The real-life pirates of Black Sails: Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny


Last week, we took a look into the real life pirate inspiration of Charles Vane, as well as Nassau, New Providence, the main setting for Black Sails. This time we’ll take a peek at the mysterious Jack Rackham, former quartermaster of Charles Vane. Accompanying him after removing Vane of captaincy and his ship is Anne Bonny, his lover and wife, and Mary Read, a female pirate who disguised herself as a man. Rackham would often ask the crews of each ship he attacked to join his own, which was seen during Jack Rackham’s first plunder as captain in Season 2. Despite Rackham’s short tenure as a pirate, he is best known for his two female crew members and for his Jolly Roger flag, which was a skull with two swords crossed.

Not much is known of Rackham, other than his name being John Rackham. Jack was a common nickname for John, to which he normally went by Jack Rackham. He gained his nickname Calico Jack by the clothing he wore; mainly calico threads, which were plain woven garments made of unbleached cotton. The first record of Rackham was as quartermaster for Charles Vane of the Ranger in 1718. He was 36 years old and given that he was a quartermaster, it’s entirely possible that he was a sailor turned pirate and moved up in ranks. Vane and his crew encountered a french Man-o-War ship while plundering in New York and retreated. Rackham had wanted to fight against the ship, claiming it would have tons of riches plus the addition of a Man-o-War in their possession. Only 15 supported Vane of the 90-man crew, and despite the overwhelming support of Rackham’s decision to stay and fight, the ship fled. On November 24, 1718, Rackham held a vote and removed Vane from captaincy and was granted the captain of the Ranger. Vane and the 15 supporters were provided a smaller sloop and the two departed.


Left: Jack Rackham’s Jolly Roger flag in Black Sails. Right: Jack Rackham’s real Jolly Roger flag design.

As captain, Rackham was mainly reckless. He sailed around Jamaica, which was the center of British power in the Caribbean. It was also the headquarters of the Royal Navy West Indies squadron. Rackham managed to claim the Kingston, which was heavy with merchant riches, but was captured within sight of Port Royal. It drew the attention of the merchants and they immediately sent bounty hunters after him. In February 1719, Rackham was eventually found anchored south of Cuba with both his ship and the Kingston. While sleeping in the woods, both ships were seized. With no vessel, Rackham and 6 men sailed in a small boat to Nassau and took the Royal Pardon from Woodes Rogers, claiming Vane forced them into piracy.

While settling in Nassau, he met and had an affair with Anne Bonny, who was married to sailor James Bonny, an informant for Woodes Rogers. Anne Bonny was born in Ireland as Anne McCormac. She was the daughter of a servant whom the father was her employer, William McCormac. William left for London to get away from his wife’s family and brought Anne and her mother with him. He dressed Anne as a boy and called her Andy, but was outed and fled to the Carolinas (North and South Carolina today). William McCormac eventually amassed wealth in a profitable merchant business and disowned Anne when she married James Bonny, who was a penniless sailor and small-time pirate. The two eventually moved to Nassau.

While Rackham and Anne had the affair, they had a son which she went to Cuba to have. When she returned, she continued to be with Rackham and eventually fled when James Bonny discovered the affair and refused their request for an annulment. Rackham, with the help of Anne and her friend Mary Read, stole the ship Revenge, recruited a new crew and left Nassau in August 1720. Governor Rogers issued a proclamation branding Rackham and his crew pirates. While sailing in Jamaica and plundering ships nearby, the Governor of Jamaica sent pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet after him. On October 1720, Rackham met with a small pirate crew and began drinking through the night while Jonathan Barnet approached. When engaged, only Anne Bonny and Mary Read fought against Barnet, holding him off for a while as Rackham’s crew either fled or didn’t fight at all. After surrendering, Rackham, Bonny, and Read were taken to Spanish Town, Jamaica and tried. Rackham was hung on November 18, 1720. Anne Bonny and Mary Read avoided execution by pleading their bellies (claiming they were pregnant) and delayed their execution until after birth. Mary Read died of a high fever in prison and was buried on April 28, 1721. Anne Bonny disappeared with no records of her execution or release. Many have speculated her father paid for her freedom and she was wed to a Virginian man and lived into her 80’s. Other theories suggest she continued piracy under another name, but that remains unclear.

Next time we’ll take one last look in the history of Nassau with the treacherous Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and Governor Woodes Rogers, both who make their debut in Black Sails in Season 3.

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