Black Sails History: Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham

Black Sails Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham have a history that goes back a long way before season 1 of the show!

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I’ve mentioned the historical Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham in several reviews and posts, and before Black Sails ends for the season, I’d like to introduce you to the real people that these characters are based on. Anne Bonny was a flaming redhead born to a well-to-do family. Her father, William Cormack, was an attorney in Ireland. He committed the unpardonable sin of impregnating the family chamber maid and then announcing that he preferred the chambermaid to his wife. Mrs. Cormack raised the entire neighborhood against him, and he responded by fleeing to the Americas with the maid, abandoning his wife forever.

Anne was born in Charlestown in 1697. She grew up mostly in town, for though her father bought a plantation, he was no farmer. Like many famous people, stories are told about her youth that are not necessarily true. There is, for instance, no evidence that she deliberately burned the plantation down, or that she murdered a servant girl with a butter knife at the age of 16.

What does seem to have happened when Anne turned 16 was that, like many teenagers, she realized that her parents were idiots. Faced with a real lack of ways to rebel… it was perfectly legal for people her age to drink alcohol, there was no such thing as an illegal drug, and rock music wouldn’t be invented for nearly 300 years… she began hanging out with pirates.

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Charleston was a major pirate trading port, and in short order, Anne was having every kind of fun that a girl can have with a lot of male friends. But one pirate, James Bonny, wanted more than a good time. He wanted to marry her, and Anne agreed.

Mr. Cormack believed that James only wanted to finagle his way into the family’s money, and responded by cutting Anne off without a cent. In fact, he understood James far better than his daughter did.  All romance went out of the relationship when Anne’s cash disappeared. Anne got back at her husband by screwing every man in port. Divorce was impossible at the time. Humiliated, James left Charlestown, taking his young bride with him.

They ended up in Nassau, where James shipped out on a variety of short-haul pirating cruises, and Anne behaved so wildly that she stood out as a bad example even in a port full of pirates.

Times were changing in Nassau. A new governor arrived with a fistful of pardons, and the pirate’s leader, Ben Hornigold, advised his followers to accept the pardons, saying that it would be easy to return to pirating later. Many pirates came into Nassau specifically to be pardoned for their crimes, and among these was Jack Rackham.

Pictures of famous pirates were made at the time, but usually not by anyone who had actually seen the pirate in question. Most of these pictures look very average, but the one of Jack Rackham does not. His hair straggles down to his shoulders, and his enormous hooked nose gives him a vicious, angry look. This may be an actual portrait.

In a world where trade was bringing new consumer goods to Europeans, the rich were still trying to keep everyone in their place. Laws prevented working class people from wearing the new fabrics, especially calico, which was considered too rich looking, even though it was affordable. Jack responded by having an entire suit made of calico and strutting through port with it, daring the authorities to haul him in. He proved that no one could tell him what to do, and won himself the name “Calico Jack.”

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Rackham had been Charles Vane’s quartermaster, just like in Black Sails. But he became captain when the crew voted Vane out. Rackham took over and filled the Ranger’s hold with treasure, then came into Nassau to be pardoned for the theft.

Once in Nassau, Jack met Anne, who was living exactly as she wanted, and barely seeing her husband. Jack fell for her hard, and spent much of his ill-gotten gains courting her. When Anne found out she was pregnant (with a child that could have been anybody’s) he arranged for her to live with some of his friends in Cuba until the child was born. Anne seems to have been touched by this genuine concern for her welfare. She abandoned the baby, and came back to Nassau to spend all her time with Jack.

The only problem was Anne’s husband.

But Jack had an answer for that.  An ancient law, still on the books, allowed one man to BUY another man’s wife. What Anne thought about this is not recorded, but when enough money was on the table, her husband agreed.

The three went to see the governor and fill out paperwork, and that’s when James Bonny got back at his wife. He told the governor that he had no intention of selling Anne to anyone, and asked for the governor’s help in persuading her to be a dutiful wife. The governor told her that she would go home with her husband, or he would force Jack Rackham to beat her with a whip.

For once Anne was the level headed one. She promised the governor she’d “go home with her husband, and keep loose company no more.” Once they were out of the area, she took Jack to a tavern. There they decided that if they could not be together on land, they would go to sea and live as pirates. They stole a boat that very night.

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For the next several months Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and a group of their closest friends terrorized the sea around Jamaica.  Anne dedicated herself to being a holy terror, carrying pistols, helping to fire the cannons, and threatening death to the passengers and crew of every ship they encountered.

When they were finally run down by a Navy cutter, Jack Rackham was dead drunk, as were most of the pirates. Anne, her cross-dressing friend Mary Read, and a single sober crewman nearly held off the entire navy ship, but in the end they were captured. At their trail, Anne and Mary “pleaded their bellies,” telling the court they were pregnant.  All the pirates were sentenced to death, but Anne and Mary could wait in jail until they delivered their innocent babies.

Jack’s last wish was to see Anne, but she was not sympathetic, uttering the famous line, “If you had fought like a man, you would not be hanged like a dog.” Jack was executed on November 18th, 1720.

Mary Read died in prison.

But Anne disappeared. Did she die too? Mary’s death was recorded, so it seems that Anne’s would have been. Did she escape? Possibly. After all, Anne still had one thing to bribe the guards with, and she had proved her toughness at sea. Or did her wealthy father buy her way free?

Some people say that Anne surfaced again in Charleston, where she married, gave birth to 17 children, and lived to be 82.  Many of these old folk tales are at least rooted in fact. Can you imagine having Anne Bonny for a grandmother?

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TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2014. It’s being repromoted in anticipation of our Black Sails Party at NYCC. Click here for details