Cleveland Comhrá: Love and Rebellion ~ Pirate Style!
By Bob Carney
William Cormac was a successful lawyer from a prominent family in Co. Cork in 1700. He had been married a year or two when his wife gave birth to their first child. Unfortunately, the birth was not an easy one for the young bride, and it was thought best for her and the newborn to be sent to convalesce at the home of William’s mother. During his wife’s absence, Cormac employed a young woman to keep the household running; her name was Peg Brennan.
The two soon became romantically involved, and it did not go unnoticed by William’s wife when she returned home. She quickly returned to her mother-in-law’s home and let her know exactly what her son had done.
Mother and wife planned revenge on the unfaithful William, making certain he would regret his indescretions. He was cut off from the family’s money and was told his wife and child would never return to him.
The younger Mrs. Cormac accused Brennan of stealing silver from the household and had her thrown in jail. After six months, Mrs. Cormac softened a bit, and hearing that the young girl was pregnant, she relented and withdrew the charge.
Peg was released and returned to her home, where she gave birth to a girl she named Anne, on March 8, 1702. Soon after, the younger Mrs. Cormac gave birth to twins.
After his mother’s passing, William ran into hard times. His wife still had feelings for him and gave him financial support from her inheritance. Cormac kept up a relationship with Peg, albeit at a distance. They wrote to one another regularly and he was kept informed on Anne’s growth.
When Anne was about five, William wanted to get to know his daughter and devised a plan. He asked Peg to cut the girl’s hair and dress her as a boy and send her to him. He would tell people the “boy” belonged to a distant relative who was being apprenticed as a law clerk. The plan worked for a while, until Mrs. Cormac discovered the truth. Infuriated, she cut off all assistance to her husband. William now felt he had nothing to lose, and rather than send Anne home, he brought Peg to join them.
He had set out to publicly humiliate his wife, but he also ostracized himself in the community. His law practiced declined. No longer able to support himself or Peg and their child, he sold everything except the clothes on their backs and boarded a ship bound for the Carolina’s. Instead of law, he tried his hand at merchandising, and found he was quite talented at it.
He and Peg lived as husband and wife in the coastal town where they landed. After a few years, he had made enough money to buy a rice plantation in the Bahamas and the family lived happily there for a few years before Peg’s death, when Anne was thirteen. At that age, Anne was considered a young woman capable of taking Peg’s place as mistress of the plantation.
She was described as being athletic, slender and very attractive, with “creamy skin, flaming red hair and pea green eyes”. She was said to have a fiery temper and was known to give neighbors in the community a piece of her mind.
She attacked one of the servant girls on the plantation with a knife over a perceived offense. On another occasion, a young man attacked Anne with the intent of rape; she fought back and beat him unconscious.
After that incident, William thought Anne should marry. With her beauty, and the fact that she was the only child of a wealthy plantation owner, he thought a suitable young man from an honorable family would not be hard to find.
Pirate James Bonny
The problem was, Anne wanted nothing to do with the nice young men her father would bring to meet her. At sixteen she told her father she had found love on her own, with a man named James Bonny. Her father was outraged, word was that Bonny was a pirate and Cormac suspected that he was only interested in Anne for her money. He demanded she end the relationship or he would disinherit her.
Anne and Bonny continue seeing each other, hoping perhaps her father would give in and accept it. When they eloped and married, Cormac kept his word and disowned her. The couple moved to Nassau, on what was known as New Providence Island, hoping to find employment. When they arrived, between 1715 and 1718, it was a haven for pirates.
Bonny found work as an informant for the governor and privateer Woodes Rogers. A privateer is basically a pirate that has been sanctioned by a government to raid the ships of it’s enemies. If you were successful enough you might even become knighted or given a title.
It didn’t take Anne long to become disillusioned with her husband, and soon becomes involved with another pirate, John “Calico Jack” Rackham. Calico Jack offered to pay Bonny to divorce Anne, but Bonny refused. In August of 1719, Anne left her husband for Rackham, and would be his companion for the rest of his life.
Anne left a child behind when she joined Rackham on his ship “The Revenge.” The pair with a small crew went to work attacking merchant ships in the waters around the islands of the Bahamas.
About the same time, the King had started offering bounties for anyone who killed or captured a pirate, and Jack and his crew tried their hand at it, but soon went back to their old ways. On one such voyage, they captured a ship, and as was the custom offered positions to some of the captured crew.
One slender, unshaved Englishman became a big asset to Rackham, a fierce fighter and a good seaman. Anne found herself drawn to this quiet man, who preferred to keep to himself. The reason soon became apparent,when Anne discovered that Mary Read had been dressing as a man in order to live life as a pirate, a sailor, a soldier and even as a member of a calvary unit.
The two become inseparable and became Jack’s best fighters. For the first few months of 1720, things were going well for the trio; most times their reputation was enough to take a ship, they would fire a shot across the bow and their prey would surrender. After one easy victory a substantial amount of rum was liberated from the ship’s cargo hold and the small crew celebrated their good fortune.
As Calico Jack, Anne and Mary Read stayed on deck planning their next target, the crew drank themselves into a stupor below deck. The three were always aware of any ship on the horizon, and when a sloop flying the flag of the Governor of Jamacia came into view. Mary raced to try and wake the crew while Jack and Anne tried to outrun the pursuing ship.
Trial at Spanish Town
After a brief but brutal fight, the crew was captured and taken to Spanish Town for trial and execution. Once there, Anne and Mary were seperated from the men. Rackham and the men stood trial first and were sentenced to be hung.
Mary and Anne both claimed to be with child and sought a delay in their own trials. Mary died before giving birth in prison. William Cormac had heard of his daughters plight and made his way to Spanish Town. Using his money and his influence, he was able to obtain Anne’s release and took her to Charleston, South Carolina. Anne was ninteen years old.
Not long after, she met an older man named Joseph Burleigh, who was also known to her father. Whether Burleigh knew of Anne’s past is not known. Maybe Anne let people believe she was the widowed wife of a sailor, left to raise an infant on her own. The two were married on December 21, 1782.
Anne settled down and became a respected member of the Charleston community. She bore and raised ten more children, in addition to the child fathered by Calico Jack. She died on April 22,1782, and is buried in the Burleigh family plot in the York County Churchyard in Virginia.
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday @ PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Morrighán and Rían and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at [email protected].