The Real Story of Anne Bonny & Mary Read

Numerous versions of the story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read have been told over the past three centuries, but few have considered them from an actual historical perspective.  Most of them simply play up to the sensational and titillating aspects of women serving aboard an eighteenth century pirate ship, and take what is generally accepted about the women at face value.  By digging deeper, I’ve discovered that what is generally accepted could not have been what actually happened.  Many of the events could not have occurred in the generally accepted chronology, and it is likely that these stories even mixed up the respective roles of these two women pirates.

The Generally Accepted Storyline

Defying her father in Carolina Colony, Anne Cormac elopes with James Bonny and the two of them run away to Nassau, New Providence Island, The Bahamas.

While in Nassau Anne meets Calico Jack Rackham, captain of the pirate ship Ranger.

James Bonny becomes a pirate informer for Governor Woods Rogers which infuriates Anne and their marriage begins to fall apart. Anne begins an affair with Calico Jack.     (in some versions Jack offers to buy Anne from her husband, but James refuses to sell her)

Anne runs away with Jack Rackham when he and his crew steal a sloop, the William, from Nassau harbor.    (in many popular versions they leave on Rackham’s own ship, the Ranger)    (in some versions her escape is facilitated by the help of her friend (Pierre), a homosexual who ran a tavern in Nassau)

Anne disguises herself in men’s clothing and serves on board ship as a pirate, as well as being the captain’s woman. Anne becomes pregnant, and when it is close to time for delivery Jack leaves her with friends in Cuba.  He returns once she is “up and well again” and she resumes piracy with him again on the Ranger. One of the ships they plunder is a Dutch (or Portuguese) vessel bound for the West Indies and Jack recruits an English soldier by the name of Mark Read, who puts up a good fight, into the Ranger’s crew.    (in some versions this happened while Anne was giving birth in Cuba, and Mary was already on board when Anne re-joined the crew.  In other versions, Anne and Mary had previously met in Nassau and were friends, and Mary was part of the crew when they first left)

Anne is attracted to Mark/Mary, and even after discovering that ‘he’ is really a woman she still begins a relationship with her.  Jack discovers Anne together with Mary, but still thinking that Mary was Mark, a man, Jack prepares to kill him.  However, Mary bares her breasts to show that she was not a man, and Anne invites Jack to join them.  The three of them then share a bed for the rest of the time they are together.  A prosperous, and infamous, pirate career finally comes to a close when they are captured by the English navy off the coast of Jamaica and convicted of piracy.  Jack is hanged, but Anne and Mary are given reprieves because they are supposedly both pregnant.  Anne is released to her father who came from Carolina for her, and Mary dies in childbirth in prison (in other versions, Mary and her baby are taken to Cuba by friends who paid off the authorities to officially report that she died)

Source of the Accepted Stories

The origin of these stories comes from the source document, A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, 1724.  When reading this document, one immediately notices that the parts about Anne Bonny and Mary Read seem to have been just stuck in at the end of the chapter about Jack Rackham.  The only portion of the tale of Anne Bonny and Mary Read that Johnson did apply a chronology to was the time that they were with Captain Calico Jack Rackham aboard his pirate ship.  This only lasted for a period of two months, however; from August 22nd, 1720, when they commandeered a ship in New Providence, to October 23rd,1720, when they were captured.  The dates and activities during these two months are well documented in Johnson’s chapter 7, about Captain Rackham and his crew, but the remaining parts about the women don’t seem to follow any chronology and are really just a series of anecdotal tales that the author admits that he picked up from the witnesses at their trial.  These reports were, essentially, nothing more than gossip which had most likely been heavily embellished as they were passed around before Johnson even heard the versions of them that he penned.

Accepted Story Makes No Sense Chronologically

When one researches and cross references other source material about each of these women it becomes clear that what has been generally accepted as fact about Anne Bonny and Mary Read makes no sense chronologically.  Also, much of what has been told about Anne Bonny is, in reality, the actual activity of Mary Read.  Considering Mary was an androgynous looking 30 year old whereas Anne was a buxom 18 year old, the titillation factor of the subsequent stories definitely favored Anne as the protagonist and was probably the reason we hear so little about Mary Read.

By examining the stories against what is known about these women, one discovers a much more likely version of what occurred.   Putting the proper perspective to the details which make up the substance of the stories, a logical chronology emerges that meshes nicely with the known facts.

So while the generally accepted storyline of Anne Bonny and Mary Read is a wonderful tale, it doesn’t make any sense.  It is impossible for all of the above to have happened to Anne Bonny in the time span of only two months, from August to October, 1720.  Plus, the most glaring fact is that Anne Bonny could not have been the fierce swashbuckler that she has been portrayed as.  She arrived in Nassau as a girl of 17 whose life until she eloped and ran away had been one of privilege on a plantation in the American Colonies.  When Anne met Calico Jack he had given up piracy, having accepted amnesty, and was living in Nassau.  It is unlikely that, in the short time that they were together, that she could have learned fighting skills, let alone become pregnant, have a child, and then resume a full pirate career.  Rather, she was an eighteen year old who was initially caught up in the adventure and romance of it all until she experienced the horrors of being captured and thrown in jail.  After learning that Jack Rackham and the rest of the crew had been hanged, she would probably have been glad to return with her father to plantation life in Carolina Colony.

