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How did Calico Jack get his name?

There's been a lot of talk about pirates happening in my life recently, which is cool. I'm a huge Jack Sparrow fan... well Johnny Depp really, but who isn't!? Piracy isn't cool in real life, but when you romanticize the peg leg, eye patch and black flag, I'm all in. I was even going to doodle about Talk Like a Pirate Day on the 19th of September, but Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away, and she is way more important in my book, both literally and figuratively, so the pirate page was put on the back burner, until today.

In case you didn't know, there are TONS of pirate flags throughout history. We all probably recognize the traditional skull and crossbones, called the Jolly Roger, and likely the one I prefer, Calico Jack's flag, the skull with cross swords... somehow it seems more piratey... and yes, I'm certain that's a word.

John "Calico Jack" Rackham had a short and largely unimpressive pirate career between 1718 and 1720. Today, he is only remembered for two reasons. First of all, he had two female pirates on his ship: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It caused quite a scandal that women could take up pistols and cutlasses and fight and swear their way into full membership on a pirate vessel! The second reason was his very cool pirate flag. Even though other pirates were far more successful, his flag has gained fame as "the" pirate flag.

John Rackham, who earned the nickname "Calico Jack" because of his taste for clothes made of brightly colored Indian Calico cloth, was an up-and-coming pirate during the years when piracy was rampant in the Caribbean and Nassau was the capital of a pirate kingdom of sorts.

He had been serving under renowned pirate Charles Vane in the early part of 1718 and rose to the rank of quartermaster. When Governor Woodes Rogers arrived in July 1718 and offered royal pardons to pirates, Rackham refused and joined the die-hard pirates led by Vane. He shipped out with Vane and led a life of piracy in spite of the increasing pressure put on them by the new governor.

In November 1718, Rackham and about 90 other pirates were sailing with Vane when they engaged a French warship. The warship was heavily armed, and Vane decided to run for it in spite of the fact that most of the pirates, led by Rackham, were in favor of fighting. Vane, as captain, had the final say in battle, but the men removed him from command shortly thereafter. A vote was taken and Rackham was made the new captain. Vane was marooned with some 15 other pirates who had supported his decision to run.

After a brief stint as captain, Rackham and his men made their way back to Nassau, where they appeared before Governor Rogers and asked to accept the royal pardon, claiming that Vane had forced them to become pirates. Rogers, who hated Vane, believed them and allowed them to accept the pardon and stay, but their time as honest men would not last long.

It was ashore where Rackham met Anne Bonny, the wife of John Bonny, a petty pirate who had switched sides and now made a meager living informing the governor on his former shipmates. Anne and Jack hit it off, and before long they were petitioning the governor for an annulment of her marriage, which was not granted. Anne became pregnant and went to Cuba to have her and Jack’s child. She returned afterward. Meanwhile, Anne met Mary Read, a cross-dressing Englishwoman who had also spent time as a pirate.

Rackham got bored of life on shore and decided to return to piracy. In August of 1720, Rackham, Bonny, Read, and a handful of other disgruntled ex-pirates stole a ship and slipped out of Nassau’s harbor late at night. For about three months, the new crew attacked fishermen and poorly armed merchants, mostly in the waters off Jamaica.

The crew swiftly earned a reputation for ruthlessness, particularly the two women, who dressed, fought, and swore just as well as their male companions. Dorothy Thomas, a fisherwoman whose boat was captured by Rackham’s crew, testified at their trial that Bonny and Read had demanded the crew murder her (Thomas) so that she would not testify against them. Thomas further said that if it were not for their large breasts, she would not have known that Bonny and Read were women.

Capt. Jonathan Barnet had been hunting Rackham and his crew and he cornered them in late October 1720. After an exchange of cannon fire, Rackham’s ship was disabled. According to legend, the men hid below deck while Bonny and Read stayed above and fought. Rackham and his whole crew were captured and sent to Spanish Town, Jamaica, for trial.

Rackham and the men were swiftly tried and found guilty: they were hanged in Port Royal on Nov. 18, 1720. Rackham was just 37 years old. Bonny was reportedly allowed to see Rackham one last time, and she said to him "I'm sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you need not have hanged like a dog."

Bonny and Read were spared the noose because they were both pregnant: Read died in prison shortly thereafter, but the eventual fate of Bonny is unclear. Rackham's body was put in a gibbet and hung on a small island in the harbor still known as Rackham's Cay.

As for talk like a pirate day... the story goes: On June 6, 1995, two guys (they prefer to be called "guys", not "men") we were playing racquetball, not well but gamely. They started giving their encouragement in pirate slang. Mark (one of the guys) suspects he or John might have been reaching for a low shot and strained something best left unstrained. “Arrr!,” he might have said.

Anyway, whoever let out the first “Arrr!” started something. One thing led to another. “That be a fine cannonade,” one said, to be followed by “Now watch as I fire a broadside straight into your yardarm!” and other such helpful phrases.

By the time their hour on the court was over, they realized lapsing into pirate lingo had made the game more fun and the time pass more quickly. The decision was made that what the world really needed was a new holiday, Talk Like A Pirate Day.

They really needed a date for the holiday. Mark came up with September 19. That was and is his ex-wife’s birthday, and the only date he could readily recall that wasn’t taken up with something like Christmas or the Super Bowl or something.

For seven years they celebrated International Talk Like a Pirate Day pretty much on their own, with a friend Brian Rhodes actually reminding them the event was coming up. As they usually forgot exactly when Talk Like a Pirate Day was supposed to be or even that there was such a thing, Brian was a guy who programs every important event into his computer so that a reminder pops up the day before. John and Mark may be the founders of Talk Like a Pirate Day, but Brian is certainly the one who kept it going.

Things would probably have continued indefinitely on that low-key note, with a holiday that almost nobody knew about, and they were content with that. Except for one happy accident. One day in early 2002, John chanced upon Dave Barry’s e-mail address, the man they thought would be the perfect spokesmen when they came up with the idea in 1995.

Dave Barry is a syndicated columnist and the author of several books and according to the pirate guys, the second funniest man in the universe. They were only three guys (counting Brian) but Dave Barry was like a whole parade with brass bands and elephants. They figured Mr. Barry would be able to bring attention to Talk Like A Pirate Day in a way that Mark and John (and Brian) wouldn’t be able to even if they lived to be 200. Ambition suddenly burned bright, and sending e-mails is a very easy thing to do, so they finally got around to contacting him.

In early September, John got a phone call from the feature editor at the local paper, someone he had worked with for several years before leaving the newspaper business, and she sounded confused. “John, I was editing this week’s Dave Barry column and it’s about … Is this you?”

It was. The nationally syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning writer of “distinguished commentary” (the Pulitzer committee’s description, not his own) became convinced of the great potential of such a holiday. Or maybe he had run out of fresh column ideas. Either way, he had written the column. And the rest is history, internationally celebrated every September 19th since 2002.

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