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August 24, 2020

Raise the Black: Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny

This is a preview for a character to be featured in the Blood & Plunder: Raise the Black kickstarter on October 6. you can check out Raise the Black here!

One of only two known female pirates of the Caribbean during the Golden Age from 1655 to 1730, Anne Bonny is first mentioned in a wanted advertisement issued in 1720 by Governor Woodes Rogers of New Providence in regard to her association with John “Calico Jack” Rackham, Mary Read, and others in the theft on August 22, 1720 of the 12-ton sloop William: “Ann Fulford alias Bonny.”

As with her friend and fellow pirate Mary Read, hers may have been a short-lived piratical life, yet it was reportedly a merry one. The undisputed record of her piracies runs only from August into October 1720, all aboard Rackham’s small sloop with a crew of merely a handful of men and two women. The list of prizes is short: they stole the tiny 12-ton sloop William at New Providence and made it their own, for which they were listed as “wanted” by Governor Woodes Rogers of New Providence. They plundered seven small fishing boats at New Providence, a pair of merchant sloops off Hispaniola and another off the Jamaica coast near Port Maria Bay, a canoe off the Jamaica coast, and the Mary & Sarah at Dry Harbor, Jamaica. All the prizes were small and taken without a fight.

Testimony given at the trial of Read and Bonny stated that during the attacks they wore men’s clothing—men’s jackets and trousers, with handkerchiefs tied around their heads—and were armed with pistol and machete (possibly a cutlass), swore as much as the male pirates or more so, threatened murder, and, according to one witness, handed powder—served as powder monkeys—to the male crewmembers. Anne was recognized as a woman, as was Mary Read, according to one witness, “by the largeness” of her breasts. 

Read, Bonny, Rackham, and the rest of the crew were captured in late October 1720 by merchant captain and commissioned pirate hunter Colonel Jonathan Barnet after a chase into a moonless night, under which circumstances Rackham was still unable to shake his pursuer. A fight in which only token resistance was offered soon took place. The pirates begged quarter after the first broadside illuminated the dark water below. Rackham’s tiny sloop was too small to have been mounted with great guns (cannon). Its armament was merely one, and probably no more than two, swivel guns, plus small arms.

The captured pirates were taken to Port Royal, Jamaica where they were tried on November 16, 1720, found guilty and sentenced to death. Most were hanged at Gallows’ Point, some at Kingston, their bodies then hung in chains at Plumb Point, Bush Key, and Gun Key off Port Royal as warnings to other seamen not to turn pirate. However, both women’s sentences were “respited” soon afterward pending an inspection when they claimed, “to be quick with child,” also known as “pleading their bellies.” Anne Bonny is believed to have avoided hanging, but what became of her afterward is unknown.

Far more details, many of them possibly invented, are provided by Charles Johnson’s early eighteenth-century pirate history. In it, Anne Bonny is described as born out of wedlock in a small Irish town near Cork (Kinsale, perhaps), her mother a servant, her father an attorney married to another woman. Finding small town life difficult after moving in with his mistress and daughter, her father purchased passage aboard a ship at Cork and set sail with his new family for Carolina. 

Reportedly of a “fierce and courageous Temper,” Anne was rumored to have killed a serving maid with a case knife, and to have severely beaten a man who tried to rape her. She is said to have married a poor young seaman against her father’s will, angering him to such degree that the new couple sailed for New Providence in the Bahamas, where Bonny abandoned her husband for James Bonny, a pardoned pirate, married him, and stayed with him until she met John “Calico Jack” Rackham. Governor Woodes Rogers, hearing that she was cohabiting with Rackham and not her husband, threatened to have her whipped.

Needing to flee, she helped Rackham steal a sloop, the 12-ton William, owned by John Haman, said to be the swiftest around. Dressed as a man, she fled aboard it with Rackham and several others, and reportedly she soon afterward she was expecting their child. The infant was born on the island of Cuba “where Rackam kept a little kind of a Family,” and was apparently abandoned there, probably to island associates. But the timeline is inconsistent, and the story about the child born at Cuba may not be true.

At Rackham’s hanging, according to Johnson, Anne had but this to say: “that she was sorry to fee him there but if he had fought like a Man he need not have been hang’d like a Dog.” Still, how much of this is true is unknown. Johnson had a propensity for both fact and fiction—much is true, yet much has also been proved false. Whether or not Anne sailed with Rackham prior to his theft of the William is unproven, for example.

Likewise, her reputed red hair, probably imputed to her based on her reported “Irish” temper. For this reason—her legendary temper and hair—has Hollywood seized on her rather than the more deserving Mary Read as the great female pirate of the Caribbean. And in doing so, Read’s martial prowess has been granted, without evidence, to Bonny, whose image, much of it entirely mythical, is now legendary.