Tag Archives: Calico Jack Rackam

Now that it is over, a review of the television series Black Sails

Nassau harbor in Black Sails

Since I’m teaching my “Pirates!” course soon, it seemed time to go finish watching the fourth and last season of Black Sails, which only concluded its four year run in 2017. Black Sails pretends to tell the story of the pirates of Nassau in the Bahamas in the Golden Age of piracy, apparently taking place around 1715-20. “Pretends,” sadly, is the operative term, never more so than in the final season. While it has its points, and improves on how pirates have been depicted in movies and on television, it’s best watched as a rousing adventure story. And skip the ending. Please.

The plot of Black Sails revolves around two stories: the British attempt to reimpose their rule in the Bahamas and the pirates’ resistance to that; and the capture of a Spanish treasure galleon and the subsequent fate of the treasure in it. These are both sort of based in history. The British had indeed lost control of the Bahamas during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), and sent out Woodes Rogers as governor to reassert their control in 1718. And there was a major Spanish treasure loose in the Caribbean, though it was from a treasure fleet wrecked during a storm off the coast of Florida. I’ve already written a bit about this in my post on “Calico” Jack Rackam, one of the pirates of the era.

Long John Silver in the midst of battle

Neither actual bit of history has the melodrama of plots and counterplots so common to soap operas that have made their way into many “historical” television series. So both bits were altered. The pirates organize against the return of British rule and recruit the maroon and slave communities to help them. The treasure takes on the attributes of the Wagnerian Rhine Gold, everyone wanting it, none ever benefiting from it. And a cast of characters is given conflicting motives and a sufficient number of improbable events to allow them to change sides with amazing rapidity.

I do appreciate that the pirates are a dirtier and less respectable group of people than Hollywood used to make them (e.g. 1935’s Captain Blood). And there are some nice moments in the series that reflect a real sense of history, whether it be careening a ship or the ruthless punishment of slaves to quell a revolt. On the other hand, New Providence feels less like the down-at-the-heels frontier community it was circa 1717, and more like a period theme park for middle class tourists, complete with a bordello that would have looked a bit too wealthy even for Charleston in this era.

Flint’s character does dominate the series

Oh, and did I mention that the fictional pirates of Treasure Island are shoehorned into this thing? This is supposed to be the story of Captain Flint and Long John Silver in the years when they sailed together, long before the events in Treasure Island. Easy to forget this, since it doesn’t matter for most of the series.

Over the run of the series, the plot becomes more focused on Captain Flint’s attempt to use the pirates, maroons, and slaves to overthrow colonial rule. The level of violence rises higher and higher. Major characters get killed. The story suggests that greed and the lust for power consume people in a never-ending struggle the violence of which will destroy them all. The viewer comes to expect Götterdämmerung at the end.

The big winner in the series is Max, former prostitute turned successful businesswoman

The viewer will be disappointed, inevitably so. The destruction of all the leading characters would diverge too far from history, and be a real downer for the audience of the series. The developers of the series were not courageous enough to either depart unmistakably from history or teach their audience an unhappy lesson. So we get contrived happy resolutions for all the surviving downtrodden characters we were supposed to sympathize with. At the end, the fictional version of real-life pirate captain Jack Rackam, depicted in the series as a remarkably weak cross between a bad auto salesman and a nervous publicist, waxes philosophical about how real history doesn’t matter, that the stories that get retold become history. Well, at least now we have the series developers’ philosophy.

Should you watch Black Sails? If you’re the type of person for whom movies and television help you visualize and understand a world much different from your own, this isn’t a bad starting place. But do go read a book afterward, preferably some edition of Capt. Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724, 1728), or David Cordingly’s nice introduction to the subject, Under the Black Flag (1996). If you want a rip-roaring adventure filled with violence, betrayals, and occasional sex and nudity, then, yes, this is a series to watch. Just don’t watch the final episode. Imagine a conclusion yourself. You can’t do much worse.

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Getting rid of a pirate captain in the Golden Age of Piracy

The pirate crew thinks their captain has screwed up. So how do they get rid of him?