Chronology of Events for Anne Bonny and Mary Read

1702:   Anne (as Anne Cormac) is born in County Cork, Ireland as the illegitimate daughter of William Cormac and his housemaid, Mary     Brennan.  Disgraced, William leaves Ireland for the opportunities in Carolina colony taking his lover and baby with him.   Meanwhile, Mary, age 11, is being raised as a boy (Mark) and educated by her mother.  Now able to read and write, she goes to grammar school using paternal grandmother’s money, who wants ‘him’ to be prepared as a military officer in the British army.

1705:    Anne, age 2, and her parents arrive in the American Colonies where William Cormac begins a lucrative business.

Mary, age 13, becomes a footboy in London after her grandmother dies and the money runs out.

1707:   Anne, age 5, is being raised in a life of privilege as her father has become a wealthy plantation owner.

Mary, age 16, joins the English army as Mark Read and is sent to Flanders, Holland where ‘he’ becomes an expert swordsman.

1714:   Anne, age 12, develops into a hellion/brat/tomboy after her mother dies.

Mary, age 23, leaves the army at the end of the war, marries a fellow soldier, and they set up in business running an inn in  ​Flanders.

1716:   Anne, age 14, supposedly stabs a man who tries to molest her.

Mary’s husband dies and she, age 25, is unable to manage the business by herself and it begins to founder.

1717:    Anne, age 15, begins a relationship with James Bonny in Carolina colony.

Mary, age 26, leaves Europe on a ship bound for the West Indies as a soldier (Mark) in search of a new life.

1718:   Anne, age 16, defying her father elopes with James Bonny.  They leave for New Providence, The Bahamas, intending to become pirates, and arrive late in 1718.  Governor Woodes Rogers, who arrived either in May or July, 1718, had offered a Royal proclamation of Pardon from King George I for the pirates and brought two warships to use against those who did not comply, so the Bonny’s were forced to find legitimate employment.

The ship carrying Mary, age 27, is intercepted by the pirate ship, the Ranger, which is under the command of Charles Vane.  The Ranger’s quartermaster, Jack Rackham, age 35, is impressed with ‘Mark’s’ fighting skills and recruits ‘him.’  When it is revealed that Mark is really Mary, Jack defends her and they begin a relationship.  Later, a crew member challenges Jack to a duel but Mary steps up and kills the challenger.  On November 24th, Mary sides with Jack Rackham when he leads a mutiny against Charles Vane takes command of the Ranger.  Jack sails the Ranger to Jamaica where they capture a rich prize, the Kingston, on December 11, 1718 and take it and the Ranger to Isla de Pinos, an island south of Cuba.

1719:   Mary, age 28, and Jack are stranded on Ilsa de Pinos when hired mercenaries from Jamaica take back the Kingston on February 19, 1719. The Ranger, in poor condition, was pulled onto the beach to be refitted in order for them to return to sea, but a Spanish warship with a small captured sloop in tow came across them and prepared to attack the next morning.  The pirate crew sneaked aboard the sloop, overthrew the watch, and made their escape that night.  Nowhere else to go, on May 16, 1719 they sailed to New Providence and accepted amnesty.  Jack Rackham most likely then sailed as a privateer with either Captain Burgess or Benjamin Hornigold until they were shipwrecked in a storm in the Caribbean in December.  He survived, but it was six months before he made it back to New Providence.

Anne Bonny, then age 17,  was probably working as a barmaid in a Nassau tavern and that is likely where she met Mary Read, who perhaps was the proprietress.

1720:   Anne, age 18, becomes infuriated when her husband, James Bonny, becomes an informant for Governor Roger, and their marriage falls apart.

Mary, age 29, and Jack plan to return to piracy, and Mary invites Anne to join them.

     August 22nd:  They steal the William, a sloop of war, from New Providence Harbor.

     Late August:  They plunder seven boats from fishing villages around Harbour Island.

     September:  Woodes Rogers, furious that they returned to piracy, puts a bounty out on them.  The Bahamas become too hot with navy and pirate hunters looking for them, so they sail south and take two ships off the coast of Hispaniola.

    October:   They sail towards Jamaica, probably stopping at Ilsa de Pinos.

    October 22:  They take a large merchant schooner or brigantine and anchor near Negril Point to celebrate, but are sighted by the English navy warship, the Tyger.

    October 23:  They are captured by Captain Jonathan Barnet of the Tyger and taken as prisoners to Port Royal, Jamaica.

    November 16:  Jack is tried and convicted at Admiralty Court in St. Jago de la Vega.

    November 17:  Jack is allowed a visit from Anne.

    November 18:  Jack is hanged and his body is gibbeted in the harbor.

    November 28:  Anne, age 18, and Mary, age 30, are tried and convicted of piracy.  Mary claims to be pregnant and pleads her belly.  Neither are executed and they are both held in jail in Port Royal.

    December:  Anne’s father comes to Jamaica and takes her back to Carolina Colony.

The Novel Utilizing These Facts

Using this researched historical chronology, I wrote a novel taking license to determine the motivations of the characters since they were inferred from the above facts.  The subsequent story line both fits and explains those facts.  The pages in this book, Love, Lust & Passion, tell the real story (truth being defined as the most logical interpretation of the facts) of the pirate life of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.