Calico Jack and the Female Pirates

It was Woodes Rogers who first alerted the outside world to the presence of women among the pirates of the Caribbean. On 10 October 1720 The Boston Gazette printed a news item and two proclamations which had been despatched from New Providence a month earlier. The news item informed readers that among the pirates on the coast of the Bahamas was ‘one Rackum who run away with a sloop of 6 guns and took with him 12 men, and two women’. It went on to say that the Governor of the Bahamas had sent a sloop with forty-five men after them, and some time later Dr Rowan with his 12-gun sloop and fifty-four men had also set out to track down the pirates.

The first of the two proclamations issued by Rogers concerned a pirate attack on the sloop Recovery of Nassau by a company of pirates led by John Lewis. The second proclamation provided further details of the piracy committed by John Rackam and his associates. It announced that on 22 August ‘John Rackum, George Featherstone, John Davis, Andrew Gibson, John Howell, Noah Patrick, &c. and two Women, by Name, Ann Fulford alias Bonny, & Mary Read’ had stolen and run away with a sloop called the William, of about twelve tons, ‘mounted with 4 great Guns and 2 swivel ones, also ammunition, sails, rigging, anchor, cables, and a canoe owned by and belonging to Capt. John Ham’. The pirates had gone on to rob a boat on the south side of New Providence as well as a sloop riding at Berry Islands, some thirty miles to the north. The proclamation concluded that John Rackam and his company ‘are hereby proclaimed pirates and enemies to the Crown of Great Britain, and are to be so treated and deemed by all his Majesty’s subjects’.1

This was a sensational announcement because seafaring was then regarded as an exclusively male occupation. Women went to sea as passengers, of course, and it was not uncommon for wives on naval and merchant ships to accompany their husbands on ocean-going passages. A few examples have come to light of young women dressing as men in order to spend months and sometimes years at sea working as sailors but they were so rare that when their sex was revealed they tended to become minor celebrities – Hannah Snell, who served in the British army and the navy in the eighteenth century, later performed on the London stage. Women pirates were an even greater rarity. There was Alwilda, the daughter of a Scandinavian king who had taken command of a company of pirates and roamed the Baltic in the fifth century AD. She had fought a battle in the Gulf of Finland and had eventually become Queen of Denmark. And there was the brave and resourceful Grace O’Malley, whose exploits along the west coast of Ireland in the sixteenth century are well documented. From her base at Rockfleet Castle, overlooking Clew Bay in County Mayo, she led a fleet of around twenty galleys on punitive raids against rival chieftains. She attacked and plundered passing merchant ships, provoking such a storm of protest that the English governor of the province sent an expedition to besiege her castle. She fought off this challenge but in 1577 was caught during a raid and imprisoned in Limerick gaol for eighteen months. Constantly forced to defend her territory from aggressive neighbours she famously appealed to Queen Elizabeth I. They met at Greenwich Palace in September 1593 and O’Malley made such an impression on the English queen that she was granted ‘some maintenance for the rest of her living of her old years’.2 She died at Rockfleet in her seventies and her son eventually became Viscount Mayo.

Apart from these isolated examples there are no documented accounts of women pirates in the western world until the appearance of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, so it is not surprising that when Captain Johnson came to write his history of the pirates he devoted considerable space to their lives and drew particular attention to ‘the remarkable actions and adventures of the two female pyrates’ on the title page of his book. Although the printed record of their trial provides us with detailed information about their appearance and behaviour while they were members of Rackam’s crew, the only information we have about their early lives comes from Johnson. No evidence has come to light to substantiate his colourful account, which is a pity because, as he himself admits, ‘the odd incidents of their rambling lives are such, that some may be tempted to think the whole story no better than a novel or romance’.3

According to Johnson, Mary Read was born in England. Her mother had married a sailor and had a son, but the sailor went away to sea and never returned. Left on her own, the young mother had a brief affair and became pregnant. To conceal this from her relations she went to stay with friends in the country, where she gave birth to Mary. Soon after this her son died and she decided to pass her daughter off as her son and to ask her wealthy mother-in-law for financial assistance. Mary was brought up as a boy and when she was thirteen she was sent out to work as a footboy for a French lady. She soon grew tired of this menial life and, having ‘a roving mind’, she travelled to Flanders and joined a foot regiment as a cadet. She fought in several engagements, fell in love with a handsome Flemish soldier with whom she was sharing a tent and duly married him. After leaving the army they set up as proprietors of a public house near Breda called the Three Horse Shoes. Mary’s husband died shortly after this, so she assumed men’s clothing again and after a spell in another foot regiment she boarded a ship and sailed to the West Indies. Her ship was captured by pirates and after further adventures she found herself on the ship commanded by Rackam with Anne Bonny among the crew.

