1720 Gallows Point –
Port Royal, Jamaica
A thick rope made of hemp and flax cinched his neck, biting into the skin while a thinner cord bound the gnarled hands behind his back. Calico Jack Rackham, condemned to suffer a pirate’s death, stood weak-kneed on a wooden platform in the blistering heat facing the sea, his weight supported atop a trap door. Soon the flap would fall away and he would plummet into the void beneath the gallows. He prayed that his neck would snap with the plunge, rather than strangle in agony while blood vessels and capillaries burst and hemorrhaged.
In the sand, twenty yards away, lay the gibbet, an iron cage made from flat bars curved and wrapped to match the physical dimensions of the doomed pirate. Suspended from a makeshift yardarm posted at the entry to the wharf, it would encase Rackham’s corpse for two years. Scavenging birds would feed on his rotting, stench-ridden carcass until only bleached white bones remained. The display would serve as a warning to buccaneers everywhere that the authorities governing eighteenth-century
would punish piracy swiftly and brutally. Jamaica
His arrogance and love for mischief, Rackham decided, had been his downfall, as he reflected on the events leading to his predicament. A year earlier, he had accepted a full pardon from Governor Rogers by renouncing piracy, determined to settle into life as a law-abiding citizen. His resolve lasted only a few short months. Restless, broke and hopelessly in love with the daughter of a domineering plantation owner, Jack had convinced Anne Bonny to run off to sea with him and take up the lifestyle that fed his cravings for freedom, wealth and adventure.
Rackham and Bonny assembled a crew of ruthless battle-hardened sailors, stole a sloop named The William and, from their hideout nestled within a deepwater cove among the islands of the
Bahamas, began a reign of terror throughout the waters between Hispaniola and Bermuda. Over the course of ten months, they commandeered dozens of ships carrying priceless cargoes belonging to Britain and . Spain
As Rackham’s notoriety grew, the hunting grounds dried up, forcing the dreaded pirate and his crew to target the azure seas surrounding
Cuba and the northern coast of . The ship flying the black flag with the white skull centered above crossed cutlasses wreaked havoc across the busy shipping lanes while encountering minimal resistance. Jamaica
Rackham and his men, following the successful raid and destruction of yet another Spanish merchant ship, furled their sails and retreated below decks to celebrate their good fortune. They broke open a keg of dark rum and drank themselves into a state of unconsciousness. It was the second week of October 1720.
At the first hint of dawn’s purple skies, the English Captain Jonathan Barret led a boarding party onto the decks of The William. Only Anne Bonny and her friend Mary Reade put up a meaningful fight, taking out six of the naval invaders before being subdued. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of armed attackers, and suffering the ill effects of their drunken stupor, Rackham and his band meekly surrendered. The British put the cutthroats in leg irons, chained them together in the brig of the English frigate, and set sail for
Port Royal and the court of Jamaica’s sadistic Governor.
Once ashore, the pirates were crowded into small dank cells, shackled to mold-covered walls, and left to hang in a semi-standing position, saturated with their own waste. Body weight caused ligaments and cartilage to separate painfully from the ribs and joints while their muscles burned without relief. The floggings began on the second day of their imprisonment and continued daily, leading up to the date of sentencing. Under the direction of prison guards, inmates trying to earn clemency from the authorities, beat the crewmembers with savage enthusiasm, using an implement made from a short wooden handle binding leather straps with sharpened bone fragments attached at the ends. The whips lashed across bare skin, cutting deep into the tissue, turning the backs of the men into bloody pulp and gore. When the trials began, Rackham and his crew longed for the relief that death would bring.
Anne Bonny and Mary Reade were not beaten or chained. Each was expecting a child and even the brutal Governor could not justify the torture and execution of women in their condition. Mary was suffering with fever, which worsened each day. Anne’s only hope for reprieve was her wealthy father in
, a man used to getting his way. He would bribe the local officials to gain her release, but time was her greatest enemy. Word of her capture would take weeks to reach him. She would deliver within two months, and executed soon thereafter. Staring toward the gallows through tear-filled eyes and the rusted bars of her cell, she trembled, overwhelmed with grief and terror as she watched the man she loved, the father of her unborn child, prepare to meet death. North Carolina
A light sea breeze kicked up, providing a brief respite from the searing heat. As the executioner nodded, accepting the order to carry out his duties, Rackham lifted his head high, taking in the sweet smell of the salt air. He felt Anne’s stare and, determined to die bravely, offered one last carefree smile and nod in her direction. The sand-filled bags dropped as the hatch cover fell away. Jack, still smiling, plunged a full body length through the opening. As the rope went taut, his neck snapped with a loud crack, sending an excruciating, but short-lived pain throughout his body. The last sensation was the pressure behind the eyes, relieved instantly when his left eye exploded outward to land blindly against his cheek. The swaying corpse twitched grotesquely from the end of the rope. Calico Jack Rackham was dead.
