I like reading poems. That is why, besides Tate Modern’s, one of the very few newsletters I’d signed up to was Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day series. Of course, since I’m horrible at following up on practically anything on a daily basis, I usually dedicate an hour or so every (other) week to catch up on the poems that have landed in my mailbox. If you’re not familiar with Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Parting Song, stop right now, and read it.
I like being drawn to the page from the very first line, and that is exactly what happened with Essbaum’s Parting Song. Once I scanned through it a couple of times, I realized that I had absolutely no idea about who the poet was referring to by the name Anne Bonny.
Wherewith I give to looting through
the war chest of our past
like a wily Anne Bonny
who snatches at plunder or graft.
Thus my research begin to find out who on Earth this mysterious woman from a poem was.
A pirate. She was a female pirate, one of the very few ones in fact.
First off, my one and only movie experience with piracy was probably Pirates of the Caribbean which I doubt painted a very realistic picture of the life that came with the notorious profession. For some reason, pirates could never really interest/excite me, not in books, not in movies, and certainly not in a non-fiction sense. Maybe that’s why it struck me to find this female pirate glaring back at me from the lines of a poem written much later than her time.
Most of the information – true or not – about Anne Bonny comes from Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, which by the way, was probably written by non other than Daniel Defoe. And even though Bonny’s time as a pirate only lasted for a few months, the legend of this fierce creature kept growing throughout the centuries.
An illegitimate daughter from Ireland
To say the least, it’s hard to separate fiction from fact when it comes to Anne Bonny’s life. According to most sources, she was born in Ireland in 1697 as the daughter of William Cormac, a lawyer and Mary Brennan, one of his servant women. There are some stories about how her dad used to dress her as a boy and was planning to make her a lawyer’s clerk before the affair came to light, and how once the scandal broke, he took her along with her mom and moved to Carolina to start a new life with his new family. Her mom died of typhoid fever when Anne was only around 13.
Marriage, disillusion, marriage: The Pirate Lovers
Instead of the suitor her dad chose, the fiery lady married a sailor called John Bonny and the couple exchanged the Carolina landscape for the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. There, John began working as an informant for Governor Woodes Rogers, reporting him about the sea rovers in the region, and with that, he soon earned Anne’s disapproval. The disillusioned young woman said to have found solace in the arms of pirate Calico Jack Rackham. Legend has it that Rackham offered to pay John Bonny for the divorce, a practice that wasn’t uncommon in the era, though the husband refused.
Divorced or not, Anne abandoned her husband to team up with Rackham not only in a romantic fashion: she became a member of his crew. Now that was highly unusual, as even morons who draw all their imaginary pirate biographies from Pirates of the Caribbean (ME) know that having women aboard was believed to bring bad luck.
She did reveal herself to her shipmates, but stay disguised as a man while working – probably not the usual 9-5, open office environment but a series of serious sword fights, marauding and no time for a well-prepared morning and night skincare routine. There’s no way to know if this is true or not, but when one shipmate protested against her presence, he – supposedly – paid with his life: he was killed in a hand-to-hand combat with Bonny herself.
(She did divorce John Bonny, after all, and got married to Rackham. She gave birth to their first child in Cuba, but the baby’s fate remains unknown.)
Not one but two
Once taking a ship, the new captain offered positions to the surviving crew members. And so it happened, that Rackham ended up having not one but two women aboard: Mary Read was a member of a captured crew. They quickly became friends with Bonny and went down in history, hand in hand, as the two most infamous female pirates.
Captured and sentenced
In 1720, due to too much rum, a grand party that went wrong – everyone was too drunk except the two women – the crew was captured by the British Royal Navy. Legend has it that irritated by her drunk shipmates while trying to fight back, Bonny screamed: “Dogs! If instead of these weaklings I only had some women with me!” They were all sentenced to death.
But because Bonny and Read were both pregnant at the time, the two women’s lives were spared. According to the Debunk File duo, Read died the next year in her cell about 5 months after the trial, possibly during childbirth.
During their research, they found the name “Ann Bonny” on a ledger of deaths for St. Catherine’s Parish in Jamaica that suggests she was buried in Spanish Town in 1733 – this was the exact location of the trial and that’s where Mary Read was laid to rest as well.
Did she live?
So who knows, maybe she lived another decade or so, happily married to a decent man, had a new baby and was even reunited with her first child she and Rachkam left in Cuba.
How would you imagine her happy ending? Would you imagine a happy one? Or one that was filled with longing and sadness? Would you see her standing on the shore staring at the waves thinking about her love gone forever, just like her days as a pirate, bold and free?
Which fictitious fate would you give to Anne Bonny?