Anne Bonny was born near Cork in Ireland. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a maid in the lawyer’s household. When the lawyer’s wife learnt of her husband’s affair they separated. The lawyer was so fond of the girl he had by the maid that he decided that she should live with him. He dressed her as a boy and pretended that he was training her to be a lawyer’s clerk. When the true circumstances were revealed the scandal affected his practice, so he emigrated to Carolina, taking the maid and their daughter Anne with him. Anne grew up to be a bold and headstrong young woman and in 1718 she married a penniless sailor named James Bonny. This so upset her father, who was now a successful merchant and plantation owner, that he threw her out of the house. Anne and her sailor husband sailed to New Providence, where he hoped to find employment. According to Johnson, it was in Nassau that James Bonny found that his wife, ‘who was very young, turned a libertine upon his hands, so that he once surprised her lying in a hammock with another man’. She also attracted the attention of John Rackam, ‘who making courtship to her, soon found means of withdrawing her affections from her husband’.

It will be recalled that Rackam had been a member of Charles Vane’s crew. He had taken part in the spate of pirate attacks which Vane had undertaken in the weeks before Rogers’ arrival, and he was with Vane when he escaped from the harbour at Nassau after the fireship attack on the warships which had escorted the new Governor to the Bahamas. In November 1718 Vane had broken off an action with a French warship against the wishes of the majority of his crew. The next day, by a general vote of the pirates, Vane had been replaced as captain by Rackam, his quartermaster. Rackam took command of the pirate brigantine and sailed away, leaving Vane with a sloop and the remnants of the crew. Rackam had headed for Jamaica. On 11 December he captured the merchant ship Kingston off the harbour of Port Royal and in sight of the inhabitants. The ship had such a valuable cargo that her owners promptly fitted out two privateers and set off in pursuit. They tracked Rackam to the Isle of Pines, off the south coast of Cuba. From Sir Nicholas Lawes, the Governor of Jamaica, we learn that, upon the approach of the privateers, ‘the pirates who were on board the ship, made their escape on shore in a canoe, and the two sloops are returned into Port Royal harbour with the ship and the greatest part of her cargo’.4 Rackam and his men eventually managed to make their way to Nassau, where they persuaded Rogers to grant them the royal pardon.

At some point Rackam had acquired the memorable nickname of Calico Jack ‘because his jackets and drawers were always made of calico’.5 He would now acquire lasting fame by his association with the female pirates. His recent piracies had provided him with enough loot to live in some luxury and his generosity towards Anne Bonny evidently contributed to her wish to leave her sailor husband. In the Appendix to the first volume of his history Johnson includes a curious description of what happened next. It seems that Anne wished Rackam to give James Bonny a sum of money in order to persuade him to give up his claim on her so she could live with Rackam. Furthermore she wanted this arrangement to be put in writing and confirmed by witnesses. Word soon got round the small community of Nassau ‘so that the Governor hearing of it, sent for her and one Anne Fulworth, who came with her from Carolina, and passed for her mother, and was privy to all her loose behaviour, and examining them both upon it, and finding they could not deny it, he threatened if they proceeded further in it, to commit them both to prison, and order them both to be whipped’. Anne thereupon promised to be very good, to live with her husband and to avoid loose company in the future.

Anne did not keep her promise for very long. Having run out of money, Rackam decided to return to piracy. He had his eye on John Ham’s 6-gun sloop William, which was noted for its speed and was currently at anchor in the harbour. On his behalf Anne went on board the vessel on several occasions to find out how many men were usually on the vessel and what sort of watch was kept. She learnt that the owner slept on shore at night and that only two men remained on board to keep watch. Armed with this useful information, Rackam decided to act at once. He assembled fourteen pirates, including Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and at midnight they rowed out to the William, which was lying very close to the shore. The night was dark and it was raining so they got on board without anyone raising the alarm. They had no difficulty in overcoming the men on watch. Anne went straight to their cabin with a drawn sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, and ‘swore that if they pretended to resist, or make a noise, she would blow out their brains’. One anchor was heaved in, the other anchor cable was let loose and a small sail was set to give them steerage way. Passing close to the fort, they were challenged and asked where they were going. They explained that their anchor cable had parted and they told the same story to the men on the guardship. When they reached the harbour mouth, and reckoned that they could not be seen because of the darkness of the night, they hoisted all sail and stood out to sea. John Ham’s two seamen were unwilling to join the pirates, so they were given a boat to enable them to row ashore.