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

Well, if you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, they slip him the black spot, a piece of paper marked black on one side, and the crew’s decision on the other. Late in the novel, the pirates want to depose Long John Silver as captain, but they’re a little short of paper. So they cut out a round spot from the last page of a Bible one of the pirates carries!

It’s a great story, but there’s no truth to it. Stevenson probably made it up himself.

Which raises the question of just how did a pirate crew in the Golden Age of Piracy deal with an unsatisfactory captain. Oh, Stevenson has the right of it in one respect. There really was a commonly understood procedure to deal with complaints about the captain. Which is not to say it was always followed.

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Let’s follow one instance where it was done right. Charles Vane was one of the red hots among the pirates who wouldn’t accept the King’s Pardon in August, 1718. He recruited a crew of other red hots who didn’t want to give up piracy, gathered them in his ship, the Ranger, and sailed out of New Providence harbor. Oh, and he used a fireship to try to burn up the Royal Navy ships in the harbor as he left. He failed, but what brass! Clearly Vane was a daring pirate captain.

Vane knew that the best way to keep his crew happy was to take as many prizes as possible. That way they’d have enough food and drink. And if they got lucky, they might capture a ship with a lot of gold and silver on board. They did well enough for a while. But then Vane lost a prize when the pirates crewing it went off on their own, and spent a month heading south without taking a single ship. The crew grumbled.

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts' last fight

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts’ last fight

On November 23, Vane saw a ship, pursued it, and ran up the pirate colors. Instead of surrendering, the other vessel raised the French colors and let loose a broadside. It was a French Navy ship! Vane decided the best course was to get away, as fast as he possibly could. It was probably the right decision. It was suicidal for pirates to engage a navy ship most of the time. The navy’s professionalism and strict discipline usually gave them an edge, even against pirate ships mounting more guns. This was so well understood that when “Black Bart” Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of that era, found himself trapped and forced to fight a Royal Navy ship, he tried his best to run past it in a storm. And even then, he thought it so likely he’d be defeated that he gave orders to try to run the ship aground to let the crew escape should they not evade the warship.

The Navy ship Vane confronted actually outgunned his ship. So Vane was very wise to turn heels and run rather than engage the ship. But for some reason the crew didn’t see it that way. Maybe they’d seized so little loot they were desperate. Maybe they were drunk and foolhardy. But they wanted to fight that Navy ship, and they loudly told Vane as much. However, it was a rule that in times of combat or chase, a pirate captain’s authority was absolute. Vane invoked that rule, and the pirates had no choice but to comply, then.

A pirate captain’s authority counted for nothing once the ship was not in a combat situation. Instead, the quartermaster became the most powerful officer. Originally the officer responsible for keeping track of supplies and sharing out the loot, the quartermaster had become a sort of crew’s tribune, responsible for presenting the crew’s concerns to the captain. On board the Ranger, the quartermaster was “Calico Jack” Rackam. Rackam called the crew and captain together the very next day, explained that the crew was dissatisfied with Vane’s performance, and called for a vote to label Vane a coward and depose him. The majority so voted, and Vane was deposed. And that was that.

Well, except for the question of who would be the next captain. The most obvious choice was the other major officer, the quartermaster. And that’s how Calico Jack Rackam became captain of the Ranger.

And there was the little problem of what to do with Vane. Pirates might often be drunk and illiterate, but they weren’t incredibly stupid. They realized that a man might not enjoy losing his position as captain, and might intrigue with his loyal followers to retake command. So the usual procedure was to get rid of the captain somehow. In Vane’s case, they had a prize, a small sloop, accompanying the Ranger. They gave the sloop to Vane and the handful of crewmen who were loyal to him, and the two pirate ships went their separate ways.

Weird fact: One of the "forced" men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore's great-grandfather!

Weird fact: One of the “forced” men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore’s great-grandfather!

That was the right way to do things. Even so, Vane was relatively lucky. Sometimes ex-captains were put off in a small boat, as Henry Every did to the legitimate captain of the vessel he seized to turn pirate back in 1694. Or he might be marooned on a small island, as Edward England was after he was deposed for being too kind to a merchant captain in 1720. Or, worse yet, he could be killed, as John Phillips was in 1724. Although perhaps the last example is unfair: Phillips was killed when the “forced” men (men who had been forced to join the pirates from legitimate ships) rose up and took over the vessel to end their piratical career. Hardly a voting situation!

