1720: Captain John “Calico Jack” Rackham

On this date in 1720Nov. 18, 1720, the pirate captain “Calico Jack” Rackham was hanged together with his crew by the British governor of Jamaica.

Nicknamed for his flamboyant clothing, the Bristol-born buccaneer plundered the West Indies during the “Golden Age of Piracy”, having ousted his former captain Charles Vane. Rackham is chiefly remembered to history for two who were not hanged with the rest of his crew: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, rare female pirates who served aboard Rackham’s ship.

Immortalized by Daniel Defoe in his pseudonymous A General History of the Pyrates, Bonny and Read came to piracy by different paths but were both every bit the part and leaders aboard their ship — “very profligate, cursing, and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do any Thing on board.” Bonny, at least, was Rackham’s lover — having eloped with him from her husband.

Upon capture, both women “pleaded their bellies” to escape the gallows, and though it’s unclear whether either really was pregnant, it seems the gambit spared both from execution.

Read died in prison shortly after, while Bonny vanished from history — prompting speculation that she had escaped, secured a pardon, been ransomed by her wealthy father, and/or returned again to piracy under a different guise. Reportedly, she castigated Rackham at their last meeting in prison for lying drunk below decks while only the women resisted the capture of their ship: “I am sorry to see you here Jack, but if you had fought like a man, you need not be hanged like a dog.”

As the world’s best-known women pirates, Bonny and Read are recalled as anything from sexualized historical curios to action heroines to proto-feminists.

They feature in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, the Witchblade comic book series, utopian theorizing, popular history … and the occasional action figure.

Update: A much more detailed foray into the lives of these daring women is at Scandalous Women.

Also, I posted this under the wrong date: it should be Nov. 18. Balls.

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