If we ever attain fame or infamy, it’s due to the company we keep. This truism certainly applies to John Rackham, more popularly known as the English pirate “Calico Jack”. Calico Jack wasn’t nearly as notorious as his mentor Charles Vane, or more infamous characters like Edward Low, Black Bart Roberts, or Blackbeard.
His short career is more notable because of his outrageous bravery and daring, not his pirating skills. Most of us recognize his main contribution to popular culture, the “Jolly Roger”, a black banner with the printed skull above two crossed swords.
Calico Jack is infamous because of two other characters of ill-repute. History’s most noteworthy female pirates served under his captaincy, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. All three were active during the “golden age” of pirates, the mid 1600s until the early 1700s.
Most pirate historians say that Jack “Calico Jack” Rackham, was born just after Christmas in 1682, somewhere in England. His name is first seen in the record book as quartermaster on Charles Vane’s sloop the Ranger. Vane’s crew operated out of New Providence, Bahamas at the time of the so-called “Pirates’ Republic”.
According to legend, Mary Read was born about 1690 to a sea captain’s widow. Mary’s mother dressed the girl in boy’s clothing so she would “pass” as her deceased older brother, in order to get payment from the paternal grandmother. Mary enjoyed the lifestyles of boyhood and masculinity, and eventually found work as a sailor.
She was fighting for the English against Holland when she met a Flemish soldier. She revealed her secret to him and they married. After her husband passed away, Mary signed on to work on a trading ship to the Caribbean. As the ship neared the West Indies, the ship was attacked and commandeered by pirates. She decided to join the criminal gang.
After living the lifestyle of a pirate for many years, she accepted the King’s pardon in 1718. She then began an association aboard a privateer that was commissioned to capture the pirates who had not accepted the pardon. The crew mutinied and took over. A couple of years later, she became a crew member aboard Calico Jack’s ship. There, she met Anne Bonny.
Anne Bonny is said to have been born near Cork, Ireland in the early 1700s after a scandalous love affair. The three came to America to escape local notoriety. As a young teen in Charleston, South Carolina, Anne fell in love with a poor sailor, James Bonny. The disappointed father disowned her and disinherited the couple. The couple set up home in New Providence, Bahamas. James Bonny began turning in pirates for bounties.
Legend says Anne lost respect for her husband because he was a bounty-hunter. She left her husband and began a loose promiscuous life in Nassau, Bahamas. Around 1719, she met and fell in love with Calico Jack. It was shortly after Jack had mutinied against the cruel Captain Charles Vane and took over command of the ship. Anne turned out to be a good match for Jack. She preferred to dress like a man and swear like a sailor.
Various legends differ on details, but it appears that the two women felt a strong attraction to each other. Apparently they met in a tavern while both were preparing to ship out to sea with Calico Jack. Rumor has it, that the two became lovers. The two women may have had Calico Jack’s blessing, or more controversially, his participation. Of course, none of these tales have been historically verified. Bonny and Read turned out to be two of Calico Jack’s most violent gang members.
In the summer of 1720, Bonny, Read, and Calico Jack returned to piracy, after their hiatus. The trio and several unhappy ex-pirates hijacked a ship and sailed out of Nassau harbor at night. The next three months, they attacked poorly armed merchant ships and fishermen near Jamaica. The band of pirates gained infamy for their ruthlessness. The two women were especially feared because they were more aggressive than their male shipmates. In fact, Bonny and Read urged the gang into more gruesome acts of violence and murder.
On October 20, 1720, Calico Jack and crew were anchored at Bry Harbour Bay, Jamaica. They were in the process of getting drunk with eleven other English pirates. The bounty-hunter, Jonathon Barnet, spotted Jack’s ship, attacked it, and engaged in a fight. Again, according to legend, most of the male crew members hid below decks while Bonny, Read, and Calico Jack fought the bounty-hunters. Jack’s ship lost, the gang was captured and taken to Spanish Town, Jamaica for their trials.
The trials were a public sensation. During the kangaroo court that followed, Calico Jack and the other men were found guilty of piracy. Jack and four other mates were hanged at Gallows Point at Port Royal, Jamaica on November 18, 1720. Legend again says that just prior to his death, Anne Bonny scolded Calico Jack, saying, “I’m sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you needn’t have hanged like a dog.”
Mary Read and Anne Bonny were declared guilty on November 28th. Both women declared they were pregnant, so their executions were postponed. Read became ill while in prison and died in April of 1721.
The demise of Anne Bonny has many versions, and none of them have been verified. The most popular one says that she was reprieved then remarried at Port Royal and gave birth to several children. The legends of Anne Bonny and, to a lesser extent, that of Mary Read gave pause to the repressed young ladies of Edwardian and Victorian England.
In the end, we have the stories of the aggressive female pirates, the name of Calico Jack, and the Jolly Roger banner as a part of our popular culture.