Vane’s fate points to another way pirates broke with their captain, or sometimes vice versa. Pirates would sometimes keep ships they had taken, and split their numbers across two or more ships. Usually each ship would have its own captain, but the senior captain would have authority over all of them. Black Bart Roberts styled himself as “Admiral” and had as many as four ships under his command at one time. In practice, this was a recipe for dissension. It was natural for the overall commander to favor his own ship, and the captains of the other ships were often tempted to sneak away during the night or during a storm to strike out on their own. It happened at least twice to Roberts. Indeed, it was after Walter Kennedy made off with a ship in 1719 that Roberts drew up his articles which expressly forbade desertion.

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy's

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy’s

At least once, the trick was turned the other way. Blackbeard commanded a fleet of four ships in 1718, and they had accumulated a nice amount of loot. Blackbeard decided to cut most of his pirates out of their share. So he ran his two largest ships aground as if by accident. He sent off one of the other captains, Stede Bonnet, on pretext of securing a pardon, transferred all the loot into the smaller of his two remaining vessels, stripped the other one of its ship stores, and then sailed off with his favorite crew, leaving over 200 pirates stranded behind. So much for pirate honor!

They left Kidd's body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

They left Kidd’s body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

Then of course there were the other ways to end a captain’s rule. He could drown in a shipwreck, as Samuel Bellamy did off Cape Cod in 1717. Or he could die in combat when his ship was attacked, as happened to Blackbeard in 1718 or Roberts in 1722. Or he could be hanged after he has been captured and brought to trial, as happened with Captain Kidd in 1700, and both Vane and Rackam in 1720.

The career of Calico Jack Rackam, the pirate with two women pirates on his ship

Having already posted about the two famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, it’s time to look at their pirate captain, “Calico Jack” Rackam. In many ways, he’s typical of pirates in the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy, roughly 1713-1730.

The guy with the overextended lower jaw is Carlos II of Spain, whose inability to father children and death began the War of the Spanish Succession

The guy with the overextended lower jaw is Carlos II of Spain, whose inability to father an heir began the War of the Spanish Succession

As with most pirates, we know very little about the early life of Jack Rackam. He was probably English, and I’d guess at a birthdate around 1690. Best guess, based on his subsequent career, is that he had been at sea, possibly as a privateer, in the years before the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 ended the War of the Spanish Succession. The end of the war ended large-scale privateering, for the European powers were at peace. They even reduced the size of their navies. Hence there were a lot of unemployed sailors milling around the Caribbean, just looking for decent employment. And if they had been privateers, they wouldn’t have been too averse to engaging in a little violence to make some money, and a lot more violence if a substantial amount of treasure was involved.

Well, lucky for them, a Spanish treasure fleet sank in shallow waters off the coast of Florida on June 30, 1715. All that lovely silver, just waiting for someone to salvage it. In November, 1715, the governor of Jamaica dispatched Captain Henry Jennings to go to Florida and dredge up some of the silver. Jennings arrived at the site of the shipwrecks, only to find that the Spanish government had already sent a salvage crew, which had been working on the wrecks for months.

There was gold in that treasure fleet, too! (Credit: Wikipedia/Augi Garcia)

There was gold in that treasure fleet, too!
(Credit: Wikipedia/Augi Garcia)

At this point, Jennings, shall we say, exceeded his orders. Instead of just leaving, which would have been the proper course, or competing with the Spanish in salvaging the wrecks, which would have been in accordance with his orders if illegal, he attacked and plundered the Spanish camp. Why waste time diving for treasure, when you can just kill some soldiers and take it? He came away with 60,000 pieces of eight. And then he went back again in January, 1716, attacked the Spanish again, and this time picked up 120,000 pieces of eight.

But Jennings’s success came at a price. The Spanish complained to the British, and the British government disavowed Jennings, making him a pirate.

