ANNE BONNY: QUEEN OF THE SEA, OR DOWNRIGHT PIRATE?
“There will be no women on board my ship – or boys, but especially women; they bring with them all kinds of trouble – and their monthly ill humour! We do not want that… God forbid!” Five Guns Blazing, Emma Rose Millar and Kevin Allen.
Women were not allowed on pirate ships for superstitious reasons; it was part of the pirate code, drawn up by Black Bart in 1721. Even scoundrels had their standards! But life on land for eighteenth-century women usually meant being at the mercy of one’s husband, a life chained to the kitchen, the mill or loom, with one’s children tugging at one’s skirts, elderly relatives to look after and church services to attend. The fate of the poorest women in society often depended on the whims of the magistrate and the beadle and upon the charity of neighbours; the only mystery is why on earth more women did not take to the seas!
One of those who did, was the infamous Irish pirate Anne Bonny. Anne is the archetypal anti-heroine: ruthless, double-crossing and fiercely independent. She spat in her husband’s face after he had her flogged for adultery, left a young man who tried to sexually assault her seriously injured, and abandoned her baby in order to pursue a life at sea, but was Anne the ultimate feminist or was she simply a spoilt planter’s daughter who made a name for herself terrorising fishermen in the Caribbean and off the coast of Latin America?
Anne Bonny was born in Cork c1700, the illegitimate child of maidservant Mary Brennan and married lawyer William Cormac. When Cormac’s wife made the affair public, he and Mary left Ireland in shame, taking Anne with them to America. Cormac’s legal business prospered there and he had soon made enough money to buy a plantation.
But Anne’s fiery temper and dare-devilish nature did not sit well in polite society. Planters in the Cormac’s circle did not see Anne as a suitable companion for their daughters; she had gained a reputation as an intemperate lush, drinking till all hours in local taverns with fishermen. Aged sixteen she fell in love with Captain James Bonny, who was either a penniless sailor or small time pirate. Anne’s father condemned the match, wanting Anne instead to marry a plantation owner. But Anne married James anyway, eloping with him to the den of iniquity which was New Providence.
Anne soon tired of her marriage to James and cast her eye around for a means of escape. Fate threw her in the path of pirate John Rackham, more widely known as Calico Jack, a rake, devilishly handsome, the Lothario of the seas. It did not take much for Rackham to prise Anne away from James and the pair ran off to sea.
Anne was a merciless pirate, highly skilled in the use of knives and pistols. Sources suggest that Rackham was captain in name only and that it was Anne who commanded the ship, terrorising all who sailed close to her. Anne was not the only woman on board; there was another woman too, the female pirate Mary Read, whom Rackham had initially detained, believing her to be a man. Anne and Mary soon developed an attachment so deep that they refused to be parted and so intimate was their friendship that Rackham, still believing Mary to be a man, threatened to slit her throat. It was not until Rackham burst into Anne’s room one day and discovered the pair in a state of undress that he finally realised she was a woman. After that, it seems he encouraged their relationship and that the three of them lived together along with another of Anne’s friends, the notorious gay pirate, Pierre Bouspeut.
Both Anne and Mary were known for their violent rages, and in times of battle, no other crew member was as bloodthirsty or as ruthless as these two hell cats. As to the threat of capture and being hanged, Mary famously said, ‘I would not have the penalty set at anything less than death. Were it not for that deterrent, the seas would be infested with a thousand cowards who would terrorise the honest merchants until all trade collapsed. Cowardice is far more profitable on land, where scoundrels can cheat on the most vulnerable members of society who have not the means to buy for themselves the protection of the law.’
In 1720 Anne’s pirate adventure came to an abrupt end when she was arrested for piracy and sentenced to death. But that was not quite the end of the story. There is no record of Anne’s execution or of her release or escape from jail. In terms of avoiding the gallows she was as slippery as an eel! What became of Anne is still a mystery and remains constant source of conjecture.
Mary died in jail in April 1721. Her legacy has perhaps been overshadowed by Anne’s, but together, they remain the most mesmerising and romanticised women ever to take to the seas.
Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham – a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son who keeps her very busy and very happy. Emma left school at 16 and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has done a variety of jobs including chocolatier, lab technician and editorial assistant for a magazine but now works part-time an interpreter.
Emma writes and edits historical fiction and children’s picture books. Her first novel was shortlisted for the Chaucer Award in 2013 and she won the Legend category of the Chaucer Award with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. She is now working on her third novel THE WOMEN FRIENDS which is based the painting of the same name by Gustav Klimt. Emma is an avid fan of live music and live comedy and enjoys skating, swimming and yoga.