Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Woodes Rogers - the man who cleaned up the piracy in the Caribbean

by Mike Rendell

I would like to look at a man who helped herald the end of what has been called the Golden Age of Piracy. A man of courage, a man of dedication, he had been born in Poole, on England’s South coast in 1679 before moving to Bristol in his teens.

The blue plaque outside his house
at 50 Queen Square Bristol

In every good cowboy film there have to be a number of bad guys in black hats – the desperadoes intent on destruction and mayhem – and there has to be at least one good guy wearing a white hat. He is the hero who lays down his life in pursuit of some noble dream or fine idea, or to save a damsel in distress. Well, in the history of piracy Woodes Rogers was the guy in the white hat, and the pirate hordes, holed up in their stronghold of the damned on the Bahamian island of New Providence, were very definitely the bad guys wearing black. Of course, as it was not Hollywood it was not as clear-cut as that, but the fact remains that Woodes Rogers devoted the best years of his life to eradicating a scourge which he saw as undermining the whole basis on which Britain had become great, that is to say, trade. He got precious little thanks for his efforts, ending up bankrupt and in prison, but had the satisfaction of knowing that he left the world, and in particular the Caribbean, a better place than when he found it.

William Hogarth's painting of Governor Woodes Rogers being presented
with a map of Nassau Harbour by his son

In 1718 it is estimated that there were at most 2000 pirates in the Caribbean. This increased to perhaps 2500 by 1722 but as piracy started to come under control, and as the pirates dispersed in the face of prolonged naval attrition, numbers dropped to perhaps 500 by 1724. By 1726 there were fewer than 200 pirates left.

Woodes Rogers must take much of the credit for implementing the anti-piracy movement in the area. He arrived in the Bahamas in 1718 as Governor, with an aura of success: he had already circumnavigated the world, becoming only the third Briton to do so. Not only that but he returned with both his ships intact and with many of his original crew. He had achieved wealth following his capture of the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, and fame due to his association with the rescue of Alexander Selkirk (the inspiration for Defoe’s story of Robinson Crusoe) and the subsequent publication of the story of his voyage as A Cruising Voyage Round the World.

He was a sailor’s sailor, a man to be respected by the pirates based in the Bahamas. This was no pen-pusher, no stuffed shirt bureaucrat. Yet, when he first appeared off the harbour of New Providence island there was little sign of respect from the pirate Charles Vane. He had arrived in harbour shortly ahead of Rogers' small trans-Atlantic fleet, after having captured a French brigantine loaded with brandy, claret, sugar and indigo. Vane cheekily sent a message to Rogers saying that if Rogers allowed him to loot and keep the cargo from the captured prize, he would then accept the King’s pardon and retire from piracy. Rogers declined to respond but had to suffer the humiliation of being unable to enter the harbour and stop the looting. The tides and the shallows in the harbour favoured Vane, and having looted the captured brigantine, he set it adrift, in flames, in the direction of the support vessel Rose. The captain of the Rose was forced to cut his cables and head out to sea to avoid the flames, but not before Vane had raked the rigging with cannon shot. Rogers was not going to have an easy job in bringing law and order to the pirate’s den.

Rogers entered the harbour the following day (27 July 1718) disembarked his independent company of infantrymen, numbering one hundred, along with a hundred and thirty intrepid colonists. These were Protestants drawn from the Rhineland area of south-west Germany.

Rogers had the sense not to try and take on the whole world at the same time: he picked his time, and he picked his enemies off one by one.

First of all he took possession of the island’s dilapidated fort and appointed various key officials from the men he had brought with him: a Chief Justice, Judge of the Admiralty, Customs Collector, and so on. To these six newcomers he added another six from the existing inhabitants to constitute a representative council of twelve people.

Apart from the pirates he was confronted with multiple problems – the threat of invasion, economic stagnation, disease, and under-manning. New settlers had been avoiding the Bahamas because of the lawlessness, and the residents who were there were indolent, elderly or infirm. When the front of the fort collapsed, there were insufficient labourers to rebuild it. And when a mysterious disease struck the island, believed to be linked to the pile of rotting hides on the harbour foreshore, it led to widespread sickness among almost all of the newcomers, civilian and infantrymen alike. Many died.

Problems were compounded when Rogers was alerted to the fact that the newly appointed Governor of Cuba had been charged with the task of eradicating every single one of the Bahamian settlements. An invasion was imminent. The French were also rumoured to have cast a proprietorial eye on the Bahamas.