Jennings needed someplace to go, someplace where he and his crew could spend their new wealth, trade for new ship supplies, and use as a base for further plundering. Naturally, the Spanish and British colonies were closed against him, and the French and Dutch didn’t want him either. Legitimate commerce was now more important than piracy to the European powers. What Jennings needed was an island not ruled by any of the colonial powers, a place that would welcome pirates.

As it turned out, there was such a place: New Providence in the Bahamas. Officially, the Bahamas were ruled by the British. But the Spanish had raided the islands during the late war, destroying British authority there. And in November, 1715, a pirate named Benjamin Hornigold sailed into the harbor, occupied the old fort, and established control of the island.

The women look right elegant in Black Sails' version of New Providence

The women look right elegant in Black Sails’ version of New Providence

Recent popular television series, such as Black Sails and Crossbones, have made New Providence into a tropical paradise, a prosperous pirate republic in which wealthy pirates can live in sumptuous mansions, while lesser criminals can patronize elegant whorehouses that would do credit to New Orleans circa 1900. The truth was a lot less elegant. New Providence had been a small, almost ruined settlement when Hornigold arrived, and the influx of pirates and traders meant an awful lot of tents and ramshackle structures had to be put up in a hurry. The place more resembled a goldmining camp than a resort town.

Jennings took up residence in this lawless bustling trading port. One of his subordinates was a man named Charles Vane. And probably by this time, one of Vane’s crew was Calico Jack.

New Providence became a pirate’s haven, and perhaps even a pirate’s heaven, for two years. No doubt Jennings, Vane, and Rackam enjoyed their time there. And then in December, 1717 the news came that Britain was going to reestablish control of the island. A former privateer named Woodes Rogers was going to be the new governor. He would come with ships and guns. And he would also come with a royal pardon. Any pirate that foreswore his lawless ways would be forgiven his former crimes. Any pirate that did not, or any pirate who did and then broke his word, would be hunted down and executed.

So the pirates debated among themselves whether to accept the pardon or not. Jennings probably hadn’t wanted to be a pirate, so he was all for the pardon. So was Hornigold. And so, it turned out, were a majority of the pirates on New Providence. But not all.

On Black Sails, Vane is a violent man, Rackam a sort of 18th c. pirate PR man, and Bonny is a psycho-killer

On Black Sails, Vane is a violent man, Rackam a sort of 18th c. pirate PR man, and Bonny is a psycho-killer

Charles Vane was one of the die-hards. He recruited a crew of other pirates, including Calico Jack, who wanted to continue on as pirates. And in one of those acts of bravado that endeared pirates to the public imagination, Vane waited until after Rogers arrived on July 26, 1718 to take his leave, in spectacular fashion. He filled a captured French ship with combustible materials, set it on fire, and sent it toward the British warships in the harbor. It failed to destroy the warships, but it caused a lot of havoc, especially when its loaded cannons blew up. And in the confusion, Vane escaped in his ship Ranger.

Vane was captain, while Calico Jack was on board the Ranger as quartermaster. These titles don’t quite mean what they do today. As captain, Vane’s authority was absolute in combat situations, and officially nonexistent otherwise. The quartermaster managed the ship’s supplies and treasury, making sure everyone got their fair share, and represented the crew to the captain. While technically subordinate to the captain, in a lot of ways the quartermaster was even more powerful. However, both officers could be voted out of office by the crew.

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

If it wasn’t clear enough, Vane proved himself a pirate by seizing a sloop from the British island of Barbados two days later. And so he became a marked man, the pirate who had openly defied Woodes Rogers and the British Navy. A useful reputation for terrifying merchant ships into surrendering without a fight, but a bad one if he were to be caught.

And with New Providence lost to the pirates, Vane and his crew had to live on what they captured. Trade goods were useless to them, until they found a new friendly port. No, what they needed were supplies: food, clothing, ship stores, medicine. Most ships only carried enough gold and silver coin for trading purposes, and while it was nice to seize, it wouldn’t make the pirates rich.

