Ann Bonny, Mary Read and John Rackam
Who put the Calico in Jack?
The story of John Rackam (or Rackum or Rackham depending on what source you read) is always linked to that of Ann Bonny and Mary Read.
Analysis of his part in the Ann-Mary-Jack story sits between him being either Ann’s cuckolded husband or some kind of proto-feminist champion of women’s right to equality.
No-one really knows where the truth lies there.
Who was Jack Rackam?
Very little is known of his early life. He was believed to be English and born around 1682.
His first appearance in formal records came in 1718, when Rackam was serving in Captain Charles Vane’s crew as quartermaster. This was a very senior position onboard and meant he was always in charge except in battle, when the Captain’s word became law.
One day in November, in a clash with a better-armed French warship, Vane decided to give the order to turn away. Although probably sensible at the time, the order went against the wishes of most of the crew, including Rackam. Rackam questioned Vane’s courage and called for a vote to replace him. This installed him as the new Captain and Vane and a few of his loyalists were sent away in a captured sloop.
Rackam went on to further pirate cruises until, after losing a prize ship filled with loot to pirate hunters, he decided to sail to Nassau. King George had offered pardons to any pirate willing to turn themselves in. Like many of the pirates who took these pardons, Rackam did not last long on the right side of the law.
In Nassau, he began a romance with Ann Bonny.
Who put the “Calico Jack” in John Rackam?
Historians always believed the ‘Calico Jack’ moniker referred to John Rackam’s preference for simple calico clothing, rather than the fancier fabrics other pirates (allegedly) favoured. Some sources suggest his preference for ‘brightly patterned’ clothing helped earn him the moniker too.
Today, the ‘Calico Jack’ moniker is widely applied to John Rackam. In fact, it is arguably what he is most famous for (aside from the whole Ann and Mary thing) since he was a pretty mediocre pirate.
However, as we now know, Johnson’s General History of the Pirates is one of only two sources of information on John “Calico Jack” Rackam. So how come it never refers to John Rackam as “Calico Jack”? In fact, he doesn’t make any comment on John Rackam’s clothing or appearance at all.
Rackam’s trial transcript doesn’t either. This is far less surprising since trial transcripts didn’t record what people wore.
The earliest mention of ‘Calico Jack’ I could find is actually pretty recent: 1924. Philip Gosse, often considered the father of pirate academic history – despite his rich embellishments of the truth – referred to John Rackam as the ‘dashing Calico Jack’ in his first of two pirate-themed works ‘The Pirates’ Who’s Who’.
Gosse had an extensive library of piracy books, so it’s possible there was something in one of them about Rackam as ‘Calico Jack’. Yet his entry on Jack Rackam follows the Johnson story closely. Gosse was not inclined to cite his work and there is no reference to where he got the name from nor that it even applied to Jack Rackam’s clothing.
Gosse mentioned ‘Calico Jack’ again in his other pirate work, A History of Piracy but there is no further detail there either.
Of course, this has not stopped subsequent pirate historians from picking up the ‘Calico Jack’ moniker and running with it, despite no evidence he was even called that in the scant information available about Jack Rackam.