“His notoriety came from his gentlemanly conduct and his outlandish dress sense rather than from his treacherous exploits. He was a mystery, a romantic hero, the Lothario of the seas.”
John Rackham was probably the least successful pirate ever to captain a ship. However, his garish fashion sense, womanising and general flouting of every rule in the pirate code have made him one of the best loved pirates of the Caribbean and Latin America. He is also the man responsible for designing the iconic Jolly Roger flag, a symbol we recognise to this day.
Rackham began his villianous career as quartermaster for the infamous Charles Vane, who made his living looting ships off New York. During their spree of law-breaking and criminality they came across a huge French man-o-war, from which Vane, out of caution, ordered a retreat. But Rackham, tempted by the riches on board, led a mutiny against the captain and usurped him at the helm. Being the gentleman he was, though, he still furnished Vane and his supporters with a small sloop, sufficient ammunition and a variety of other goods.
In probably the most daring of his piratical escapades, Rackham found himself trapped off the coast of Cuba by a Spanish war ship which had entered the harbour along with a captured English ship. The Spaniards were unable to get to Rackham’s sloop due to the low tide but decided to sit it out until morning. At dead of night, Rackham and his crew took rowing boats over to the English ship and claimed it as their own. In the morning, the Spanish crew open fired on the now deserted pirate sloop and Rackham and his crew sailed away unnoticed aboard the English vessel.
But this was in no way typical of John Rackham’s career. He made his living picking off smaller vessels close to shore. The bigger prizes, he said were armed to the hilt and would speed him straight to the gallows. It was better to acquire one’s riches slowly and with caution.
In 1718, Rackham sailed to the pirate haven Nassau in the Bahamas to take the blanket pardon offered to all pirates by Governor Woodes Rogers. Rackham claimed Charles Vane had forced him into a life of piracy and was granted the pardon and his freedom, but his legitimate life was not set to last.
Rackham soon took up with a beautiful, flame-haired female pirate, Anne Bonny. But Anne was married and when her husband discovered their affair, Woodes Rogers had her flogged for adultery. Rackham escaped to sea with Anne Bonny and the two resumed their criminal lifestyle.
But Anne was not to be the only female to sail on board one of Rackham’s sloops. Captured sailor Mark Read was invited to join the crew and Anne soon befriended him, igniting Rackham’s rage. It was not until he discovered the pair undressed in Anne’s quarters that Rackham discovered Mark was actually a woman, the treacherous Mary Read.
In October 1720, Governor Woodes Rogers sent pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet after Rackham’s sloop. Barnet attacked in the early hours of the morning while most of the crew were drunk below deck. Barnet’s men faced little resistance from the outlaws, apart from Bonny and Read who fought viciously with another unknown pirate. It seemed the vagabond Rackham preferred his women to do his dirty work to the end! The King offered a reward for any information leading to the arrest of this mystery pirate, but he (or she) was never caught.
John Rackham and eleven of his crew including Anne Bonny and Mary Read were sentenced to death. Rackham was hanged in Port Royal on November 18th 1720. His body was gibbeted and placed at the main entrance of the city to serve as a warning to all. He is fondly remembered as ‘Calico Jack’ after his brightly coloured striped pants, made of the same fabric.
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