They did well enough for a while. But tension arose between the crew of the Ranger and the Barbadian sloop they had seized and manned. The pirates on the sloop felt they were getting short-changed, and resolved to go off on their own. Vane naturally took this as an insult, and chased the sloop until it took refuge in shallow waters along the South Carolina coast. The sloop’s crew then appealed for a pardon to the authorities, who granted it. At a stroke, Vane was deprived of a significant part of his strength.

That was always the danger with pirate crews. They were democratic in the most basic sense: you couldn’t do anything without a majority of the crew on the ship backing you up. And that made pirate fleets rare, for each ship’s captain was jealous of his authority and could survive only with the backing of his crew.

Blackbeard's flag: he wanted you to know he could kill you

Blackbeard’s flag: he wanted you to know he could kill you

You’d think Vane would have learned from the sloop’s defection. And if not from that, well, from his get-together with the pirate Blackbeard. The two captains met up in September, 1718, and spent some time in a continual drunken party. It was a great party, but the two captains made no common cause. Blackbeard had an under-the-table arrangement with the governor of North Carolina, and stayed, while Vane sailed north to Long Island.

And then Vane’s downfall began. He challenged what he thought was an armed merchant ship. Instead, it turned out to belong to the French royal navy, and made it clear it was quite willing to fight it out with Vane. Mindful that the French warship outgunned him, Vane decided to run for it. He had absolute authority as captain to make that decision. But the moment they escaped the French, Rackam as quartermaster called for a vote to depose Vane on the grounds he was a coward, and it carried. Rackam became the new captain of the pirate crew on November 24, 1718.

Vane and the minority of the crew who stuck with him were given a small sloop, which they sailed into the Caribbean. After one misadventure after another, Vane first lost his ship and then was taken prisoner by an honest ship captain who recognized him and transported him to Jamaica, where he was thrown into prison for a year. He was tried in Jamaica on March 22, 1721, found guilty of piracy, and hanged a week later.

Rackam as depicted by contemporaries

Rackam as depicted by contemporaries

Rackam was now captain of a pirate ship. In his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson offers an account of what Rackam did next, and also accounts of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. They’re colorful accounts. But stripped of the more romantic details, what they really amount to is that Rackam and his fellow pirates survived. They escaped capture. They took several prizes. But none of the prizes made them rich.

Maybe that’s the reason Rackam petitioned for the King’s Pardon and was accepted in May of 1719, and so ceased to be a pirate. But that probably wasn’t his only reason. For war had broken out again between Britain and Spain in December, 1718, and the British government decided it was desperate enough for sailors to pardon some more pirates so they could serve as privateers. Kind of short-sighted of the British government, since the war was wrapped up with a peace treaty in February, 1720.

So let’s give Rackam some points for being clever. It was not the first time. Taking the ship away from Vane was probably the first. And Johnson mentions an episode where Rackam’s ship got trapped behind an island by a Spanish coast guard ship which was accompanied by a prize sloop the coast guard had taken earlier. Rackam waited until nightfall, loaded his crew into a boat, quietly rowed it over to the prize, boarded and seized it, and then used it to escape.

But Rackam’s cleverness had limits. With the coming of peace, Rackam was out of a job as a privateer (assuming he had become one). So he fell back on his old trade, and by August, 1720, he was back at sea as a pirate. Given his past track record, this wasn’t a wise move; worse, it certainly meant he’d never get another chance at a pardon. Still, he had Anne Bonny as his mistress with him. And Mary Read was with him, though they were not lovers. Sadly, the one thing that wasn’t with him was luck. His men took only a few small boats before being pursued and captured by an armed merchant vessel sent out to hunt for them. They were brought to trial in Jamaica on November 16, 1720. Rackam, along with most of the crew, was found guilty and condemned to death. Probably the death sentence hurt him less than being scorned as a coward by Anne Bonny while he awaited execution, which occurred the next day.

Apart from his association with Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Rackam’s career was too typical of pirates in his time. They were privateers when they could be and pirates when they could not. Their prizes could keep them fed, clothed, and drunk, but gave them neither wealth nor safety. Becoming a leader put you at risk of your crew turning against you. And by 1720, the odds were good that you’d be captured and hanged before too long.

