This story is by Eunice Armitage and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Whether future generations depict us as heroes or villains depends on who is holding the quill at the time history is written. Being born into wealth means at least I have control of the words for my own story. Yet I confess, one crucial chapter of my life cannot be told without also revealing something of the truths of others.
I doubt anyone will ever remember me for I am destined to be neither hero nor villain. Likely as not my name—Davy Jones—will die with me. But Captain Jack Rackham? Well, his name, I’m sure, will echo as favourably down the ages as that of Walter Raleigh himself.
In the year of our Lord 1720, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, I found myself at the age of fifteen, thieving and scavenging on the streets of a genuine treasure island known as the Republic of Pirates. When I first arrived, sick and feverish after months of voyage, I felt I’d been cast upon the shores of a tropical Paradise. Exotic foods beckoned from the market stalls. Sartorial flamboyance sauntered the harbourside and equally ostentatious, whitewashed houses lined the cliff tops, winking at the sparkling bay like chests of jewels, brazenly displayed for all to behold. A far cry from the nauseating ebb and stench of the London Thames and the unyielding layers of squalor in the East End slums, where I had found myself, unexpectedly orphaned and destitute, just months earlier. Yet, under this island cloak of beauty and plenty heaved a sordid underbelly of debauchery, violence and dishonesty.
I first met Rackham when he saved me from a relentless beating, after I stole an apple. I hadn’t eaten and was doubled by the cramps something bad. The stallholder had already smashed me across the back with a rod and I was too weak to run. He was just going in for a second whipping when an enormous hulk of a man grabbed my assailant’s arm and flicked him a coin.
‘How do you fancy coming to sea with me, boy?’ he said. ‘Get you out of these rags and put food in your belly.’ His trimmed black beard seared with grey, seemed to tremble under his authoritative baritone. As did I.
Rackham, for it was he, stood like Goliath against the sky, the sun sparking incendiary beacons from gilt buttons and golden buckles. Fathomless brown eyes stared at me from an angular face. It felt as though St Elmo’s Fire itself was here, trapped in this giant of a man, crackling with supernatural strength and power. Over his scarlet velvet coat a leather sash ran from his broad right shoulder to his left hip, holding knives, a pistol and the scabbard for an enormous cutlass. I cowered at his feet like a beaten whelp.
‘Why, thank you sir, I would like that very much. Truly appreciated.’ I could feel the tremor in my voice, punctuated by pulsating retches of hunger.
It must have been something about the way I spoke or perhaps the words I chose, because he grabbed my ragged vest, pulled me in so close I could smell the rum on his breath, and asked, ‘are you from money, boy?’
‘Yessir,’ I said. ‘Or rather, I was. Now I have nothing. My family are all dead from the plague and I’ve ended up here.’ I smiled weakly, ‘it’s a long story.’
‘Can you read and write?’
And with that, he laughed, slapped me on the back and said, ‘let’s get you some food and clothes my lad, and have ourselves a good talk, man to man.’
So that was how I came to be Cabin Boy on the sloop William.
But I had special duties. I was Rackham’s scrivener, capturing his thoughts, feelings, fears and dreams in a slim, leather-bound diary. He said he wanted the world to hear his truth after he had gone—to make sure his name wasn’t sullied by the scoundrels who write history. So, each evening we sat in his cabin where he drew heavily from the rum barrel, stared into the golden liquid and opened his heart. He told of his childhood and how he became a Cabin Boy to escape the whippings of his drunken father. He told of his daring mutiny against Charles Vane and the deep loyalty of his men. Then he shared the secrets of his irrepressible love for Anne Bonny.
She was a formidable woman. Superstitious mariners always considered a woman onboard to be bad luck, but for her they made an exception. Her flaming hair challenged the very radiance of sunlight, piercing blue eyes drilled deep into your soul and her voluptuous curves were more enticing than the golden coastline itself. Yet she cursed and fought and toiled harder than any sailor on that sloop. Through their obvious strutting and crowing for attention, it seemed all the salts were in love with her, if just a little.
‘Having her aboard was the best decision I ever made. It calms the men. Makes them less maudlin and somehow kinder to each other,’ Rackham said.
I’d noticed the same of him. Never in all those months as Cabin Boy did I ever witness a bad word or a raised hand. But I worried that the posturing of the crew and love sickness of the Captain made them somewhat less vigilant. And at such a dangerous time—for the pirates’ amnesty had expired.
I faithfully recorded Rackham’s truth each evening and to protect his word, the diary was stored in my locker. Captain Jack Rackham’s life and truth, hidden carefully in Davy Jones’s locker, under a spare shirt and clean pants. There was also a bag of gold coins. To fund an education for the children in the Republic, he said. He trusted me with his words and his coins, and I was honour-bound to keep that trust. The gold was valuable, but his words were more so.
The last diary entry was 31 October 1720.
Bonny had confided she was with child and Rackham had given orders to lay anchor and open the rum barrels. The men celebrated long into the evening.
Below deck, Rackham was revealing his heart once more.
‘I’ve decided to give up this life, Davy,’ he said.
I felt grief grip my throat, making it difficult to swallow. He was my only friend. What would I become if he left?
The ship creaked and groaned as petulant waves spattered archipelagos of foam across the porthole.
‘I want to settle down, with Anne and our child. Where I can see, hear and smell the ocean every day but feel solid ground beneath my feet. Where our child can learn to read and write, just like you Davy.’
My hand shook over the open diary. Two fat tears splashed across the page, causing the ink of his words to bleed freely, unclotted.
‘Shall I write down those thoughts, Sir?’ I snivelled.
Suddenly, without warning, the cabin rattled and gunfire sang across the deck.
‘The locker, Davy,’ shouted Rackham. ‘Save the stories,’ and with that he was through the narrow doorway, cutlass in hand, shouting for all hands on deck.
I thrust the diary into the sturdy metal box that was my locker and ran towards the chaos, praying to reach the sanctuary of my berth.
On deck, it was as dark as the devil. Through flares of gunpowder, I could make out the colossal form of Rackham, back-to-back with the flaming-haired Bonny as they smashed sword and fist with the militia.
Then, a hard shove sent me skittering over loose rigging. As I skated face down across the deck, I lost my grip on the metal box.
The world fell silent. Time stood still.
Gunpowder lit up the night and I watched wide-eyed as Davy Jones’s locker—my locker— carrying the story of Rackham’s life, pitched and yawed over the guard rail, turned two somersaults, to be snatched by the sea goddess Salacia and borne away to Neptune’s Palace.
A month later I sat trembling in the Governor’s Office, recounting my own story, my life on the William and how Rackham had saved me. I told of Rackham’s heroism, generosity and bravery. In return for the truth, I was granted a pardon and passage back to England.
But I was still on that diabolical island when Rackham went to the gallows on 18 November. As he was led towards the noose, he caught sight of me.
‘Share my stories, Davy,’ he shouted, ‘so everyone will know the truth.’
He went to his Maker never knowing the locker was lost.
Governor Rogers looked at me and winked.
‘Davy, it’s my job to clean up this place,’ he said. ‘So, on my oath, I will make sure mariners everywhere learn of Rackham and Davy Jones’s locker.’
And though I felt uneasy, I had to trust his word for history’s sake, as he was the one now holding the quill.