Jack Rackham was a notorious pirate captain who raided shipping in the Bahamas towards the end of the period known as the “Golden Age of Piracy”. Once a crew member of the equally infamous pirate Captain Charles Vane, Rackham was responsible for deposing Vane and taking his ship and most of the crew. Although women were considered bad luck on a sea-faring boat, Rackham was also well-known for having two women amongst his crew, one of them, Anne Bonney became his lover and would prove herself in combat on numerous occasions, earning the respect of the men under Rackham’s command. After several years of piracy, Rackham and his crew accepted a royal pardon, but were soon to break the agreement. The Governor issued a proclamation, and he was declared a pirate again. A vessel was sent commanded by pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet, who was sent to apprehend Rackham, who was captured along with Anne Bonney and Mary Read and brought to Jamaica to be tried and hanged for his crimes.
John Rackham was born in England on December 26, 1682, however very little is known of his early life and upbringing. He was commonly called “Jack” and known by the nickname “Calico Jack” amongst his crew, for the type of clothing he wore. The first records of his life begin when he served as Quartermaster in 1718 aboard the “Ranger”, under Captain Charles Vane, who operated out of New Providence island in the Bahamas. This notorious pirate base was an autonomous “Republic of Pirates” and Vane and his crew used it to launch raids against shipping outside of New York City harbour. There they encountered a much larger French man-of-war, which was at least twice the size of Vane’s brigantine. The French ship immediately pursued Vane, who ordered a retreat from battle, believing they would be destroyed.
At this point Rackham contested his captain’s decision, claiming they should fight the man-of-war because it would contain plenty of plunder and if they were victorious they would have a much larger ship at their disposal. A vote was taken, and of the ninety-one crew, only fifteen supported Vane’s decision, the rest agreed with Rackham. But Vane insisted the captain’s decision was considered final and the Ranger fled from battle. Several days later on November, 24 1718, Rackham called for a vote of no confidence in Vane’s leadership, branding him a coward and removed him from the captaincy. Rackham was appointed as the new Captain and gave Vane, and the fifteen loyal men who sided with him the second ship in their fleet, as well as ammunition and supplies. In December 1718, Rackham’s crew captured the “Kingston”, a small Jamaican merchant ship which contained a rich cargo, and decided to make it their flagship.
However, the theft of the Kingston was witnessed by merchants in Port Royal, who became outraged at the actions of Calico Jack’s pirates, and hired bounty hunters who were charged with retrieving the merchant vessel. Rackham started raiding in the West Indies, taking several large cargo ships off the coast of Bermuda. By February 1719, the bounty hunters had caught up with Rackham’s crew at Isla de los Pinos off of Cuba.
The Kingston was anchored just off the coast and Rackham and most of his crew were on shore, when they spotted that their ship had been seized they hide themselves in the woods, and watched as the Kingston and her cargo were taken back to the Bahamas. As described in Captain Charles Johnson’s book, “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates”, Rackham, now without a ship, somehow managed to steal a sloop which he and his crew refitted at a town in Cuba. A Spanish warship, charged with patrolling the Cuban coast, entered the harbour along with a smaller English sloop they had captured.
The Spanish immediately spotted the pirates, but were unable to capture them due to the low tide and so anchored in the harbour entrance, planning to wait until the morning. Knowing they would be outgunned, Rackham and his crew rowed over to the captured English sloop during the night and killed the Spanish guards posted there. By morning just as dawn broke, the Spanish warship moved closer to Rackham’s now empty ship and began to blast it with cannon, whilst he and his crew sailed past in their newly captured sloop. Such brazen tactics had made Rackham a feared and elusive pirate captain. He ordered his crew to begin plundering small vessels close to the shore of Jamaica, targeting several British merchant ships. In response, the British Empire had previously sent Woodes Rogers, who had been appointed as Governor of the Bahamas in the Summer of 1718, and was tasked with eradicating the pirate menace in the Carribbean.
Rogers had, on January 5, 1718, offered clemency under a general amnesty to all pirates who accepted a royal pardon and renounced their piratical ways. Rackham decided to accept this and in 1719 he sailed into Nassau in the Bahamas and accepted the royal pardon and commission from the Governor, who allowed them to stay on the Island. During this time he met Anne Bonny, who had moved to the Bahamas with her husband James Bonny, a sailor who was employed by Governor Rogers.
It was reported James Bonny had become an informant, working on behalf of the Governor to root out anyone who returned to piracy, which resulted in the arrests of hundreds of pirates. Anne Bonney disliked her husband’s work and she enjoyed mingling with pirates in the local taverns, where she met and soon began an affair with Rackham. When her husband learned of the romance he brought his wife before the Governor who order her whipped on charges of adultery. Rackham then offered to buy Anne in what was known as a “divorce by purchase”, but James Bonny refused.
Anne and Rackham then fled Nassau, escaping to sea together, causing Rackham’s pardon to become void and he was declared a pirate once more. With a new crew they stole a sloop belonging to John Ham and sailed the Caribbean for the next two months. During this time Anne Bonny dressed as a man to ensure the crew did not discover she was a woman, which in turn would have brought bad luck to the ship. They spent the next few months in Jamaica and the surrounding territory, where they enjoyed moderate success attacking smaller vessels and capturing an abundance of treasure. Rackham and his crew used the Jolly Roger often associated with pirates as their flag.
Eventually Anne was with child and and Rackham set sail to Cuba and there she gave birth to a son. It is unknown what became of the child, he was either left with family or abandoned so Anne could resume her life of piracy with her lover. Bonny soon re-join Rackham, and having divorced her husband, the two were married at sea. They began raiding other pirate ships and would often invite the crew to join their own. Amongst these was another woman by the name of Mary Read, who also disguised her identity as a man to serve alongside pirates. Bonny eventually told Read that she was a woman, when she made sexual advances towards her, believing she was a man and Read confessed she too was a woman. Rackham suspected a romantic involvement between the two and Bonny was forced to tell a jealous Rackham that Read was a woman.
All three kept this a secret from the rest of the crew. It is suspected the women were able to fool their fellow crew members into believing they were men because they wore breeches and flowing poet shirts which concealed their womanly features. Both women were allegeldy as fearsome as their male counterparts, and an account is given by Dorothy Thomas, a survivor of a pirate raid by Bonny and Read under Rackham’s command, who left a description of the women priates; “They wore men’s jackets, and long trousers, and handkerchiefs tied about their heads, and each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands and they curse and swore at the men to murder”. Both Bonny and Read fought valiantly in many sea battles and soon earned the respect of their shipmates.
Ten days after Rackham’s execution, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were placed on trial and both “pleaded their bellies”, claiming to be pregnant and asking for mercy from the court. In accordance with English Law, both women were given a stay of execution until they could prove they were with child and had given birth. Anne allegedly turned to Rackham during his trial and told him, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog”. Mary Read died in prison from a fever most likely brought on by childbirth and Anne Bonny remained in prison until she gave birth, her fate after this is not known.