The women pirates of the Caribbean: Anne Bonny and Mary Read

General_History_of_the_Pyrates_-_Ann_Bonny_and_Mary_Read_(coloured)There aren’t many women pirates in the Caribbean that we know of. However, Captain Johnson immortalized two such women: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Much of what he tells us about them is probably untrue. Still, it’s worth looking even at his fibs to see what they tell us about women in the early 18th century.

(There are footnotes in this blog post. You don’t have to read them. But if you want to, they are hyperlinked both ways. Click on the footnote number in the text, and you go to the footnote. Click on the footnote number at the beginning of the footnote, and you return back to your place in the text.)

In his book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, Captain Johnson[i] devotes a whole chapter to each of the women pirates, and they are entertaining reading. But if you want to understand them in context, you should read the preceding chapters on Captains Vane and Rackam[ii] first. And I need to explain a few things about piracy in the Caribbean in the late 1710s.

The War of the Spanish Succession had been an all-out struggle between all the major European powers from its beginning in 1701.[iii] In the Caribbean, the war pitted the French and the Spanish against the English and Dutch. They all had built up their naval fleets, and the English in particular had given commissions to many privateers.[iv]

Charles Vane, who would not accept the King's pardon

Charles Vane, who would not accept the King’s pardon

And then when peace came with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713,[v] the major powers revoked their privateering commissions and laid up much of their naval fleets. This left a great many seamen unemployed. For those who had been privateers in particular, switching to being pirates was easy.[vi] And if that wasn’t enough encouragement, a Spanish treasure fleet went down in shallow waters off the coast of Florida in 1715. Treasure? Did someone say treasure? Every sailor with a ship and idle time on his hands suddenly found the prospect of a trip to Florida quite attractive. Maybe they could engage in some salvage. Or maybe that would be too much effort, and they’d just steal the silver from the salvagers!

So there was a major eruption of pirates after 1713. Remember my third rule about pirates? They needed a base. And they found one in the Bahamas, on the island of New Providence. You see, the Bahamas were a British possession,[vii] but the Spanish had raided the islands in the late war, and driven out the colonial government. So they had become a lawless land, and hence a good place for pirates to congregate.

Woodes Rogers and his family

Woodes Rogers and his family

The days of the buccaneers were long past,[viii] and the British were making more money from lawful trade than they ever could from piracy, so they decided to put down the pirates. They tapped Woodes Rogers, a former privateer who had written a famous account of his circumnavigation of the world,[ix] gave him some warships, and sent him out to govern and civilize the Bahamas. Not that they expected him to rely just on brute force; they also decided to use persuasion. By the authority of the King as embodied in a 1717 proclamation, Rogers was allowed to issue pardons to any pirate who agreed to stop being a pirate and pursued a lawful existence thereafter.

"Calico Jack" Rackam, Anne Bonny's lover

“Calico Jack” Rackam, Anne Bonny’s lover

Charles Vane and “Calico Jack” Rackam were uninterested in taking the pardon. They decided to demonstrate their contempt for those pirates who did take the pardon, and for the British government as well. So when Rogers arrived in the Bahamas, Vane and Rackam sent a fire ship against Rogers’ naval vessels before fleeing the harbor.[x] And that sets the stage for the stories of Vane, Rackam, Read, and Bonny.

So what do we know for sure about Read and Bonny? They were definitely serving on Calico Jack Rackam’s ship. They were vicious, foul-mouthed, and courageous fighters. They lived and dressed openly as women aboard ship, but dressed in men’s clothes when fighting, which makes good sense. Bonny was Rackam’s mistress and had a husband still living somewhere. When both women were convicted of piracy, both claimed, accurately, to be pregnant.[xi] Mary Read died in captivity before giving birth, while Anne Bonny’s fate is unknown.

Anne Bonny, depicted by someone with a lot of imagination and little sense

Anne Bonny, depicted by someone with a lot of imagination and little sense

Captain Johnson has a lot more to say about both women. But we should take what he says with a grain . . . no, make that a truckload of salt. Johnson’s accounts blend the genres of the repentant criminal confession and sensational journalistic story and are quite suspect. Why this is so reflects the predicaments both the women and Johnson found themselves in.