From Nassau they sailed east to Eleuthera and along its low-lying coast until they sighted the settlement of wooden houses on Harbour Island. A mile or so off the white sandy beaches of that beautiful island they intercepted seven fishing boats and systematically robbed the local fishermen of their fish and fishing tackle and any money and valuables they could find. To avoid any search parties sent out by Rogers they headed south to the great island of Hispaniola, where they landed to steal some cattle and then attacked two British sloops which they found sailing offshore. According to witnesses, they ‘did make an assault in and upon one James Dobbin, and certain other mariners’ and then plundered the vessels of gear and tackle ‘of the value of one thousand pounds of current money of Jamaica’.6 Continuing their passage south, they sailed through the Windward Passage to the north coast of Jamaica, where they proceeded to plunder any easy target they came across. On 19 October they intercepted the schooner of Thomas Spenlow a few miles off Port Maria. They assaulted Spenlow and his crew, putting them ‘in corporeal fear of their lives’, and seized fifty rolls of tobacco and nine bags of pimiento (sweet pepper). They kept Spenlow and his men prisoner for forty-eight hours before releasing them and their schooner.

Sailing into the bay of Dry Harbour, they fired a gun at the merchant sloop Mary and Sarah. Thomas Dillon, the master of the vessel, and his crew escaped ashore in a boat to the accompaniment of shots from Rackam’s sloop. When Dillon hailed the attackers he was told that they were English pirates, that he need not be afraid, and they urged him to return to his ship. Dillon later swore on oath that there were two women on the pirate sloop and that ‘they were both very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and ready and willing to do any thing on board’.7 According to Dillon, the pirates then took over the merchant sloop and her cargo and ‘carried her with them to sea’. It is not clear whether he was forced to accompany them or whether he returned to shore. From Dry Harbour they continued sailing west and the last of their victims was Dorothy Thomas, a Jamaican woman who was in a canoe filled with provisions. As Rackam’s sloop came alongside, the female pirates encouraged their shipmates to kill the woman ‘to prevent her coming against them’. Dorothy Thomas would later provide the most damning evidence against Mary Read and Anne Bonny. She said that they ‘wore men’s jackets and long trousers, and handkerchiefs tied about their heads; and that each of them had a machet and pistol in their hands, and cursed and swore at the men, to murder the deponent’.8 She further said that she knew them to be women by the largeness of their breasts.

By the beginning of November the pirates were off Negril Bay at the western end of Jamaica. Today this is a tourist resort and the seven-mile expanse of beach is lined with smart hotels, but in the eighteenth century it was a desolate spot. Beyond the beach was nothing but swamps and mangroves. Towards evening two sloops on a trading voyage to Cuba hove in sight. One of them was commanded by Captain Bonnevie, the other by Captain Jonathan Barnet. Back in 1715 Barnet had applied to Lord Hamilton, then Governor of Jamaica, for a commission to capture pirates. He was granted the commission on condition that he keep a fair journal of his proceedings; that he did not attack any British ships or those of His Majesty’s allies, friends or neutral nations; that before he set sail from Port Royal he deliver a list containing the names of his crew to the chief officer of the customs; and that he fly a union flag which was distinguished from those worn by His Majesty’s ships by a white square or escutcheon in the middle of the flag.9 It is not known whether Barnet had renewed his commission, but the new Governor of Jamaica, Sir Nicholas Lawes, would later inform London that a trading sloop ‘being well manned and commanded by a brisk fellow one Jonathan Barnet did us a very good piece of service …’.10

Bonnevie hailed Barnet and told him he could see a sloop lying close inshore which had fired a gun. Barnet, whose vessel was well armed, decided to go and investigate. At around 10 p.m. he came up with the anchored vessel and hailed her. The response was, ‘John Rackam of Cuba.’ Barnet ordered him to strike immediately to the King of England’s colours. One of the pirates replied that they would strike no strikes and immediately fired a swivel gun at Barnet’s sloop. At this Barnet ordered his men to fire a full broadside and a volley of small shot. The effect of this was to carry away the boom of the pirate sloop, which effectively disabled her. The pirates called for quarter and surrendered to Barnet and his men. They were taken ashore at Davis’s Cove, a few miles beyond Negril Point, and were delivered into the custody of Major Richard James, a militia officer.11 The major assembled some men to guard the pirates and took them across the island to the jail in Spanish Town (then known as St Jago de la Vega).

The trial of the pirates was held before Sir Nicholas Lawes as President of the Admiralty Court and twelve commissioners. These included two naval captains, one of whom was Captain Edward Vernon, who was commander-in-chief of British naval ships on the Jamaica station and later, as Admiral Vernon, led British attacks on Portobello and Cartagena. Calico Jack and the ten male members of his crew were tried on Wednesday 16 November 1720. The female pirates were tried twelve days later. The charges concerned the attacks off Harbour Island, off Hispaniola and off the north coast of Jamaica. Because the prosecution was able to call eyewitnesses to confirm the ‘piracies, felonies, and robberies committed by them on the high sea’ the result was a foregone conclusion and all the men on trial were found guilty and condemned to death. The day after the trial five of the pirates were hanged at Gallows Point, and the rest were hanged the next day. The bodies of Calico Jack, George Fetherston and Richard Corner were taken down from the gallows and hanged in chains at Gun Key, Bush Key and Plumb Point, where they could be seen by the sailors on ships sailing into and out of the harbour of Port Royal.

