Monday, March 18, 2013

Jack Rackham - A Pirate's Attitude

I love the story of how Jack Rackham earned his pirate name. Jack had been a common sailor, then a common pirate. He worked his way up to the position of Quartermaster under the notoriously violent Charles Vane.

At the time when he lived, there was a place for everyone and everyone was supposed to stay in their place. For poor people, this meant remaining poor. The goal of society was not for people to rise to a higher status or level of society, but to be happy where they were.

To this end, there were strict, on-the-books laws concerning where people could live, what they could wear.
The rich and titled wanted to separate themselves from those “beneath” them. So, even if you could afford fine clothing, you couldn’t wear it. And in the 18th century, brightly colored, exotic clothing was becoming affordable.

Fine cotton cloth, printed with beautiful patterns, was being imported from India. And it was so inexpensive that even working class people could afford it. But the “rules” restricted its use, both because of its beauty and because it was imported.

“Calico” Jack Rackham had an entire suit made from the stuff.

It was, of course, about doing something he wasn’t supposed to. But it was also about saying he was as good as anyone, that a working-class guy should have just as many rights as someone from a noble family.
When pirates did these things, they upset the “natural order” in a way that terrified the powers that be. The sight of these people, dressed however they liked, doing at they pleased, was proof that a “locked” social order was not natural.

At the time when Rackham was hanged for piracy, England was under a set of laws later referred to as the “Bloody Code,” under which 200 crimes were punishable by death, including Grand Larceny (described at the time as any theft of cash or goods worth more than 12 pence - about $7 in today's money) and the fact that piracy was a hanging crime is not surprising. But nearly 300 years later, in 1997, piracy was still a hanging crime, the last one, besides High Treason, in British Law. The Powers still didn’t like pirates.

Calico Jack Rackham won himself a memorable name, and had as pirates say, a merry life but a short one, being hanged in  1720, at age 37. He sailed with the most famous female pirates in history, and is also remembered for his pirate flag, a skull with crossed swords, ever popular with novice pirates and made famous by a recent movie pirate.

Oh, and a LOT of bars, saloons and taverns named in his honor, especially in the Bahamas. Jack left a history of having a good time.

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