Seven weeks passed. Mary Reade had died in early December; babbling incoherently through her miserable last days. On the 17th of January, Anne Bonny gave birth to a healthy son and named him Jeremy Rackham. The old woman assigned to her care quietly confided that Anne would face a firing squad rather than hang. There would be no pardon. Her appointment with the executioners was near and, while she accepted it, the mystery of her infant son’s fate tore at her soul.
On the first day of February, they came for her. The escorts, dressed formally in their red colonial uniforms, allowed Anne to carry her baby as they marched in time with the beating snare drums into the courtyard in the center of the prison grounds. With her back against the wall, facing three riflemen, she kissed her son, tears soaking the baby’s velvety cheeks. A woman approached and, with a sorrowful look, removed the infant from Anne’s trembling arms, and stepped away as the executioner placed a black hood over the young mother’s head. Her killers stood at the ready as they read the pronouncement of her sentence aloud. Midway through the proceedings, soldiers on horseback charged through the square shouting orders to stop the execution. Payment of a substantial bribe had reached the Governor, a full pardon granted in exchange. The shrieking crowd, feeling cheated of their entertainment, watched helplessly as Anne and her baby rushed past the mob to the wharf and a waiting merchant ship.
The seas were calm and the winds favorable as they sailed through the straits between
and Saint-Dominguez. After a three-day sail, the vessel moored in the still waters of New Providence in the Cuba . While the merchant ship’s crew offloaded cargo, Anne slipped past her father’s chaperones and, with her face partially covered, made her way into town. Bahamas
Checking in all directions to make sure no one followed, Anne entered a tavern. Her heart pounded as she kept her head tilted away from a handful of ragged patrons. It was a familiar place, where she and her former shipmates had gathered during better times. Sneaking into a back room and quietly latching the door behind her as she entered, she leaned against the frame, allowing herself a moment to regain her composure. Finally, Anne knelt and carefully pried open one of the floorboards. Tossing it aside, she reached below and probed through the coarse loose sand. Several agonizing minutes passed. Her search ended when she retrieved three copper disks. Anne tucked the saucer-sized plates inside the folds of the blanket wrapped around her tiny son before replacing the board. Balancing precariously on top of an old bench, she climbed through a small window and, staying to the less traveled side streets, hurried unnoticed back to the ship.
Sitting inside the cramped cabin aboard ship, she ran her fingers gently across the discs, all of them engraved with a curious series of lines and numerals. She smiled sadly wondering what might have been. The engravings, meaningless to anyone but Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham, pinpointed the location of a vast stockpile of stolen currencies and treasures collected during their yearlong reckless endeavor.
Anne Bonny returned in disgrace to her father’s plantation, never to venture beyond its boundaries again. In the last days before her death, she shared with her son stories of his father and of her own life of piracy. The mystery of the disks remained a secret.
Jacob Rackham inherited his grandfather’s lands, and enjoyed prosperity and social status well into his old age. On the fortieth anniversary of his father’s execution, he erected a headstone in the family’s cemetery, next to his mother’s marker with the name Calico Jack Rackham carved into its face. The tribute would have pleased Anne Bonny.
Nearly three centuries after the death of the pirate, Jack Rackham, a man with a pure white goatee and pair of intense aqua blue eyes purchased three copper disks for the sum of eight dollars from a cluttered antique shop near the North Carolina coast. The buyer, a treasure hunter, also named Rackham, left the store with his new find clutched securely in the crook of his arm. A tiny bell jingled as the shop door closed behind him and, at that very moment, ten miles inland, a single bolt of lightning seared through the cloudless blue skies, striking the gravestone of Calico Jack, leaving behind a scorched jagged crack through its center.
The Rackham Flag (really!!!)