The trial of Anne Bonny and Mary Read followed similar lines because the charges against them were exactly the same. What the court had to determine was whether the women had played an active part in the piracies and, as we have already noted, Thomas Dillon and Dorothy Thomas were in no doubt about their role. Two Frenchmen, speaking through an interpreter, confirmed that both women were very active in the attacks on Spenlow’s schooner and Dillon’s sloop, and went on to say, ‘Anne Bonny, one of the prisoners at the bar, handed gun-powder to the men, that when they saw any vessel, gave chase, or attacked they wore men’s clothes; and at other times, they wore women’s clothes; that they did not seem to be kept, or detained by force, but by their own free will and consent.’ After all the witnesses had been examined the president of the court asked the two women whether they had any defence to make or any witnesses to speak on their behalf, but they had nothing to offer on either score. After consulting with the twelve commissioners sitting alongside him, the president informed the women that they had unanimously been found guilty and told them, ‘you shall be severally hanged by the neck, till you are severally dead. And God of his infinite mercy be merciful to both your souls.’12

Not till after they had heard these words did the women make the shock announcement that they were both pregnant, and they asked that there might be a stay of execution. An examination showed that both of them were indeed ‘quick with child’ and the sentence was suspended. They were returned to prison, where Mary Read was ‘seized with a violent fever’ and died in custody. The parish register for the district of St Catherine in Jamaica records her burial on 28 April 1721.13 The fate of Anne Bonny is a mystery. According to Captain Johnson, she remained in prison until she gave birth to her child and was ‘afterwards reprieved from time to time. But what is become of her since, we cannot tell.’ Some evidence has come to light which suggests that her father, William Cormac, managed to get her released from jail and took her back to Charleston, where she married a local man, had eight children by him and died in 1782 at the age of eighty-four. What is certain is that over the years the story of the female pirates joined the other stories of warrior women and they have become feminist icons, their lives providing the inspiration for ballads, plays, novels and several Hollywood films.14

In the Epilogue the links between Robinson Crusoe and Woodes Rogers’ account of Alexander Selkirk will be explored in some detail but it is worth noting here the similarities between another classic work of fiction by Daniel Defoe and real historical events. As the historian Marcus Rediker has pointed out, Anne Bonny and Mary Read were real-life versions of the heroine of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which was published in 1722, less than two years after the trial of the pirates.15 Moll Flanders was a thief, a whore and a spirited adventurer rather than a pirate, but Rediker notes that in common with Read and Bonny she was illegitimate, poor at birth and, like them, she did cross-dress at one point in her life. All three of them experienced homelessness, a roving existence, found themselves on the wrong side of the law and faced the gallows. Defoe might have seen brief references to the capture and trial of the female pirates in the newspapers and it is possible that he saw the printed transcript of the trial before he wrote Moll Flanders. But he would not have seen Johnson’s detailed account of the early lives of Bonny and Read (the General History of the Pyrates was not published until 1724) – unless, of course, he was the real author of Johnson’s history.16

Charles Vane was executed in Jamaica soon after the hanging of Calico Jack and his men. After being voted out of his command by his crew and replaced as captain by Calico Jack, Vane had sailed away to the Bay of Honduras in a small sloop with a few of his supporters. They had captured three more sloops and were sailing in the seas off Jamaica when they were hit by a violent tornado. Vane’s sloop was driven on to the shore of a deserted island and wrecked. Vane survived but most of his companions were drowned. After a few weeks a ship called by to take in water. She was commanded by Captain Holford, an old buccaneer who was a former acquaintance of Vane. Holford refused to take Vane on board his ship because he believed that he would conspire with his crew, ‘knock me on the head, and run away with my ship a pyrating’. Soon after Holford had departed another ship dropped anchor off the island and the captain allowed Vane to join his crew. Unfortunately for Vane this ship happened to cross the course of Holford’s ship and the captain invited Holford to come aboard. When Holford spotted Vane working down in the hold he told his fellow captain that the seaman he had rescued was none other than Vane the notorious pirate. The captain agreed to hand him over and Holford took him in irons to Jamaica, where he was delivered up to the authorities. In March 1721 Vane was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.17 In his General History of the Pyrates Captain Johnson noted that Vane proved a coward on the scaffold and ‘died in agonies equal to his villainies’.18 A gentleman who witnessed the execution at Gallows Point informed Johnson that Vane showed not the least remorse for his crimes.

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