Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Dandy of the Caribbean

by Helen Hollick


Jack Rackham – even the name has an evocative ring to it, especially when you add the nickname ‘Calico Jack’ and mention his two sidekicks, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. But who was the real Jack Rackham?
Woodcut of Jack Rackham

The ‘calico’ refers to the material of his favourite clothing, and he was the eye candy of his day. Although Disney has never specifically said, Captain Sparrow was undoubtedly modelled on Calico Jack – even the movie’s pirate flag was similar to Rackham’s skull and crossed-cutlasses. But there the similarity ends.

Jack Rackham's flag

Born John Rackham in 1682, there is no knowledge of his childhood; all we know is that he was English and became quartermaster (second-in-command) to pirate Charles Vane in 1718.

In October of that year they were among a group of pirates who met at Ocracoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. Their host was Edward Teach, Blackbeard, and the gathering was to make merry and discuss piratical matters. Blackbeard was soon to meet his fate, but towards the end of November, Vane refused to pursue a French man-o’-war, and Rackham took the opportunity to depose him as captain. Vane and fifteen supporters were sent off in a sloop, leaving Rackham and the other ninety or so men to plunder several small vessels in and around Jamaica, capturing a merchant ship, Kingston, near Port Royal. Unfortunately the raid was within sight of the shore and several bounty hunters went after him, almost catching him in February 1719 while his ship was anchored at Isla de los Pinos, off Cuba. Fortunately, Rackham and his men were ashore and they escaped into the woodland, but lost the ship and her cargo.

Anne Bonny
The days of plundering had not been that successful: Rackham headed for Nassau and Governor Woodes Rogers’ offer of amnesty. A life of honest living, however, did not last long. Taverns, drinking and whoring had its limitations, particularly when Jack met the wife of sailor James Bonny – Anne. They became lovers and rather than face public humiliation on the charge of adultery, in August 1719, Anne absconded with Jack and a new crew, stealing a boat – William, thereby breaking the amnesty.

They cruised the Caribbean, taking smaller ships and modest Prizes. When Anne became pregnant she stayed in Cuba to give birth, but was soon back aboard enjoying her life of freedom. It is not known what became of the child.

Sometime during 1719 Mary Read joined the crew.

Woodes Rogers issued a warrant, published in the autumn of 1720, for Rackham and his crew, with pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet picking up the challenge.

Plundering fishing boats and small fry off the coast of Jamaica, Jack Rackham, his lover Anne Bonny and Mary Read were unaware that their idyllic life was coming to an end. Taking advantage of surprise and the darkness, Barnet attacked their anchored vessel during the night. Rackham and his men were below deck, drinking heavily. Anne and Mary put up a fight, but were overwhelmed. The entire crew were taken to Jamaica and charged with offences of piracy.

The entire crew were taken to Jamaica to face trial, and the noose. The trial was a sensation; media interest was as rife in the early 18th century as it is now where scandal is concerned. The interest being Anne and Mary. Several witnesses confirmed that the two women fought alongside the men, and Anne in particular encouraged excessive violence. They were not destined to hang, however, for both ‘pleaded their belly’ – were pregnant, so execution was postponed until the birth of the babies. Mary died in jail of fever a few months later, but there is no record of Anne’s labour or delivery, release or execution. What happened to her, we do not know - although there are several different rumours, which I will reveal next time...

It may be fact, legend, or pure fiction, but Bonny's last words to Jack Rackham as he was led out to the gallows were full of contempt: ‘Had you fought like a man, you need not hang like a dog.’


Life Among the Pirates, by David Cordingly
A History of Pirates, by Nigel Hawthorne
Scourge of the Seas, by Angus Konstam

Jack Rackham appears as a 'bit part' in the third of my Sea Witch Voyages, Bring It Close. If things work out as planned he will have a bigger part in a future adventure. He and his two female crew members, Anne Bonny and Mary Read also feature in a non-fiction pirate book I was recently commissioned to write - it is due to be published in February 2017.

Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown). She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy - pirates being her present passion!

Connect with Helen through her Website, Blog, Facebook, Twitter (@HelenHollick), and through her Amazon Author’s Page

Bring It Close, the third voyage of Captain Acorne is available on Amazon


  1. Love a good pirate tale on occasion. Thanks, Helen!

    1. I'm tempted to answer Arrr but that is so cliched... oh what the heck! Arrr! LOL

  2. Calico Jack has always been my favourite pirate! Thanks for posting!

    1. I wonder why so many people like Jack Rackham?

    2. I imagine he cut an interesting figure on his ship but maybe it's also his tempestuous relationship with Anne? Not sure.


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