Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lady Pirates: Before the Siren's Song

The story of Anne Bonny (or Bonney, or Cormac, or Fulford) is relatively well known to a wide range of historical interests. Students of women’s history use her as an example of the free-thinking, “scandalous” woman who by her very existence proves that not all of our distaff ancestors were crop hoein’, clothes sewin’ baby machines. Students of nautical history point to both her and her shipmate Mary Read as evidence that more cross-dressing women were aboard ships in the great age of sail than most books would have us believe. Students of pirate history just plain love her and, I will admit, frequently overlook how inherently sad her story is in favor of a swashbuckling, sword-wielding female hero with her boobs out. All of this scrutiny has lost who Anne probably really was and some of that, I think, is due to the fact that her “back story” has been misplaced. It is a shame really, because the story has a lot to recommend it.

In 1724 Captain Charles Johnson published the first proper account of female pirates Bonny and Read in his anthology A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. Johnson, according to many scholars, was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe who, though not himself a seagoing man, wrote of the sea most capably. Defoe also had a reputation for fact checking in a time when writers rarely bothered to spell the names of their “true life” characters correctly, which brings up a point I feel compelled to make. Whether or not Johnson was Defoe is still and issue for debate and I sometimes wonder if scholars cling to the idea simply so that they can jump to the next obvious conclusion: the stories in Pyrates are reliable because Defoe was reliable.

Regardless of actual author, Pyrates tells us a lot more about Anne Bonny’s family and childhood than any book that came after. According to the book Anne’s father was a lawyer in County Cork, Ireland who lived in comfortable circumstances thanks to the wealth and influence of his lady wife. The details of William Cormac’s personality are missing from the story but one gets the impression that he was a rogue.

Cormac and his wife had no children when they hired a maid named Mary Brennan. Johnson calls her a “handsome young woman” but says nothing of her origins. The girl had suitors calling almost immediately and according to Johnson she attached herself to an apprentice tanner who would visit her frequently. The young man supplemented his income by stealing and one afternoon while Mary was otherwise engaged he “whipped” three silver spoons into his coat pocket.

Mary, who may very well have been given responsibility over a very precious household collection, noticed some of the silver missing. She confronted her boyfriend who denied the theft. She pressed him, even threatening to get the law involved if he did not return the purloined items. Johnson tells us that the tanner relented, though not directly to Mary. Instead, he put the spoons in her bed with the thought that she would find them there. She did not.

Here one must step back and wonder a bit about Mary. She was clever enough to be able to count silver and know when it was missing. Even more to the point, she knew her beau well enough to know that he was the thief and threatened him with reprisal. Yet she obviously continued to sleep with him given that he deposited the stolen goods in her bed and then, as if adding insult to injury, she neglected to find them there. Common sense, as the events that followed will prove, was not one of Mary’s strong suits.

Madam Cormac was away during the affair of the spoons and upon her return Mary reported the theft directly to her. Either word got back to him or Mary confronted the tanner’s apprentice again as he in turn went to Madam Cormac and accused Mary of the theft. Not only did he make the accusation but he told her just where she could find her missing spoons. The lawyer’s wife was incredulous until she entered Mary’s room and found the silver exactly where the tanner said it would be. Madam Cormac, who had clearly read Moliere, then feigned a raging fever and – in a wifely effort to keep her husband from falling ill – told Mary to sleep in the stable while the mistress of the house slept in her servant’s bed.

This is a curious move. Was Madam Cormac trying to find out if the tanner and Mary were in cahoots to rob her blind? Did she imagine Mary would secrete more silver in her bed even as the lady of the house slept there? Had all this bad news really made her ill? Whatever her reason, the lawyer’s wife was about to have far more revealed to her than the name of a petty thief.

William Cormac returned home that evening and evidently asked no questions about his wife. Perhaps he imagined she was still away but whatever his thoughts he went about his evening routine as usual. This routine included sneaking into Mary Brennan’s little room in the middle of the night and calling out softly to the person lying in the bed. Madam Cormac, still awake and alert to any further mischief, recognized her husband’s voice. She did not respond and so, as Johnson tells us, her “… husband came to bed and played the vigorous lover”. His wife, whom he obviously thought was Mary, “… bore it like a Christian.” Although one hates to excuse deception, that last point may explain why William was prowling around the maid’s room in the first place.

When William passed out, Johnson implies due to exhaustion, his wife slipped from her maid’s bed. She returned to the place she had been staying, either her mother’s or her mother-in-law’s house, and called for the Beadle to report Mary Brennan as a thief. Mary landed in jail without further ado.

When William was advised of all these goings on, which may very well have occurred while he snored in Mary’s bed, he became enraged. He managed to get Mary out of prison after some time and then he confronted his wife. To his great surprise, and doubtless in a scene that would have made Moliere laugh out loud, both maid and wife announced they were pregnant. The Cormacs argued, as one might expect, and Madam determined to split permanently from her unfaithful husband. In time she gave birth to twins while Mary gave William a daughter they named Anne.

Of course the problem of his wife’s withdrawal from the marriage was that William was left without a proper income. Madam Cormac did give him an allowance for a time but, when she found that he was living with Mary and her daughter, she cut him off for good. At this point, William seems to have pulled himself up by his bootstraps at long last. He sold his law firm, packed up and took Mary and Anne to the colonial city of Charleston in what would become South Carolina.

Here Cormac prospered as a planter, seemingly finding his niche at last. His happiness was short-lived, however. Mary died, very possibly of the yellow fever that often troubled immigrants from cooler climes, and Anne became an insufferable teenager. While never destined for high society – doubtless the elite class of Charleston knew the story of her family and gossiped about it behind their fans – Cormac hoped that Anne would make a good marriage. Instead, according to Johnson, she beat the first suitor her father offered her bloody then turned around and married ne’er-do-well James Bonny who promised her adventure around the world.

In a sad climax to her family story, William Cormac disowned his beloved daughter, and Anne was faced with the reality of having married a gold digger. Bonny was only interested in Anne for her father’s money after all. He dragged his new bride off to New Providence in the Bahamas, hoping to become a pirate hunter. Instead, Anne fell under the spell of handsome “Calico” Jack Rackham and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anne Bonny probably didn’t give much thought to where she came from as she sailed off a pirating with her lover. All the same, it is clear that her background effected who she became. If Johnson’s story has any truth to it, anyway. Even before the siren’s song of the sea called her to infamy, Anne Bonny was foreshadowing more than a few Americans as a bastard child in a new world who refused to follow her society’s rules.

Header: the classic engraving of Anne Bonny


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, that is quite an amusing and entertaining story, regardless of how much of it is true... The part about Madam Cormac bearing it "like a Christian" made me laugh out loud. Well done, indeed, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! The whole thing has the ring of a Restoration comedy or one of the humorous Mozart operas (Marriage of Figaro, for instance). One has to wonder how much "creative writing" Johnson slipped in, perhaps just for his own amusement.