By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
The story of Captain Rackham, who sailed with the fascinating ship pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny, is a decent illustration of the difficulty inherent in hunting down even a mediocre pirate. Though Rackham couldn’t claim much in the way of treasure or conquest, he had an impressive number of escapes and near misses, in part because he knew the waters and caves around Cuba quite well.
Evading Spanish Capture
Rackham’s career began as a veins quartermaster who overthrew his captain. In one version of what came next, his crew captured a wealthy merchant ship, the Kingston, near Port Royal. Spanish hunters were sent after him and found him anchored on what the English call, the Isle of Pines, the Cuban Isla de Los Pinos.
In the Isle of Pines, as the pirates were on shore, they were able to flee into the woods, but their ship was recovered and returned to Jamaica. The story goes that they managed to steal an English loop and evade Spanish capture by sticking to the shallow Cuban waters where the heavy Spanish Guarda del Costa could not pursue them, eventually making their way back to Nassau.
Pirating in Nassau and Jamaica
Whatever really happened, Rackham agreed to Woods Rogers amnesty for pirates, in the Bahamas, after this and fell in with Anne Bonny during his brief retirement from piracy.
By August 1720, Rackham and his crew of 10 men and two women were pirating in his old stomping grounds between Nassau and Jamaica, harassing those poor fishermen. They were using a fast ship, called the William, that they had stolen from, ironically, a privateer. They were not blasting their way to freedom but sailing quietly out of harbor under the cover of darkness, bluffing their way past the harbor master.
By September, Woods Rogers had proclaimed them pirates and pirate hunters apparently learned they were repairing and resupplying in a quiet day off the Bahamas. Rackham, again, eluded the hunters for a time until November, when a captain, Jonathan Barnett, caught up to Rackham near Negril Point. Barnett was a merchant and licensed pirate hunter, sailing the small but heavily armed Tyger. He had been tipped off by another merchant hunter, Captain Bonnevie.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Pirate Hunters, Privateers, and Pirates
It is important to note the difficulty of separating categories here, pirate, privateer, merchant and policing vessel. They were simply not discrete categories of operations in the Caribbean. Pirate hunters, rather like privateers, were known to get a little too enthusiastic in detecting piracy, especially on board Spanish vessels. In fact, at trial, Rackham’s crew tried to claim to be privateers, asserting that their design was against the Spaniards, although this did not much impress the jury. Nonetheless, Barnett was after Rackham in earnest.
The William was laden with goods taken a few days earlier from a merchant, mostly tobacco and spices, but new sales, and sailing gear as well. Barnett’s ship was larger than the William and was not so swift to sail. It gained slowly, and night fell before Barnett could come up with Rackham.
This would normally have meant escape. The night was very dark. All that the William had to do, was douse its lights, keep quiet, take a different direction using walls if necessary, and try to be out of sight before dawn. Unless Barnett were a very lucky guesser, that would be that. However, something went wrong.
It’s become a commonplace among historians that the pirates, as pirates will probably, were in their cups that night. It’s unclear exactly what they did to blow their cover, too much singing, maybe. But something silly, or unfortunate they must have done, since by 10pm, Barnett was alongside the William, demanding that they surrender, or “strike immediately to the King of England’s colours”.
Curiously, when held, the pirates had honestly identified themselves as John Rackham, from Cuba.
The pirates declined, and one of them fired off the swivel gun. A quick broadside and valley later, though, Rackham’s screw called for quarter. According to the General History account, Barnett boarded and most of Rackham’s men ran below, or were too drunk to come above. Only Bonny and Read kept the deck, until the bitter end, excoriating their useless male counterparts all the while. It is unclear if this probably happened, but because of the influence of the General History, it’s the one part of the story everyone always remembers.
The End of John Rackham’s Career
Hence, that was the end of the careers of John Rackham and his crew. And yet, till that point, Rackham had escaped repeated attempts to capture him, successfully using stealth, and the superior abilities of his chosen vessel again, and again.
That the pirates were finally captured, appears to have been more of an unforced error on their part, than any particular coordination, or deliberate action on the part of the government. this was besides the proclamation, that his capture was the newsprint equivalent of yelling, ‘Stop Thief’ and hoping someone in the crowd might step up.
Common Questions about Captain Rackham and the Tricky Task of Catching a Pirate
In the Isle of Pines, as the pirates were on shore, they were able to flee into the woods, but their ship was recovered and returned to Jamaica.
Captain Jonathan Barnett was a merchant and licensed pirate hunter, sailing the small but heavily armed Tyger.
The Captain John Rackham‘s ship, William, was laden with goods taken a few days earlier from a merchant, mostly tobacco and spices, but new sales, and sailing gear as well.