Once upon a time, there was a little girl with a bad temper and red hair. She spent most of her life doing exactly what she pleased. This included becoming a pirate. Her name was Anne Bonny.
The story begins in 1697, when a man named William Cormac, an attorney in County Cork, Ireland, had an affair with his housemaid. The maid became pregnant, but instead of turning her out of the house, Cormac declared his love for her, left his wife, and moved to the New World. Divorce was impossible, so the happy couple could never be married, but they soon had a daughter, and named her Anne.
Anne seems to have had a pretty normal childhood for the time, though she had an impressive temper. When she turned 15 she started looking for excitement, and in South Carolina in 1712, this meant going down to dockside bars and hanging out with pirates.
Anne was good looking and well off: her father’s profession and property holdings made her a very eligible young woman. But her choice in marriage partners was a small time pirate named James Bonny. Anne’s father quickly determined that the young man wanted her for her inheritance, and cut her out of his will, assuming that it would end Bonny’s advances. It didn’t work. Anne Cormac became Anne Bonny, and moved with her husband to New Providence, on Nassau in the Bahamas.
New Providence was a notorious pirate town, a place so lawless that the authorities had given up on it entirely, leaving it to be governed by a series of pirate kings who fortified the island and made it safe harbor to any pirate ship looking to fence stolen goods or take on supplies. Civil law was nonexistent. James Bonny began to go out as a sailor on pirate ships, and Anne didn’t lack for male companionship while he was gone.
Within a very short time, they weren’t even living together. James spent his time at sea, and Anne became notorious, even in a town full of pirates. She drank, swore, and had sex with whomever she chose, becoming violent if anyone crossed her.
In her husband’s absence, she began to keep company with a pirate captain named Calico Jack Rackham. When she became pregnant, Jack sent her to stay with some of his friends in Cuba. She delivered a healthy child, but left it with the midwife. History does not record a name, or even if the child was male or female. Anne didn’t look back.
While she had been gone, the King of England had offered to pardon any pirate who agreed to give up the pirating life. A new governor, appointed by the Crown, fought his way into the harbor and chased off the reigning pirates. James Bonny came back to town and took the pardon, and became an informant for the new governor.
Calico Jack also took the pardon, but had no immediate need to work, since he had come in with a captain’s share of plunder from his last voyage. He immediately set out to spend his remaining cash on Anne.
They became a well-known couple, and eventually Jack proposed marriage. Anne accepted and the only thing standing in their way was James Bonny. Unfortunately for them, in 1720, it was virtually impossible to end a marriage.
Calico Jack was determined. He hunted down James Bonny and offered him anything he wanted in exchange for Anne’s hand. James named a sum of money. Jack agreed.
It’s not clear whether Jack and Anne were seeking an annulment, or if Jack was trying to ‘buy the marriage,’ an 18th century legal proceeding where one man basically sold his wife to another. Whatever the legal situation, papers needed to be filled out and signed, and witnesses had to be procured. James Bonny named a friend, Richard Turnby, a respectable sort, to stand as witness. Jack and Anne sought him out, offering cash for his help in annulling or selling James Bonny’s spousal rights over Anne. Turnby, a law-and-order type, went straight to the new governor with news of what Anne was trying to do.
The new governor, an Englishman named Woods Rogers, had started his reign by handing out religious pamphlets to the pirates, and he was outraged by Anne’s history of loose behavior. Even though she and Jack were trying to make a legal change in marital status, he told her that if she applied for divorce or annulment, or if Jack sought to buy her marital rights, he would clap her in jail and force Calico Jack to beat her with a whip.
Anne was a wild girl, but she was not stupid. The transcript in the island’s records tells us that she replied that “she would stay at home with her husband, and keep loose company no more.” Satisfied, the governor let her go.
That night, Jack said, “It is plain that we cannot live on land together. Will you come to sea with me?” Anne agreed, and the two gathered a group of bored ex-pirates. They snuck aboard a sloop, the William, in the dead of night, cut the anchor line and, and headed out to sea. Calico Jack Rackham had forsworn his pardon. He and Anne were pirates.
On Friday… Anne Bonny’s life as a pirate.