For the women, the problem was that they were going to be hanged. They were pirates. That was bad enough. They were foul-mouthed and violent, which made them definitely unladylike. Bonny had definitely abandoned a husband to live in adultery with Rackam. And, perhaps worst of all, both women dressed in men’s clothes, upsetting the natural order of the universe, which mandates that men dress like men and women dress like women, else chaos will destroy civilization.[xii]

Well, one way to try to avoid being hanged is to suck up to the authorities, tell them what they want to hear, make them want to show mercy to you. Portray yourself as someone who would have led a blameless life, had you not been misled into a career of crime. There’s an entire genre of “confessions” issued by condemned criminals in this era, in which they all explain how they fell into criminality through no fault of their own, and how they have seen the light, that they admit their past sinfulness, and claim they would go straight if they weren’t hanged.[xiii]

Mary Reed, armed and dangerous, possibly hoping to distract her enemies with her "very white" breasts

Mary Reed, armed and dangerous, possibly hoping to distract her enemies with her “very white” breasts

And this is what Read and Bonny did. Both of them claimed that it was an erring parent who made them dress up as boys when they were young. Both made it clear that they sinned sexually not due to any of their own viciousness, but due to the wicked ways of men. Bonny had the harder task, since she was known to have abandoned a husband and lived as Rackam’s mistress, so her account is less satisfactory on that score, although more salacious by the standard of the times.

But confessions and apologies, while morally pleasing, don’t bring in the readers the way a good scandal does. So somewhere along the line, someone, perhaps Johnson himself, decided to make the biographies of the two women more sensational by adding all sorts of improbable stories.[xiv] Mary Read was given a career as a soldier whose chronology would put her age in her mid-forties. That is most unlikely. Life as a soldier or sailor was rough, and tended to age people, while Mary Read was young and healthy enough to get pregnant, and was said to have attractive breasts, besides.[xv] Anne Bonny was given a quasi-respectable past as the illegitimate daughter of a maid and a lawyer, respectable enough to make her fall from grace entertaining, while disreputable enough to explain why she was such an awful creature.

Both biographies had to walk a narrow line. The women had to be shown as naturally innocent to evoke pity. At the same time, they have to have encountered unusual circumstances that turned them into monsters. Because no normal woman would ever turn pirate, curse, thieve, shoot people, fornicate and commit adultery, and, as bad as the rest, dress up in men’s clothes. They had to be monsters. Don’t dress up your daughter in boy’s clothes, or else she’ll become a pirate! It was sort of the 18th century’s equivalent of saying that if you let your little boy play with dolls, he’ll turn gay.

It worked well enough that Bonny and Read earned woodcuts depicting them both in Johnson’s General History. Keep in mind that none of these were done from life. My understanding is that the engraving with both of them came first, and is fairly realistic. The later pair of engravings at least demonstrate that the artist knew what to give his audience: a hint of breasts. I doubt either woman fought looking like that.[xvi]

In the end, what do we know about these women? They were pirates, fiercely so. Anne was married before she met Rackam. Johnson probably gets the meetings of Rackam and the two women wrong; they probably met in the Bahamas in 1720 when Rackam had taken the pardon he had earlier spurned. Rackam turned pirate again, and had a career of only a few months before he was captured. Both women were found guilty, and “pled their bellies” to escape immediate execution. Mary Read died, probably still pregnant, while in prison. Anne Bonny apparently did have a father who was well-off, so she may have eventually been released.

The rest is legend.

[i] Don’t know who I’m talking about? Well, in a manner of speaking, neither do I. Captain Charles Johnson is the putative author of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724-28), which is available online and in many print editions. (I like the Dover edition, myself.) We don’t know who Captain Johnson really was. But his book is one of the major sources for contemporary information on the pirates of the 1690-1724 period.

[ii] Calico Jack’s surname is sometimes spelled “Rackham.”

