—up to this point, he thought that Read was a man. What were the chances of him harboring two lady pirates aboard his ship? His worries abated, he let Read stay with the crew, leading to one of their biggest heists at sea.
On August 22, 1720, the crew captured a sloop called the William, which anchored in New Providence. The ship was small, fast, and light. With four cannons and two small swivel guns that could be quickly aimed during naval battles, the ship was perfect for Rackham, Bonny, Read, and their small but mighty crew. Together, they spread terror up and down the Bahamas—and it brought the might of the authorities down on their heads.
The capture of the William made the Boston Gazette on October 10, 1720. It declared that Rackham had made off with the sloop, and “took with him 12 Men, and Two Women.” The Gazette drove the terror of the situation home further by adding, “The Pirates Swear Destruction to all those who belong to this Island.” Governor Rogers, still on his pirate-cleansing crusade, answered this affront with righteousness and gunpowder.
Anne Bonny’s crew may have been small, but Governor Rogers didn’t take them lightly. In response to the capture of the William, Governor Rogers sent at least two more sloops after them. One sloop had a crew of 54 members, with 12 guns on board. The other had 45 men. In total, Bonny's crew had nearly 100 British sailors coming for their heads—and astonishingly, this didn’t stop her piracy spree.
Having an army of British men coming after her barely slowed Anne Bonny down. Shortly after Rogers dispatched the two sloops, news came back that Anne and her crew robbed a boat near the Bahamas, clearing it of all its goods. Then, they were coming back from South Carolina when they noticed a third boat—which, of course, they also robbed.
Hearing this news, Rogers declared Anne Bonny and the rest of the crew “Enemies to the Crown of Great Britain.” It was a title they would continue to earn.
Not content with just staying in the Bahamas, Bonny set sail for Jamaica. There, she saw a golden opportunity in the form of Thomas Spenlow. Spenlow owned a schooner in Northern Jamaica full of goods, which Bonny attacked and took for her crew. Spenlow, not wanting to lose his life, surrendered immediately, giving up his cargo of pimentos and slaves.
This wasn’t enough for Anne Bonny though. She had a crew to feed and pockets to fill, so they continued to push further out to sea.
Turning eastward, the crew arrived in Hispaniola, the site of Bonny's next attack. Two Frenchmen were hunting wild hogs along the shore when Bonny and her crew jumped and kidnapped them. The pair of unlucky men sailed with the pirates for a time, where they witnessed their raids and battles at sea. Astonished by the brutality of the two women on board, they saw just how far Anne Bonny willingly went when it came to bloodshed.
Despite allegedly being Captain Rackham’s lover, Bonny didn’t let her special status keep her off the front lines of battle. Bonny's victims—or at least, the ones she left alive—testified that she carried a flintlock and a machete, which she wasn’t afraid to use. She swore as readily as any other member of the crew, and willingly followed orders, no matter how bloody. Soon, the Caribbean Sea became her personal pirate playground.
It had barely been two months, and Anne Bonny was already the terror of the Caribbean Sea. Thomas Dillon, owner of a ship called the Mary and Sarah, soon became another one of her victims. Dillon had anchored his ship off the northern coast of Jamaica when Bonny spotted it and opened fire. In a panic, Dillon and his crew piled onto a smaller ship and paddled towards the shore to alert the authorities—but Bonny couldn’t have that. So she and the crew came up with a plan.
As Dillon and his crew paddled for shore, the William stopped firing on them. Bonny and her crew started shouting at the escaping sailors, saying they were English, just like Dillon, and that they had nothing to fear. Anne and her crew invited Dillon aboard their ship. For some reason, Dillon trusted the people who were just trying to blow his ship sky-high and came aboard. That turned out to be a horrible mistake.
Onboard, Dillon was dumbfounded by the sight of Anne Bonny, dressed up as a man and running around with the other men of the crew. He described both Bonny and Read as “very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do any Thing on Board.” He didn’t have much time to admire the two ladies though. Soon after inviting him on board, the crew turned around and stole his ship.
With another victim to her name, Bonny's reign of terror continued. What she didn’t know, however, was that this was the beginning of the end.
It didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman—if you had goods, Anne Bonny wanted to plunder them. Poor Dorothy Thomas found this out when she met Bonny and her crew. Thomas was in a canoe full of provisions when Bonny swooped in. With pistols and machetes in hand, Bonny and the crew took everything the poor woman had for themselves.
Afterward, they had to decide what to do with Thomas...and Bonny's suggestion was absolutely chilling.
The rest of the crew, content with their plunder, had no use for Thomas and wanted to let her go. Bonny and Read swore at them in response. They wanted to do away with Thomas for good, fearing that leaving a victim alive would bring the authorities on their heads. Bonny urged them to end Thomas’s life to keep her “from coming against them.” Luckily for Thomas, the rest of the crew won the argument, and they let her go.
Unfortunately for them, Bonny's dire warnings ended up coming true.
After a couple months of plundering, Calico Jack met a small crew of nine English pirates. The two crews had themselves a little party, making merry aboard the William and getting themselves very, very wasted. This made them absolute sitting ducks when pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet came across their sloop. He gave them a chance to surrender—and the William opened fire in response. So Anne Bonny's final naval battle began.
Barnet’s firepower proved to be too much. Soon, the William couldn’t fire back, allowing Barnet to send a boarding party to deal with the pirates directly. The men, too intoxicated to fight, ran to the hold, leaving just Bonny, Read, and one other person to face the incoming attack. The three desperately tried to fight back, screaming to the rest of the crew to stop being cowards and help.
Then, in the heat of battle, Bonny and Read made a fatal mistake.
The crew’s display of cowardice caused Read to snap. She allegedly became so enraged that she shot into the hold, killing and wounding her own crew members, while Bonny allegedly screamed threats and promised retribution to those who didn’t fight back. This didn’t help at all—now, the crew weren’t just wasted, they were also petrified. Fear, which had been Bonny's bread and butter, now became her weakness.
Soon, Barnet’s crew overwhelmed her, and they imprisoned her along with her entire crew.
After her capture, Anne Bonny stood trial for her heinous actions at sea. The victims that she and the crew left alive stepped forward to testify against her. They spoke of her willingness to fight, her ruthlessness, and her merciless nature. With so much testimony against her, there was nothing Bonny could do. She was found guilty of “Piracies, Felonies, and Robberies committed by them, on the High Sea.” They sentenced her to hang.
Upon hearing the court’s decision, Bonny played one final, desperate gamble. She told the court she was “quick with child.” After an inspection, they granted her a stay of execution, giving her just a couple more months of life. With her hanging temporarily avoided, Bonny was allegedly able to meet with Rackham one last time before he was executed along with the rest of the crew. Her reaction, however, was cold as ice.
Allegedly, the court allowed Calico Jack to see Bonny one last time “by special favor.” Rackham visited Bonny, heavy with child, in her prison. Upon seeing Rackham, Bonny let him know exactly how displeased she was that he got them into this mess, saying, “Had you fought like a Man, you need not have been hang'd like a Dog.” Even imprisoned, Anne Bonny was totally ruthless! Soon after, the court executed Rackham, along with his crew.
The paper trail for Anne Bonny—both fictional and otherwise—ends here. No one is sure what happened to her. Some say the court executed her, just as planned. Others say she escaped. Some say her father found a way to bring her back to Charleston. The messy tangle of truths and lies about her life continues to be a source of frustration for historians, and a bountiful source of inspiration for video games, anime, songs, and books alike.
One thing is certain, though—all those who stumble upon Anne Bonny’s story are in for the ride of a lifetime.
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