Tag Archives: Captain Charles Johnson

Sorting through facts and legends of Samuel Bellamy, pirate

In 1984, “Black Sam” Bellamy became New England’s most famous pirate when Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of Bellamy’s ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod. Today, one can go to a museum and see some of the material salvaged from the wreck. But who was Bellamy, and what can his story tell us?

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

In brief, Samuel Bellamy was born in 1689, tried to salvage treasure from the wrecked Spanish treasure fleet of 1715, and when he had little success at that, turned pirate. In February, 1717, he captured the Whydah, a newly-built slave ship, while sailing in the Caribbean. Subsequently he headed up the coast. Late in the evening of April 26, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a thunderstorm and driven onto the reefs, where the ship broke up, with the loss of all but two hands. Bellamy himself perished, along with 143 crewmen.

As such, it’s not that interesting a story, and it’s not surprising that Capt. Charles Johnson didn’t get to it until the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1728. And he probably got his information from two newspaper accounts and a sermon printed in 1717.

However, Johnson wasn’t above embellishing the accounts to make a political point or two. Typically, Johnson embellished to establish the criminal nature of the pirates and how their sins contributed to their downfall. That explains his probably fictional account of Avery’s (Every’s) downfall. But sporadically through his work, Johnson had pirates speak out against the established social order and its injustices. He even invented a pirate captain named Misson to show what a utopia based on reason, justice, and mercy might look like.

Johnson wrote his account of Bellamy along the latter lines. Twice he related speeches in which he suggested that states are founded by force of arms and therefore have no more moral authority than any pirate! He had Bellamy declare at one point that “I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has one hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field . . .” What’s curious is that while Johnson probably made up one of the speeches out of whole cloth, the one I’ve quoted has a factual basis, as it was taken from the account of a ship captain robbed by Bellamy and his crew!

Stories of romances between outlaws and reputable women still pull in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Bellamy’s and Hallett’s romance still pulls in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Nor was Johnson the only person to embellish Bellamy’s life. There is a possibility that Bellamy was sailing by Cape Cod in order to rekindle a romance with a young woman, Mary Hallett, who lived on the Cape. According to legend, he had met and romanced Mary on a previous visit, and even promised marriage. Mary succumbed to his charms, he sailed off, and she found herself pregnant. She hid her pregnancy, but was exposed when her dead child was discovered. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either she went mad pining away for her missing love, she became a witch and caused the storm that wrecked him, or he escaped the wreck of the Whydah, and the two ran off to have a happy life together. All of which suggests that a legend has overtaken the facts. There was a young Mary Hallett living in Eastham in that era, but the rest is legend, and she died decades later, unmarried.

Strangely, Johnson had little to say about the wealth Bellamy’s crew discovered when they took the Whydah: “elephants’ teeth, gold dust, and other rich merchandise.” Later historians added “sugar, indigo [used for dying] and Jesuit’s bark [used in the treatment of malaria].” The money on board was reported to run to £20,000, or £30,000, portioned out in 50-pound bags. If true, then the Whydah had 4.5 tons of gold and silver money on board. By some estimates, that would make Bellamy and his crew the richest pirates in history.

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure

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The (Pseudo-)Shakespearean Tragedy of Edward England

It’s hard to have sympathy for pirates. Oh, they’re cool in movies, but they’re really ship-based thieves. And yet, there is one pirate described by Capt. Charles Johnson in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724) who might qualify as a tragic hero of even Shakespearean quality: Captain Edward England. So here read,

The Noble Tragedy of Edward England, Pirate Captain

pirate_englandACT I

We meet our tragic hero living in the pirate haven of New Providence in 1718. Capt. Woodes Rogers is soon to arrive with the King’s Pardon for those pirates who will take it. At a great assembly of pirates, Capt. Benjamin Hornigold speaks in favor of the pardon, while Capt. Charles Vane speaks against it. The pirates cannot agree, and so the meeting breaks up.

Charles Vane

Charles Vane

Vane finds he has lost many men who hope for the pardon, so he goes out recruiting new men for the several ships he commands. In a tavern he finds Edward England. Vane and England are old friends; England served as quartermaster aboard Vane’s ship on its last cruise. Vane offers England the captaincy of one of Vane’s ships.

England had been leaning in favor of the pardon, as he wants peace and happiness now. But the lure of command of his own ship and Vane’s friendly persuasions, together with a bit too much drink, get the better of him. England agrees to Vane’s proposition. They depart from the tavern, arm in arm, but not before England stumbles on the threshold.

ACT II

We see England on the deck, pleased with his new pirate ship. A call from above tells him a sail’s been sighted. Within moments, the pirates catch up to the other ship and force it to surrender.

Captain Skinner, the commander of the other vessel, comes on board, a prisoner lightly guarded. England begins explaining to Skinner that his pirates will seize whatever cargo they like, but if no resistance is offered, no harm will come to him or his crew.

