Anne Bonny: A Real Female Pirate of the Caribbean

By: Mark Mancini  | 
Anne Bonny
Anne Bonny (c. 1700-1782) was born in Ireland and, operating in the Caribbean, became the most infamous female pirate in history. Sepia Times/Getty Images

There's a quote from John Ford's 1962 western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which the speaker is referring to Jimmy Stewart's character, Ransom "Ranse" Stoddard — but he might as well have been talking about Anne Bonny:

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Convicted of "Piracies, Felonies, and Robberies ... on the High Sea" in the 1720s, Bonny was a real-life pirate of the Caribbean. Like Blackbeard, she took part in the "Golden Age of Piracy," a time when Europe's colonial powers had to constantly contend with pirates, buccaneers and privateers. It lasted from about 1650 to 1726.

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Even back then, "true crime" narratives were popular among readers. The public was hungry for stories about the exploits of criminals and plunderers who'd terrorized the seaways. Books were written to meet this demand, and a great deal of ink was spent recounting the lives of Anne Bonny and other female pirates from the Golden Age.

Unfortunately, in Bonny's case, rumors tend to overshadow the facts. It doesn't help that the latter are somewhat few and far between. Very little information about her life's story was documented firsthand, leaving ample room for speculation. Legend has obscured reality.

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The Strange Case of Capt. Johnson

Wooden legs. Buried treasure. Plank-walking. These and just about every other pirate stereotype you can think of were popularized by the 1724 book "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates" (most sources use its alternative title: "A General History of the Pyrates").

The authorship of this text is a mystery. A second edition of the book was published in 1728. Both versions were written by somebody who called himself "Capt. Charles Johnson."

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This is almost certainly a pen name; historians have never been able to pin down the writer's true identity. Whoever he was, Capt. Johnson helped reshape the popular outlook on piracy. The creators of "Peter Pan" and "Treasure Island" cited his book as a major influence.

But it's not a perfect resource. Today's scholarly consensus on "A General History of the Pyrates" is that it blended verifiable research with hearsay and misinformation.

As pirate historian David Cordingly writes in his introduction to a 2010 reprint of the classic book, "A question mark must hang over [Johnson's] account of the extraordinary early lives of Mary Read and Anne Bonny until some corroborating evidence is discovered."

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Old World, New World

Johnson indeed had a lot to say concerning Anne Bonny — and her shipmate Mary Read, another Golden Age pirate woman.

"A General History of the Pyrates" claims that Bonny was born near the city of Cork, Ireland. According to Johnson, she had a rough childhood.

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Said to be the illegitimate daughter of a married lawyer and his servant-maid, Bonny was supposedly dressed in boy's clothing as a child. That way, her father could avoid unwanted gossip by passing the girl off as his personal assistant in training. At some point, she relocated to Carolina (a North American territory later split into the separate colonies of North and South Carolina) with her two biological parents.

Or so the story goes.

Historians don't know what the future outlaw's original birth name was. A 1720 proclamation issued by Woodes Rodgers, the governor of the Bahamas, refers to her as "Ann Fulford, alias Bonny." It's been said she was briefly married to a pirate named James Bonny, only to leave him for another pirate: Englishman John Rackam.

There's no doubt that Anne Bonny worked for Rackam; contemporary documents prove it. And she wasn't the only female pirate who joined his crew.

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The Duo of Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Like Anne Bonny, Mary Read is an enigmatic figure. If Johnson's "A General History of the Pyrates" is to be believed, she was born in England and lost her father (who somehow vanished) at an early age.

The book describes Read's first meeting with Bonny as a comedy of errors. At the time, they were both allegedly dressed as men while aboard Rackam's ship. None the wiser, Bonny developed a crush on Read, pulled her aside and then revealed her true gender.

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Anne Bonny
Anne Bonny and Mary Read, probably the two most famous female pirates ever to sail the seas.
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis/Getty Images

It didn't go well. Mary Read, in Johnson's retelling, "was forced to come to a right Understanding with her, and so to the great Disappointment of Anne Bonny, she let her know she was a Woman also." Oops.

Historians are pretty skeptical about this anecdote. Despite insinuations to the contrary, there is no outside evidence suggesting Bonny was ever attracted to, or romantically involved with, Read. But we do have eyewitness accounts confirming they both wore traditionally male garb while at sea.

And let's not forget Governor Rodgers' proclamation. Released Sept. 5, 1720, this document branded Read, Bonny, Rackam and five of their crewmates as "Pirates and Enemies to the Crown of Great-Britain."

You see, a few weeks earlier — Aug. 22, 1720 — the gang had stolen a ship named the William and set out on a Caribbean crime spree.

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Pirates on Trial

Over the next few months, Rackam's crew certainly kept busy. The pirates seized more vessels; stole from fishermen and made off with valuable cargo.

Their reckoning finally arrived on the night of Oct. 22, 1720.

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Off the Jamaican coast, Rackam and company found themselves entertaining some Port Royal mariners aboard the William (this event soon devolved into a brawl). Suddenly, their ship was spotted by the pirate-hunting captain Johnathan Barnet. In short order, Barnet's men crippled the William and took her crew into custody.

Next came a series of trials held in what's now Spanish Town, Jamaica. Rackam was found guilty of various piratical crimes. For these, he and the majority of his male crewmen were hanged that fall.

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Gone From the Pages of History

The trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read was set for Nov. 28, 1720. This one had a twist ending.

It was established that both women had committed felonies, robberies and — of course — piracy. One victim who testified against them was Dorothy Thomas. She'd been in a canoe, minding her own business, when the pirate gang robbed her. Thomas told the court Bonny and Read were each armed with "a machete and a pistol." She went on to say they'd "cursed and swore at the men," encouraging their cohorts to murder Thomas on the spot.

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Things didn't look good for Bonny and Read. But the pair dropped a bombshell after their verdict was reached.

Without warning, Mary Read and Anne Bonny both announced they were pregnant. An "inspection" confirmed this; judging by the timeline of events, historians think they'd both entered the second trimesters of their pregnancies.

Known as "pleading the belly," this legal tactic saved the two pirates from the gallows.

A woman by the name of Mary Read passed away April 28, 1721, and was buried in St. Catherine, Jamaica that same day. It's likely this was the very person who'd sailed and fought with Anne Bonny.

Bonny's own fate is more ambiguous. Nothing concrete is known about what the former pirate did with the rest of her life. "She was continued in Prison, to the Time of her lying in, and afterwards reprieved from Time to Time," wrote Johnson, "but what is become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed."

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