John "Calico Jack" Rackham (1680?-1720) was an English pirate who sailed in the Caribbean and the Southeastern coast of the United States during the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1725)." Rackham (also spelled Rackam or Rackum) was not one of the more successful pirates, and most of his victims were fishermen and lightly armed traders. Nevertheless, he is remembered by history, mostly because two female pirates, Anne Bonny
and Mary Read
, served under his command. He was captured, tried and hanged in 1720. Little is known about his life before he became a pirate, but it is certain that he was English.
Calico Jack, Pirate:
John Rackham, who earned the nickname "Calico Jack" because of his taste for clothes made of brightly-colored Indian Calico cloth, was an up-and-coming pirate during the years when piracy was rampant in the Caribbean and Nassau was the capital of a pirate kingdom of sorts. He had been serving under renowned pirate Charles Vane
in the early part of 1718 and had risen to the rank of quartermaster. When governor Woodes Rogers arrived in July of 1718 and offered royal pardons to pirates, Rackham refused, instead joining the die-hard pirates led by Vane. He shipped out with Vane and led a life of piracy in spite of the increasing pressure put on them by the new governor.
Rackham Gets His First Command:
In November of 1718, Rackham and about 90 other pirates were sailing with Vane when they engaged a French warship. The warship was heavily armed, and Vane decided to run for it in spite of the fact that most of the pirates, led by Rackham, were in favor of fighting. Vane, as captain, had final say in battle, but the men removed him from command shortly thereafter. A vote was taken and Rackham was made the new captain. Vane was marooned with some 15 other pirates who had supported his decision to run.
Rackham Captures the Kingston:
In December, he captured the merchant ship Kingston
. The Kingston had a rich cargo, and promised to be a big score for Rackham and his crew. Unfortunately for him, the Kingston had been taken within sight of Port Royal
, where outraged merchants outfitted bounty hunters to go after him. They caught up with him in February, 1719, while his ship and the Kingston were anchored at Isla de los Pinos off of Cuba. Rackham and most of his men were on shore at the time, and while they escaped capture by hiding in the woods, their ship - and their rich trophy - were taken away.
Rackham Steals a Sloop:
In his 1722 classic a General History of the Pyrates, Captain Charles Johnson tells the exciting story of how Rackham stole a sloop. Rackham and his men were at a town in Cuba, refitting their small sloop, when a Spanish warship charged with patrolling the Cuban coast entered the harbor, along with a small English sloop they had captured. The Spanish warship saw the pirates but could not get at them at low tide, so they parked in the harbor entrance to wait for morning. That night, Rackham and his men rowed over to the captured English sloop and overpowered the Spanish guards there. As dawn broke, the warship began blasting Rackham's old ship, now empty, as Rackham and his men silently sailed past in their new prize!
Return to Nassau:
Rackham and his men made their way back to Nassau, where they appeared before Governor Rogers and asked to accept the royal pardon, claiming that Vane had forced them to become pirates. Rogers, who hated Vane, believed them and allowed them to accept the pardon and stay. Their time as honest men would not last long.
Rackham and Anne Bonny:
It was about this time that Rackham met Anne Bonny, wife of John Bonny, a petty pirate who had switched sides and now made a meager living informing the governor on his former mates. Anne and Jack hit it off, and before long they were petitioning the governor for an annulment of her marriage, which was not granted. Anne became pregnant and went to Cuba to have her and Jack’s child, and returned afterwards. Meanwhile, Anne met Mary Read, a cross-dressing Englishwoman who had also spent time as a pirate.
Soon Rackham got bored of life on shore and decided to return to piracy. In August of 1720, Rackham, Bonny, Read and a handful of other disgruntled ex-pirates stole a ship and slipped out of Nassau’s harbor late at night. For about three months, the new crew attacked fishermen and poorly armed merchants, mostly in the waters off of Jamaica. The crew swiftly earned a reputation for ruthlessness, particularly the two women, who dressed, fought and swore just as well as their male companions. Dorothy Thomas, a fisherwoman whose boat was captured by Rackham’s crew, testified at their trial that Bonny and Read had demanded the crew murder her (Thomas) so that she would not testify against them. Thomas further said that if it were not for their large breasts, she would not have known that Bonny and Read were women.
Capture of Jack Rackham:
In late October, Rackham was discovered off the coast of Jamaica by those that were hunting him. Captain Jonathan Barnet had been hunting Rackham and his crew and he cornered them in late October of 1720. After an exchange of cannon fire, Rackham’s ship was disabled. According to legend, the men hid below deck while Bonny and Read stayed above and fought. Rackham and his whole crew were captured and sent to Spanish Town, Jamaica, for trial.
Death and Legacy of Calico Jack Rackham:
Rackham and the men were swiftly tried and found guilty: they were hanged in Port Royal on November 18, 1720. According to legend, Bonny was allowed to see Rackham one last time, and she said to him "I'm sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you need not have hanged like a dog." Bonny and Read were spared the noose because they were both pregnant: Read died in prison shortly thereafter, but history is unclear on the eventual fate of Bonny. Rackham's body was put in a gibbet and hung on a small island in the harbor still known as Rackham's Cay.
Rackham wasn't a great pirate. His brief tenures as captain were marked more by daring and bravery than pirating skill. His best prize, the Kingston, was only in his power for a few days, and he never had the impact on Caribbean and transatlantic commerce that others like Blackbeard, Edward Low, "Black Bart" Roberts or even his one-time mentor Vane did.
Rackham is primarily remembered today for his association with Read and Bonny, two fascinating historical figures. It is safe to say that if it were not for them, Rackham would be but a footnote in pirate lore.
Rackham did leave one other legacy, however: his flag. Pirates at the time made their own flags, usually black or red with white or red symbols on them. Rackham's flag was black with a white skull over two crossed swords: this banner has gained worldwide popularity as "the" pirate flag.
Cawthorne, Nigel. A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas. Edison: Chartwell Books, 2005.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Editoed by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books, 2008.