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John 'Calico Jack' Rackam: Myth vs Reality

Ann Bonny, Mary Read and John 'Calico Jack' Rackam

The story of John Rackam (or Rackum or Rackham) is always linked to that of the female pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Read. The three are so well known largely because of the comprehensive narrative on them contained within Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Pirates. Unfortunately, very little of Johnson’s version of events can be verified today.

Analysis of John Rackam’s story sits between him being either Ann’s cuckolded husband or some kind of pre-feminist champion of women’s right to equality. But the reality is that there is very little reliable evidence about him at all, including how true the ‘Calico Jack’ moniker was.

Who was John Rackam?

Very little is known of Rackam’s early life. He was believed to be English and born around 1682.

His first appearance in formal records came in 1718, when Rackam served in Captain Charles Vane’s crew as quartermaster. This was a very senior position onboard and meant he was always in charge, except in battle, when the Captain’s word became law.

One day in November, in a clash with a better-armed French warship, Vane decided to give the order to turn away. Although probably sensible at the time, the order went against the wishes of most of the crew, including Rackam. Rackam questioned Vane’s courage and called for a vote to replace him. This installed him as the new Captain and Vane and a few of his loyalists were sent away in a captured sloop.

Rackam went on to further pirate cruises until, after losing a prize ship filled with loot to pirate hunters, he decided to sail to Nassau. King George had offered pardons to any pirate willing to turn themselves in. Like many of the pirates who took these pardons, Rackam did not last long on the right side of the law.

In Nassau, he began a romance with Ann Bonny.

Rackam’s relationship with Ann Bonny and Mary Read

Johnson’s A General History of the Pirates tells an enduring story of the relationship between the three; but it is long on romantic intrigue and short on verifiable fact.

According to Johnson, Bonny was a ‘libertine’, already married to a pirate named James Bonny. However, a Jamaican Court later decreed her to be Ann Fulford: officially not married to either James Bonny, John Rackam, or anyone else.

As Johnson told the story, Rackam and Bonny got together and she suggested to Rackam that he pay her ‘husband’ (who may or may not have been real) to divorce her. But when the governor Woodes Rogers learned of this, he threatened Bonny with jail and a flogging. Rackam had already decided to return to piracy at this point, so Bonny went with him. There is no other record other than this version of events.

However, it is true the couple sailed together because at some point, they met Mary Read. Mary, unlike Ann, had spent a good part of her life passing herself off as a man working on ships.

There is no reliable evidence about the nature of Rackam, Read and Bonny’s relationship with each other. In more contemporary times, it is often written about as some kind of polyamorous fantasy or secret lesbian love affair but the truth is... nobody really knows.

That Rackam’s small crew, with Bonny and Read aboard, spent several weeks making a nuisance of themselves around the Bahamas is confirmed by a newspaper article and a proclamation from Woodes Rogers in October 1720, ordering the capture of Rackam and his crew. In it, Rogers named the two women explicitly.

By the end of the month, Rackam, Bonny, Read, and his crew were in custody. Only during their trials do we discover an alternate source of information about all three of them.

The trial of John “Calico Jack” Rackam, Ann Bonny and Mary Read

At the present time, the trial record remains the only other source of information on the threesome outside of Johnson’s book. Held in Jamaica about six weeks after their arrest, it is a scant twenty pages and is in no way impartial. The case would probably have been thrown out of court if held today. As trials go, it was based on very weak evidence (mostly hearsay) and like most pirate trials of the time, lasted less than a day. In fact, it was probably only an hour long.

Rackam and his crew were accused of ‘piratically, feloniously, and in a hostile manner,’ attacking, engaging and taking several boats and assaulting the crews. In one case, they stole fish and fishing tackle valued around £10. One witness claimed that John Rackam had identified himself during a raid but it was too dark to for him to see what he looked like.

They all pled not guilty. They had no witnesses to their innocence, they told the court. But they had never committed any Acts of Piracy [because] their design was against the Spaniards... ‘and other such-like frivolous and trifling excuses’, the trial record stated.

Ann and Mary were charged with the same offences but tried separately. Their witnesses all reported seeing them in men’s jackets and trousers, cursing and swearing at the men, carrying weapons, ready and willing to do anything onboard. One noted ‘they did not seem to be kept, or detained by force.’

And that’s about it on them.

There is nothing at all that does much to verify the extensive detail Captain Johnson gave of the two women’s backgrounds or his other assertions of the duo, including Ann’s famous pre-execution visit to Rackam, accusing him of cowardice and telling him he ‘would die like a dog’.

John Rackam and his men were all found guilty of Piracy, Felony and Robbery. They were sentenced to death and executed shortly after ‘some hung on Gibbets in Chains, for a public example, and to terrify others from such-like evil practices.’

Ann and Mary received convictions but a stay of execution on account of pregnancy.

Who put the “Calico Jack” in John Rackam?

Historians always believed the ‘Calico Jack’ moniker referred to John Rackam’s preference for simple calico clothing, rather than the fancier fabrics other pirates (allegedly) favoured. Some sources suggest his preference for ‘brightly patterned’ clothing helped earn him the moniker too. There was some speculation it came about because he was the son of a tailor.

Today, the ‘Calico Jack’ moniker is widely applied to John Rackam. In fact, it is arguably what he is most famous for (aside from the whole Ann & Mary thing) since he was a pretty mediocre pirate.

However, Johnson’s General History of the Pirates – one of only two sources of information on John “Calico Jack” Rackam – never refers to him as “Calico Jack”. In fact, he doesn’t make any comment on John Rackam’s clothing or appearance at all.

Rackam’s trial transcript doesn’t either. This is far less surprising since trial transcripts didn’t record that kind of thing.

The earliest mention of ‘Calico Jack’ I could find is actually pretty recent: 1924. Philip Gosse, often considered the father of pirate academic history – despite his rich embellishments of the truth – referred to John Rackam as the ‘dashing Calico Jack’ in his first of two pirate-themed works ‘The Pirates’ Who’s Who’.

Gosse had an extensive library of piracy books, so it’s possible there was something in one of them about Rackam as ‘Calico Jack’. Yet his entry on Jack Rackam follows the Johnson story closely. Gosse was not inclined to cite his work and there is no reference to where he got the name from or that it even applied to Jack Rackam’s clothing.

Gosse mentioned ‘Calico Jack’ again in his other pirate work, A History of Piracy but there is no further detail there either.

Of course, this has not stopped subsequent pirate historians from picking up the ‘Calico Jack’ moniker and running with it, despite no evidence he was even called that in the scant information available about John Rackam.

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