England's flag

England’s flag

However, he is interrupted when a sailor comes up, sees Skinner, and begins cursing him. He says he served under Skinner, and that Skinner is a brute and a cheat. With one mind, England’s crew descends on Skinner, beating him savagely until one pirate pulls out a pistol and shoots Skinner dead. The crew exit the stage, leaving Skinner, dead, on the deck.

England has been standing by all this time, horrified. He kneels down and shakes Skinner’s body in the forlorn hope that Skinner is still alive. England realizes that he runs a ship of cruel men, and that he will survive only so long as he equals them in cruelty. The realization troubles him so much that he goes down to his cabin to get drunk. His second-in-command, John Taylor, watches him go. Taylor wants to be captain, and he now begins to see how he might engineer England’s downfall.

ACT III

England is on deck as before, but the deck is a shambles from a vicious fight with a merchantman, blood everywhere. The crew is drunk and disorderly, having pillaged the merchantman of all its booze. England himself is drunk, disgusted with himself.

Some crew members of the pirate ship bring the captain of the merchantman, Macrae, aboard. The pirates are vexed with Macrae, because he caused many casualties among them before surrendering. They verbally abuse him, and suggest ways he can be tortured. England flinches at the notion. Taylor, his second-in-command, sees his chance, and demands that Macrae be tortured right then and there. England pleads with his crew not to do it, but he can tell he is losing and in danger of being overthrown as captain.

Abruptly, a whiskered pirate, Peg-Leg, comes up on deck. He swears in bloody language that he will see Macrae or else. England feels he can’t oppose Peg-Leg, and Taylor thinks Peg-Leg will strike Macrae, so he doesn’t interfere, either. Macrae thinks he is about to die, and prays under his breath.

Peg-Leg sees Macrae, rushes up to him, throws his arms around him, and says he is damned happy to see him. To the astonishment of everyone, Peg-Leg proceeds to praise Macrae in glowing terms as one of the best captains, and best men, ever to sail the seas. And he finishes by saying that anyone who wants to harm Macrae will have to go through him first.

England is ashamed that it is one of his crew standing up for Macrae. He tosses his bottle over the side of the ship, and swears to himself that he will be captain of this ship and he will save Macrae.

ACT IV

Taylor still wants to use Macrae as a weapon to overthrow England. He talks up all the harm Macrae’s fight caused the pirate crew, plying them with drink, getting them riled up so they’ll take on Peg-Leg, then depose England, then kill Macrae.

Peg-Leg, seeing which way the wind is blowing, goes down to England’s cabin where England and Macrae are having a friendly talk. Peg-Leg wants to arm the three of them and go down fighting.

England tells him, no, that he is the captain, and he will solve this problem himself. He tells Peg-Leg to help Macrae get ready to escape in the ship’s longboat.

Not sure quite what he is going to do, England spies on his crew. He sees them drinking and arguing, and decides to use their weaknesses against them, just as Taylor was hoping to use England’s weakness against him. England joins the crew and encourages them to talk and argue and swear, all the time plying them with drink. Eventually, they all get so drunk they fall asleep.

England returns to the cabin and assists Peg-Leg in helping get Macrae away on the longboat.

When the pirates wake up, Macrae is gone. England lies and blames the crew for losing their fun by getting too drunk. They sullenly go back to work, but resentments linger. Taylor openly tells England that England has betrayed the crew, and that a day of reckoning is coming.

ACT V

Back on the deck again, England is still in command, but barely, a sullen Taylor beside him. They have just taken another prize at sea and the crew brings the captain, John Tawke, on board. Under England’s and Taylor’s questioning, Tawke reveals that Macrae escaped to India, where the British East India Company gave him a ship to hunt the very pirates who had once captured him. There is a general uproar on the ship, Taylor calls for England to be overthrown, and in the tumult gets elected captain. He orders England imprisoned in the brig.

The next day, Taylor has England brought up from the brig. England looks a bit bedraggled. Taylor informs him that they are going to maroon him on the island, along with three crew members loyal to him, one of them Peg-Leg. Upon hearing this, England stands tall, in a loud voice proclaims that he alone bears the responsibility for helping Macrae to escape, that he’d do it again, and that he takes pride in their marooning him.

A beach on Mauritius (Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

A beach on Mauritius
(Credit: Wikipedia/Romeodesign)

Now on the island, England helps Peg-Leg and the other sailors build a boat to escape. They have few supplies, so England only pretends to eat and returns his food to the common stores.

By the day the boat is ready to launch, England is clearly weak and dying. He orders Peg-Leg and the other sailors to sail without him, saying that he regrets having been a pirate captain and wishes to end his life in peace. Peg-Leg refuses to leave, saying England should not die alone. The last we see are of Peg-Leg holding England as he breathes his last.

Finis

How much of this is true? In outline, all of it. I’ve taken considerable license, dramatically compressing England’s career and fleshing out his character. He was indeed once quartermaster to Vane and rejected the 1718 pardon. Skinner and Macrae are real, as is Peg-Leg, though the latter has no name in Johnson’s book. England did get Taylor drunk to spirit off Macrae. Subsequently, Taylor did overthrow England and maroon him on Mauritius. On the other hand, Macrae wasn’t commissioned to hunt down England, though the pirates were told he was. And England actually did escape with the others to Madagascar, though he died not long after.

