John Calico Jack Rackham was an English pirate who ravaged the Caribbean shores at the end of the Golden Age. His nickname stemmed from the colorful calico clothes he wore. He is famous for being the only known captain with female crew members and for his skull and crossbones Jolly Roger, nowadays most popular piracy symbols.
Calico Jack met Anne Bonny in the port of Nassau, in Bahamas. Although Anne was married to an informant for the British government, the two quickly heated off and ran away, thus committing adultery and also voiding Jack’s pardon.
One day, Calico Jack captured a Dutch merchant vessel and its crew that counted the incognito Mary Read.
Mary “Mark” Read was an illegitimate child from England, similar to Anne who was an illegitimate child from Ireland.
Her mother would dress her like a boy to obtain financial support from Mary’s paternal grandmother.
As a teenager, Mary ran away and joined the army, where she fell in love with a soldier. They married and opened an inn in Holland. After her husband died Mary decided to dress like a man and venture at sea.
Not knowing she was a woman, Rackham welcomed Mary Read aboard his ship to join his crew. Anne Bonny started to have feelings for Read.
Legend has it that Mary revealed her gender to Anne by exposing her breasts.
The two women became fast friends, and according to some sources, lesbian lovers as well.
Rackham, become jealous and threatened to kill Read. He reportedly burst in the cabin once, finding them partially undressed.
Others say that actually Mary fell in love with a male crew member. Her love was so intense that she defended him with her own life by killing another man in a duel.
Captain “Calico Jack” made a career of plundering small vessels close to the Caribbean coastline. This boldness proved to be his undoing. In the fall of 1720 he cruised near Jamaica, capturing many small fishing boats, and terrorizing locals along the northern coastline.
“Come up, you cowards, and fight like men!…”
Jamaican Governor Woodes Rogers (a former pirate himself!) ordered the capture of Rackham’s ship and crew. The drunken sailors retreated to their cabins after the British soldiers boarded the ship. Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and one unknown pirate stayed on deck attempting to fight off the attack.
After a mighty struggle, the British officers overtook the crew and brought them to shore to be trialed for piracy.
At Calico Jack’s trial, Anne Bonny was asked to testify on his behalf and she told the court: “If he had fought like a man, he need not have been hanged like a dog.”
Rackham was hanged at Gallows-Point in Port Royal on November 18, 1720. His body tarred, hanged in a cage, and gibbeted on display at main entrance to Port Royal, presently known as Rackham’s Cay.
“Mi’lord, we plead our bellies”
Anne Bonny and Mary Read escaped execution by claiming they were both “quick with child”. Mary died of a terrible fever during childbirth. Anne disappeared from all historical records, spurring much speculation regarding her fate. Some believe her well-connected father bailed her out of jail, and she moved to America and had a family. Others say she returned to piracy.
Captain Charles Johnson putted best in his book: “What has become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed.”
Ready to plunder the high seas? Go to the SC State Museum downtown Columbia and enjoy the blockbuster Pirates, Privateers and Buccaneers exhibit. It runs till January 2011!
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