The foreword to Captain in Calico, written by George MacDonald Fraser’s daughter, says that it is closely based on the careers of the pirates Captain Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny (Bonney). I would suggest it is more loosely based. With the little I know about the subject, I spotted inaccuracies, and the novel has a completely fabricated ending.
Calico Jack Rackham arrives in the Bahamas full of hope. Although he fell into piracy against his will, he’s kept at it for the past few years, and he and his shipmates have captured a ship full of Spanish silver. But he has heard about a pardon being available, and he hopes to take his pardon so he can marry the girl he left behind, Kate Sampson.
Governor Woodes Rogers isn’t content to simply give his pardon. Jack must betray his shipmates and be captured along with the silver before he gets a pardon. What the governor knows and Jack does not is that his betrayal will be for nothing. Kate Sampson is engaged to be married, to the governor himself.
So, Jack betrays his crew, loses his fortune, and gets his pardon, but he does not get Kate. Afterwards, drunk and angry, he ends up in a duel and is wounded. A voluptuous married woman named Anne Bonney takes him home to heal him and promptly seduces him.
Soon Anne is trying to talk him back into piracy. She has heard the governor is shipping treasure, and she knows the name of the ship. She wants Jack to raise a crew, steal a boat, and stop the ship on the high seas. Jack thinks it’s a risky business, but she talks him into it. In turn, he persuades his friend Major Penner, with whom he had signed on as a privateer, to join him.
George MacDonald Fraser’s novels are marked by more realism and less romanticism than most historical novels, especially from his time. His protagonists are often unsavory types. In this case, Jack starts out by betraying his friends, but I presume we are supposed to be sympathetic with him. I wasn’t. In Fraser’s Flashman novels, in contrast, we are amused by Flashman’s lack of scruples but find his morals abhorrent. Next, Fraser’s novels are usually marked by impeccable research, but this one differs in several respects from the other reading I’ve done on Anne Bonny. For one thing, she ran away to marry Bonny, a poor sailor. In this novel, she was basically sold to Bonney, a rich plantation owner.
Finally, this novel falls into a genre that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, wherein a man’s troubles are the fault of a seductive, unprincipled woman. I really don’t like these novels. No matter which sex is leading the other astray, it’s presumed the victims can’t think for themselves. Since a large proportion of the women in American prisons are there for abetting their partners in crime (a statistic I read a while back, so I can’t back it up with a citation), this does seem to happen to women, but in literature it is much more frequently the men who are betrayed. Why do you think that is? (That’s a rhetorical question, but you can answer it if you like.)
So, not one of Fraser’s best, as he frankly admitted. Still, Fraser is a good writer who always manages to keep your attention.