[iii] The war was over who would get Spain and its empire after the last Spanish Habsburg, Carlos II, an inbred freak, died in 1700. The major powers had agreed through various partition treaties how to carve up Spain’s empire. But Carlos II disregarded those treaties and left it all to one of French King Louis XIV’s younger grandsons (i.e., not the one who would inherit the throne of France). Louis faced a grim choice: let his grandson take the inheritance, and face a war against all the other major European powers, or let the partition treaties go into effect, in which case he and his Bourbon dynasty would get much less. Louis decided to risk war, and that’s what happened. Besides the colonial powers, the Austrian Habsburgs were also a major player in this war, as they felt that Habsburg territories should stay Habsburg territories. In the end, Louis XIV’s grandson did get Spain and its overseas empire, under the condition that the thrones of France and Spain never be united. Various other powers got bits and pieces; notably, the Austrian Habsburgs ended up with what is now roughly Belgium. The French and Spanish thrones, now both held by Bourbons, would often act in alliance during the 18th century.

[iv] Presumably the French and Dutch did so as well. The Spanish tended to keep a tighter rein on such matters, not giving their colonial governors much discretion.

[v] Some secondary conflicts continued until 1715.

[vi] Keep in mind that privateers are basically pirates licensed to go after the ships of enemy powers in wartime.

[vii] I’m using the term “British” instead of “English” now when referring to the government, since the Kingdoms of England and Scotland had been combined into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. If you heard about the Scottish independence referendum held in 2014, its aim was to reverse this unification, which has also included Northern Ireland since 1801. It did not pass, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland endures, though the Prime Minister has promised the Scots greater autonomy.

[viii] What is usually called the last major buccaneering raid was a French-led action against the Spanish port of Cartagena (in modern-day Colombia) in 1689. That Jamaica’s old buccaneering capital of Port Royal was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692 also helped end the era of the buccaneers.

[ix] Rogers’ 1712 account is entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World. In sending an ex-privateer to put down pirates, it would seem the British government was following the old policy of “set a thief to catch a thief.”

[x] They failed, but the sight of the fire ship, its double-shotted cannons going off while the ship burned, was quite spectacular. Initially, Vane was captain and Rackam the quartermaster on the Ranger, the sloop they sailed out of the harbor.

[xi] Who the fathers were is a good question. Both women had been in prison so long that it was unlikely to be Jack Rackam. It’s possible that both women found guards willing to have sex with them in order to become pregnant. British law did not allow the hanging of a pregnant woman, so being pregnant won a woman a temporary reprieve, and hope that she could get her case reconsidered at a later date. For who would want to hang the mother of a newborn child?

[xii] It’s hard to imagine these days just how ingrained the idea of distinct attire for men and women was in Western culture. Did you know that in medieval Iceland, a woman could actually divorce her husband for wearing clothes that were effeminate? And even in my childhood, my local school system had a dress code that forbade long hair for boys and slacks for girls. Fancy restaurants would refuse entrance to women wearing pants. I fondly remember a TV show from 1973 starring Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) which showed how absurd, or at least sexist, this could be. In an episode, Danner enters a restaurant in a stylish pants suit. She is told pants are not allowed on women because they are immodest attire. Whereupon she drops her pants, revealing a miniskirt underneath. That is considered acceptable, though clearly less modest. Or perhaps it was acceptable because it was immodest in an acceptable way?

[xiii] Or how they hope to make it to Heaven anyhow, but understand that they deserve Hell. Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998) by Karen Halttunen describes this genre in detail, and explains how it was transformed into sensational criminal stories in the 19th century.

[xiv] Considering that Johnson wrote an entire chapter on the fictional Captain Misson, inventing some stories about these two women would hardly have been a challenge to him. Although it’s possible that the two women spun some tall tales themselves to make themselves sound more colorful. Or perhaps the 18th century equivalent of urban legends sprung up about these two.

[xv] I am not saying it’s impossible for a woman in her forties to have attractive breasts. And, because this blog does not discriminate on the basis of gender, I should note it’s quite possible for a man in his forties to have an attractive chest.

[xvi] Female superheroes in comic books get similar treatment: their uniforms are not meant so much to protect them as to highlight their sexual charms. DC’s Power Girl is a prime example.