Calico Jack

I can smell the sweat and tar
of your greasy jacket,
red as this colleen’s hair,
calico as rough
as the stubble on your face.
High boots, broad-brimmed hat,
rust-edged cutlass
and a pair of plain pistols
tucked into your blue sash.
Resplendent as the macaw
tethered to your ship,
and just as trapped.

You had me, Jack, and that’s not easy –
bastards like me are not easily fooled.
New Providence is a long way from Cork,
and Irish girls like me are trouble.
Didn’t you know?
Flame-haired with a temper to match,
I was brought up as a boy, and I’ll fight like a man.
Here’s the thing, Jack…
If you’d fought like a man,
you need not
have been hanged like a dog.

New Providence’s new wife
came looking for a new life.
Instead, in the Blind Pig
I found you blind drunk.
I thought you were my match,
a good match, too,
with the devil’s own smile
and just too good to be true.
You captured my heart
with your tall tales of fierce fights,
swashing and buckling up and down the main.
Oh, brave Captain Jack,
I should have seen you were a fool.
And what does that make me?

We stole a sloop and slipped away
captured ships,
made love, made hay,
up and down the Bahaman shore
loved and loved and loved some more.
But it is only fools who think
they’ll never be caught.
And Jack, didn’t they say?
Women on board are bad luck –
and you had two.
Anne and Mary,
lovers and fighters,
mothers and pirates,
Jack, what were you thinking?
Fools like you and I,
we need all the luck we can get.

Drunk in the hold with your mates,
you left us to fight your fight,
while you and your brave corsairs
You should have set a watch.
You were the Captain, Jack.
Two women, fighting like demons,
could be no match for Barnet’s privateers.
And where were you?
Full of rum, telling tall tales, fighting a fight
in your imagination, again.
Meanwhile, your luck ran cold,
just like my blood.

Now you dangle in Port Royal;
seagulls peck at your eyes,
good sailors scorn your memory,
children laugh and mock you
as they play dice with
sun-bleached knucklebones
beneath your feet.
It’s a poor end for a fool.
And what will happen to me, Jack?
They hang pirate-girls too.

© 2020 Nigel de Costa

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Author’s Note

I watched a program on pirates on the Quest channel (guilty pleasure) and came across the stories of Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Jack was a typical pirate, however Anne and Mary were more interesting. They both had troubled, but separate, childhoods and were brought up as boys. They eventually find their way onto pirate ships which wasn’t the thing for women back in the 1720’s! They dressed as men on board and I don’t think their sex was revealed at first. There is also speculation that Mary and Anne were lovers and we know for sure that Jack and Anne were also lovers. That must have made for some interesting voyages!

The story of Jack and his mates being drunk when they were captured by bounty hunters (privateers) is also true. Anne and Mary apparently fought the privateers alone but were eventually overwhelmed. Jack and his mates were hung. Mary and Anne pleaded ‘swelly belly’ and so were not hung immediately. Mary died of a fever during childbirth in prison. We don’t know what happens to Anne although there are rumours that she went back to Charleston (a whole other story!).

It was Anne who allegedly said the words: “If you’d fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog”.