Saturday, March 17, 2012

Calico Jack Racham

Nicknamed for his love of bright cotton calico clothing, John Rackham quickly became one of the Caribbean’s most storied pirates in his short career. 
Operating toward the end of the Golden Age of piracy, Calico Jack became Captain of his own ship in 1718, after leading a mutiny on the Neptune against Captain Charles Vane off the Mid-Atlantic Coast of North America.  The initial source of the mutiny was Captain Vane’s decision to retreat with his ships from a confrontation with several larger French vessels.  Beginning what would be hallmark of decency in his career, Calico Jack left his former captain and his supporters ‘adrift’ with a ship, ammunition and enough provisions to get them back to port.  Of all the colourful stories that have come down from Calico Jack’s brief career as pirate, none include tales of taking captives, murdering wounded sailors or torturing prisoners.  In fact, Calico Jack is said to have returned one vessel to its rightful Captain after raiding its stores.  Whether this was an act of goodwill or the practical consideration of not being able to spare the crew to pilot an additional ship, it stands in sharp contrast to other pirates who would have simply burned the un-needed ship to the waterline and sailed on, after killing any sailors who did not wish to turn pirate.

In addition to his unusual habit of letting sailors live, Jack also bucked tradition by having women on his crew.  Although women were generally considered bad luck by sailors (on their ships, at least), no sailor would dare say a word against Anne Bonny or Mary Read.  Both women earned a fierce reputation in the Caribbean as leaders and fighters, and were not considered the least bit unlucky onboard. 
Anne Brennan was a wild child, a bastard born to a lawyer and a maidservant.  She grew up in no small comfort but chose to elope with sailor James Bonny rather than make a suitable match from her lawyer father's society.  That marriage lasted long enough for her to come under the eye of the cad Jack Racham, who's solution to falling for a married woman was to try and buy off her husband.  When James Bonny refused, she and Jack eloped themselves, slipping out of the harbour in the dead of night.  A bit like a seafaring 'Bonnie and Clyde', Anne Bonny and Jack Racham led their crews on a brief but wild tour of the western Caribbean and Gulf, and are said to have given Lover's Key it's name.

Mary Read had spent most of her youth dressed as a boy to fool supportive family members, and as soon as she was old enough found work as a footman and personally valet.  After falling in love with a soldier she revealed herself to be a woman and they were wed.  After his unfortunate early death Mary again took the part of a man and went too sea, eventually finding herself in the Caribbean on a pirate crew. 
The end began for Jack and his crew on August 22, 1720 with the theft of the William, from its anchor offshore of New Providence, Bahamas.  The owner of the William was a well-connected merchant and friend of the Governor, who called out all the stops to chase down the pirates.  After their capture they were taken to Spanish Town, Jamaica to be tried.  The men were tried on November 16 and the women on November 28.  Jack Rackham was hanged on November 18 and his body left to rot in a gibbet at the entrance of Port Royal at the site of what is now known as Rackham’s Cay.  The women were sentenced to death by hanging, but escaped the noose when they both revealed they were pregnant.
Recommended reading:
Kaserman, James & Kaserman, Sarah.  Florida Pirates.  Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011
Woodard, Colin.  The Republic of Pirates. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 2007


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