England does indeed seem to have been something of a gentleman. I’ll leave you with Capt. Johnson’s description of his character:

England was one of these men, who had a great deal of good nature, and did not want for courage; he was not avaricious, and always averse to the ill usage prisoners received. He would have been contented with moderate plunder, and less mischievous pranks, could his companions have been brought to the same temper, but he was generally overruled, and as he was engaged in that abominable society, he was obliged to be a partner in all their vile actions.

Let’s go live the glamorous life as pirates!

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

In his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson, whoever he is, quotes “Black Bart” Roberts as saying that pirates have “Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power . . . ‘a merry life and a short one,’ shall be my motto.” Sounds great! Let’s go a-pirating!

Not so fast. First, you have to get a ship. Now, Henry Every started off with an actual warship, but they aren’t just lying around everywhere. Captain Worley set off from New York harbor in September of 1718 with eight companions in an open boat, carrying “a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, [and] half a dozen old Musquets and Ammunition accordingly.” Hardly a Caribbean cruise ship! Although it’s been done in the same style in the Caribbean: Ned Lowe began with 12 men in a boat, and in 1722 John Evans began with a canoe and “three or four” companions on the coast of Jamaica.

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

But just think of the riches you’ll enjoy! Again, Every and his crew came away from seizing the Ganj-i-sawai with enough wealth to retire to Madagascar, the Bahamas, Pennsylvania, or England. Making the big score was the dream, one which the crews of the other ships Every cheated did not get to share in. And neither did most pirate crews. There just weren’t that many poorly defended ships with treasure sailing about. You were more likely to encounter coastal sailing ships carrying provisions, as the unfortunate Major Stede Bonnet did in his cruise off the Virginia coast in July, 1718.

Woe betide the pirate captain who failed to find enough treasure for his crew! At best, they were likely to lose crew members who took one of the prizes and sailed off in the night, as happened to Bonnet, and which happened multiple times to Black Bart. Worse, your crew might depose you or, if they were really unhappy with your performance, kill you. Capt. Thomas Anstis was shot in 1723 by some of his crew members while lying in his hammock, ending his career with his life. In the same year, Captain Lowther saved his crew the trouble: he shot himself after losing his ship while it was being careened.

But think of the plentiful supplies you’ll have, the clothes you’ll wear, the food you’ll eat! Pirates did love looting ships for fancy clothes. That’s because sea water ruined all but the sturdiest of their clothes, so they had to be replaced frequently. And no horror was worse for pirates than to run short of food and water. Why it was even worse than running short of liquor! Yet it happened far too often, for pirate crews were not careful to budget their supplies, always figuring they could steal more from the next ship they seized.

Sometimes there was no next ship when they needed one. This happened at least twice to Black Bart Roberts in 1720, in both cases because his voyage turned out to be much longer than expected. The second occasion was the more dreadful. Roberts had been sailing to Africa, but thanks to poor navigation got caught in trade winds that forced him to turn back to the Caribbean. He had 700 leagues (2400 miles) to sail with only one hogshead (maybe 60 gallons) of water for a crew of 124! As Johnson describes it,

They continued their Course, and came to an Allowance of one single Mouthful of Water for 24 Hours; many of them drank their Urine, or Sea Water, which instead of allaying, gave them an inextinguishable thirst, that killed them: Others pined and wasted a little more Time in Fluxes and Apyrexies, so that  they dropped away daily: Those that sustain’d the Misery best, were such as almost starved themselves, forbearing all Sorts of Food, unless a Mouthful or two of Bread the whole Day, so that those who survived were as weak as possible for Men to be, and alive.

The pirates managed to make the coast of South America, where they obtained water from a river mouth at the coast, and soon seized provisions from a passing ship. But this no doubt explained why some of Roberts’s crew left him in another ship the next time he sailed for Africa!

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard's head from the bowsprit of his ship

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard’s head from the bowsprit of his ship

It could be a miserable life, and worse yet, a short one, as Roberts admitted. He did well enough, but didn’t last three years (1719-22) as a pirate. Others had an even briefer run. Blackbeard was a pirate captain for only two years (1717-18). Howel Davis, actually one of the more clever pirates, was a captain but one single year before he was killed in an ambush in 1719. Johnson describes a Captain Worley (mentioned above) whose entire career ran from September, 1718 to February 17, 1719. And no doubt there were many pirates whose careers were even shorter and escaped Capt. Johnson’s attention!

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.

Summer “Pirates!” class postings

Now that summer’s here, and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s “Pirates!” course is in session, I expect I’ll be posting every week while the class is running.

However, due to a singular misadventure, the post I planned to put up for Sunday will not go up until Monday noon. My apologies to my students. In the meantime, I suggest they look at the previous posts on how Henry “Long Ben” Avery was linked to the fictional realm of Libertalia and the women pirates of the Caribbean.

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.