Robert Hume explores six popular myths about the improbable life of Cork’s Anne Bonny, the Caribbean pirate queen.
Three hundred years ago in 1718, during the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, a young Irish woman with burnished red hair and pea-green eyes, called Anne Cormac, eloped to the Bahamas with dashing Irish sailor Jim Bonny, to loot treasure ships.
Most of us are familiar with fantastic tales about Anne’s life of wild abandon on the high seas, her ferocious temper, and swashbuckling bravado.
But evidence about pirates is sparse, leaving the door wide open for sensationalist authors and Hollywood directors to fill in the gaps how they please. Today, it is difficult to sort out fact from fiction. How much of what we think we know about Anne Bonny is true?
No, she existed all right — records of her trial prove that.
According to A General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson — who some believe was novelist Daniel Defoe — she came from “a town near Cork”.
The website rareirishstuff.com states she was born in Kinsale on March 8, 1698; a recent pamphlet by Charles River gives March 8, 1702.
In Anne Bonny: The Infamous Female Pirate (2017) Phillip T Tucker also cites Kinsale as her birthplace, possibly “a fine house on Compass Hill”, and says that “the best available evidence” indicates she was born in 1698.
However, we cannot be sure: births were not recorded in Ireland until 1864, and baptism records do not extend to the 1600s.
Johnson says Anne was the offspring of a secret affair between her father William, a distinguished lawyer, and the pretty family servant, Mary Brennan, conceived while his wife was away for a “change of air”.
To avoid scandal, William cut Anne’s hair, dressed her in boys’ clothing, and called her Andy. He pretended he was training the child to be a lawyer’s clerk.
When the truth got out, and threatened to ruin his business, he packed mother and child onto a ship for South Carolina and began a fresh life in Charleston.
When Anne was around 13, her mother died from typhoid fever, and she had to help her father run the household.
The girl was determined to get her own way.
Johnson notes Anne’s “fierce and couragious” temper. When a young lad assaulted her, she beat him so badly that “he lay ill of it a considerable time”.
According to another story, she stabbed to death an English servant maid with a table knife. But Johnson found that tale groundless.
In 1718, when her father discovered that she planned to marry Jim Bonny, a poor sailor with rumoured connections to the underworld, he turned her out. In the dead of night Anne supposedly crept back and took revenge by setting fire to the house and ricefields. Again no records prove this really happened.
Reaching Nassau in the Bahamas, Jim accepted clemency for quitting pillage and plunder.
Already bored with married life, Anne abandoned her husband for an adventurous career in the ‘republic of pirates’, the roots of which stretched back to her native West Cork (Des Ekin, Ireland’s Pirate Trail, 2018).
The 1951 film Anne of the Indies features Jean Peters as Anne Providence at the helm of the Sheba Queen. “My title is captain,” she rebukes a handsome Frenchman, as she forces less good-looking captives to walk the plank.
According to one legend she also mangled a mannequin’s limbs, smeared them with fake blood, and hovered over them with an axe, fooling a French merchant ship to surrender its cargo to her without a fight.
In reality, Anne Bonny was never a captain — unlike her pirate predecessor Grace O’Malley.
Many sources state, incorrectly, that she was a sailor on the Revenge — Blackbeard’s vessel. Anne’s ship was the William, commanded by charismatic gentleman-pirate Captain (Calico) Jack Rackham.
There, ‘Bonn’ was treated just like any other crew member, and helped load and unload supplies, raise the sails, and heave up the anchor.
In Anne and the Indies, she is described as “a slip of a girl”, and referred to as “lass”. “Everyone knows she’s a woman,” says one of the crew.
Richard Pallardy (Encyclopaedia Britannica) also claims her true gender, and that of fellow pirate Mary Read, was well known to shipmates.
In practice, strict laws among Caribbean pirates dictated that “No Boy or Woman [was] to be allowed amongst them”.
To keep her gender concealed, Tucker suggests she was assigned to the captain’s personal staff, and slept in his quarters. When she became big with Rackham’s child, he dispatched Anne to Cuba where she left her newborn with his friends before returning to the William.
Back on deck, Anne donned a large jacket and baggy trousers to disguise her figure, and pulled her cap low to hide her hair.
Only at close quarters was her gender obvious. A woman whose canoe Anne and Mary robbed testified to the “largeness of their breasts”.
In October 1720 an English ship, under Captain Jonathan Barnet, fired a cannonball through the William’s hull. Legend has it that Bonny and Read famously stood on deck alone, brandishing flintlock pistols and cutlasses, fighting off dozens of sea dogs, while the men cowered below.
Mary supposedly shouted to them to “come up and fight like men”; an American cigarette card illustration suggests Anne fired a shot down at them.
While it makes a romantic story, why would anyone hide below decks of a ship taking on water? If any men stayed below, they were probably trying to repair the hole and operate the pumps.
Eventually Anne, Mary, and the rest of the crew were captured and brought to Spanish Town, Jamaica, to face trial. The men were swiftly executed.
“If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog”, Anne allegedly said when she saw Rackham’s corpse.
As both women were pregnant, the law stated they should be imprisoned until their babies were born.
Mary died of fever. Anne drops off the historical record.
Anne Bonny’s career as a pirate lasted under two years.
“What is become of her since, we cannot tell,” wrote Johnson.
But there is no shortage of speculation.
A few writers maintain that after her child was born Anne was executed.
David Cordingly (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004) states that Anne returned to South Carolina with her child; some claim her father secured her release with a bribe.
There she married Joseph Burleigh and had eight children; another writer says 10.
However, Tucker maintains that she settled in Tidewater, Virginia; became a grandmother, possibly a great grandmother; and died in her mid-eighties in April 1782.
Very different is one writer’s claim that she married a Jamaican official, changed her name to Annabelle, and moved to a Caribbean island.
Or did Anne Bonny settle in southern England and buy a tavern? So goes another story. Arggghhh! What yarns she could have told the locals!