Calico Jack

John Rackham[lower-alpha 1] (December 26, 1682  November 18, 1720),[1] commonly known as Calico Jack, was an English pirate captain operating in the Bahamas and in Cuba during the early 18th century. His nickname was derived from the calico clothing that he wore, while Jack is a nickname for “John”.

English pirate

John Rackham

A woodcut of Rackham from Charles Johnson‘s 1725 edition of A General History of the Pyrates
Born (1682-12-26)26 December 1682[1]

Died 18 November 1720(1720-11-18) (aged 37)[1]

Piratical career
Nickname Calico Jack
Type Pirate
Years active 1718–1720
Rank Captain[2]
Base of operations West Indies
Commands Several vessels, most famously the Kingston (briefly)
Battles/wars Capture of John “Calico Jack” Rackham and Taking Nassau by Charles Vane.

Rackham was active towards the end (1718–1720) of the “Golden Age of Piracy” which lasted from 1650 to 1725. He is most remembered for having two female crew members: Mary Read and his lover, Anne Bonny.

Rackham deposed Charles Vane from his position as captain of the sloopRanger, then cruised the Leeward Islands, Jamaica Channel and Windward Passage. He accepted the King’s Pardon in 1719 and moved to New Providence, where he met Anne Bonny, who was married to James Bonny at the time. He returned to piracy in 1720 by stealing a British sloop and Anne joined him. Their new crew included Mary Read, who was disguised as a man at the time. After a short run, Rackham was captured by Jonathan Barnet, an English privateer, in 1720, put on trial by Sir Nicholas Lawes, Governor of Jamaica, and hanged in November of that year in Port Royal, Jamaica.[3]

. . . Calico Jack . . .

Little is known of Rackham’s upbringing or early life, except that he was English and born around 1682. The first record of him is as quartermaster on Charles Vane‘s brigantineRanger in 1718, operating out of New Providence island in the Bahamas, which was a notorious base for pirates known as the “Pirates’ republic“.[4] Vane and his crew robbed several ships outside New York City, then encountered a large French man-of-war. The ship was at least twice as large as Vane’s brigantine, and it immediately pursued them. Vane commanded a retreat from battle, claiming caution as his reason. Jack Rackham quickly spoke up and contested the decision, suggesting that they fight the man-of-war because it would have plenty of riches. In addition, he argued, if they captured the ship, it would place a much larger ship at their disposal. Of the approximately ninety-one men on the ship, only fifteen supported Vane in his decision. Vane declared that the captain’s decision is considered final; however, despite the overwhelming support for Rackham’s cry to fight, they fled the man-of-war. On 24 November 1718, Rackham called a vote in which the men branded Vane a coward and removed him from the captaincy, making Calico Jack the next captain.[4] Rackham gave Vane and his fifteen supporters the other ship in the fleet, along with a decent supply of ammunition and goods.[5]

Rackham made a career of plundering small vessels close to shore once he became captain. He and his crew captured the Kingston, a small Jamaican vessel, and made it their flagship. They made several conquests in the West Indies, taking a couple of large ships off Bermuda.

In 1719, Rackham sailed into Nassau in the Bahamas, taking advantage of a general amnesty for pirates to obtain a royal pardon and commission from Governor Woodes Rogers. Rogers had been sent to the Bahamas to address the problem of pirates in the Caribbean who had started to attack and steal from British ships.[4]

In December, he captured the merchant ship Kingston. The Kingston had a rich cargo, and promised to be a big score for Rackham and his crew. Unfortunately for him, the Kingston had been taken within sight of Port Royal, where outraged merchants outfitted bounty hunters to go after him. They caught up with him in February 1719, while his ship and the Kingston were anchored at Isla de los Pinos off Cuba. Rackham and most of his men were on shore at the time, escaping capture by hiding in the woods, but their ship and rich trophy were taken away.

Captain Charles Johnson describes how Rackham stole a sloop in his seminal 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates.[4] Rackham and his men were at a town in Cuba refitting their small sloop when a Spanish warship charged with patrolling the Cuban coast entered the harbour, along with a small English sloop which they had captured. The Spanish warship saw the pirates but could not get at them at low tide, so they anchored in the harbour entrance to wait for morning. That night, Rackham and his men rowed over to the captured English sloop and overpowered the Spanish guards there. As dawn broke, the warship began blasting Rackham’s old ship, now empty, as Rackham and his men silently sailed past in their new prize.

Captain Jack Rackham, Taking the Spanish Prize, from the Pirates of the Spanish Main series (N19) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes MET DP835040

Rackham and his men made their way back to Nassau, where they appeared before Governor Rogers and asked for the royal pardon, claiming that Vane had forced them to become pirates. Rogers hated Vane and chose to believe them, granting them the pardon and allowing them to stay. Their time as honest men, however, did not last long.

. . . Calico Jack . . .

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. . . Calico Jack . . .

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