Calico rope

Aaaaarrh, matey. Have ye ever been… hanged?

Perhaps it’s a rude question. But I bring it up because October 20 marks the capture of “Calico Jack” by the Royal Navy back in 1720. And that’s a great name for a pirate.

It gets even better. His real name was John “Jack” Rackham, which will necessarily put Tintin fans in mind of “Rackham the Red”. And he designed the classic Jolly Roger though some sources say his had crossed swords rather than bones beneath the skull. And he was a pioneering feminist, having two females among his crew including his lover Anne Bonny who he apparently pinched from her husband which seems quite a modern thing to do although I gather such incidents were not unknown before 1963 and possibly he was glad to see her go. But I digress.

The point is, that’s some kind of pirate. And he enjoyed a career of mayhem and so forth lasting… um… two years. Or maybe a bit longer. He first turns up as quartermaster on a pirate ship called the Ranger in 1718, the same year he led a mutiny that voted their current captain Charles Vane a coward and put Rackham in his place.

I should note that on a rather unpiratical note Vane was not cut down like so much pork, cruelly marooned or tossed to the sharks. Instead he and those who’d voted for him were given a smaller ship, plus ammunition and supplies.

A year after deposing Vane, Rackham accepted a pardon from the governor of the Bahamas, settled down, bounced back up and started messing with Anne, whose husband brought her before the governor to be whipped. Rackham offered to buy her in a “divorce by purchase” which she refused as demeaningly similar to a cattle sale, so Rackham kept the money and they eloped semi-romantically on a stolen ship.

The next year Rackham was captured while drunk, taken to Jamaica, tried and hanged. Bonny and her female co-pirate Mary Read both claimed to be pregnant to try to avoid immediate execution, which sounds a touch old-fashioned, and Read died the next year probably of complications from childbirth while Bonny’s fate is unknown.

Most of the rest of Rackham’s associates were swiftly executed. And as for Vane, well, he was hanged in 1721. Which isn’t surprising because if you look into the career of most pirates, you find yourself reading a short story that ends with a, hmnnn, twist.

The point is, piracy isn’t romantic. You may get cool clothes, a cool nickname and an extra-cool flag. But you also get to dance the “yardarm jig” and that right smartly. And “Hemp necktie Jack” just doesn’t have the same insouciant charm.