A paper-cut made by my ancestor Richard Hall in 1780

These belligerent threats were one of the reasons why the King’s Pardon had been proclaimed the previous year – Britain desperately needed experienced sailors to man its ships. King George had therefore issued a proclamation giving an amnesty to any pirate willing to surrender to the authorities and abandon piracy. These pirates were nothing if not experienced sailors – and of course chasing pirates tied up Royal Navy personnel and equipment playing ‘cat and mouse games’ when they could be better used safeguarding the colonists by defending them from attack. One of those who accepted the pardon was Benjamin Hornigold, and he was immediately employed by Rogers to go off and hunt down Vane, and any other pirates he came across and to bring them to face justice. Hornigold did not return for some time, and Rogers must have feared the worst i.e. that Hornigold had reneged on the terms of his pardon, or alternatively had been captured by Vane. When he did return, Hornigold brought not Vane but another pirate, Nicholas Woodall. He was clapped in irons ready to be sent back on the next ship for England to face trial.

When Hornigold returned having captured another ten pirates, Rogers felt that his position was strong enough to be able to hold their trial there and then, on the island. He convened the twelve-strong Court of Admiralty. One man was acquitted but the remaining nine were found guilty and sentenced to die on 12 December 1718. The hangings were to be carried out with a maximum show of strength, with all the militia called out to ensure that no attempt was made to free the convicted criminals. The scaffolding had been erected high up on the ramparts, facing the sea. The prisoners were all to be dispatched together, in a mass hanging which was expected to be watched by hundreds of the islanders, many of them pirates or former pirates.

Some of the accused were penitent and seemed resigned to their fate. Others saw it as an occasion to swagger and display coloured ribbons from their stockings. Some used the opportunity to address their former colleagues, and one of the condemned, Thomas Morris, commented as he climbed the gallows: ‘We have a good Governor, but a harsh one.’

It was widely anticipated that Rogers would pardon the pirates at the last moment, but this was not to be. One lad called George Rounsival was pardoned, but the rest were all executed in a very clear display of the Governor’s authority and determination.

Tough on one hand, Rogers could also be merciful: he extended the period in which pirates were allowed to surrender. The islanders responded to the threat of imminent invasion from Spain by labouring furiously to rebuild the island fortifications, and before long fifty guns could be brought to bear on any attackers. Upwards of 250 men could be called on to defend the island. In February 1720 a somewhat half-hearted attempt was made by Spanish forces from Cuba to land troops on New Providence, but the threat was repelled. By now Rogers was exhausted, mentally and also financially, for it became clear that he had been financing the defence works out of his own pocket. In the summer of 1721 he returned to England to face his creditors. He was adjudged bankrupt and thrown into prison, a shameful reward for a man who had devoted his energies so selflessly in the interest of the Crown.

Eventually his creditors took pity on Rogers and absolved him from his debts. This was no doubt helped by the fact that once again he was enjoying the status of national hero, by virtue of the praise heaped on him in the recently published A General History of the Pyrates. The King awarded him a pension, backdated to 1721, and George II went further and appointed him as Governor for a second term. In 1728 Rogers returned to the islands and quickly realized that the defences again needed re-building. However, his proposal to levy a local tax to pay for the work was vetoed by the Assembly, and Rogers responded by suspending the Assembly. This precipitated a constitutional crisis which quickly left Rogers worn out and dispirited. His zeal for change and improvement had gone, and before long he headed for Charles Town to recover his health. Eventually he returned to Nassau and died on 15 July 1732. By then the world had moved on: the face of New Providence had changed, with new settlers and new industries. War with Spain had ended, the threat of invasion had disappeared – and the pirates had largely faded away, been pardoned, or had died of natural causes.


Today, there is a monument to Woodes Rogers outside the Hilton British Colonial Hotel in Nassau, but there are precious few other memorials to a rather remarkable man.

~~~~~~~~~~

Mike Rendell's latest book, "In bed with the Georgians - Sex, Scandal & Satire" is published by Pen & Sword Books. His next is called "Trailblazing Women of the 18th Century" and will be out shortly with the same publishers. He is currently working on a book about Piracy, due to be published in 2019.

10 comments:

  1. Very interesting post. I was not familiar with Woodes Rogers' story. Thank you for sharing this. What a great story on which to base a novel!

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  2. His earlier story - when he sailed around the world as a privateer, and a)liberated the castaway Alexander Selkirk from his lonely vigil on an island in the Pacific and b) captured a treasure ship off Manila is just as extraordinary. Selkirk's story was used as a basis for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.The treasure Rogers seized either went to his backers, or after litigation, to his crew, and at the end of the day he was penniless.

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  3. Excellent article. Thanks for sharing the info. Will Tweet.

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  4. My attention was caught by this, having recently re-read Robinson Crusoe. Fact is just as extraordinary as fiction, it seems, in the case of this gentleman!

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    1. I may well do a follow-up post about the various other stories which influenced Defoe's novel 'Robinson Crusoe'- there were a number of other fascinating castaway stories, not just Selkirk's.

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  5. I really enjoyed this story. I've visited Nassau quite often and I've seen the statue outside. The British Colonial Hilton is the site of the old fort.

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    1. In general I find it odd that he is so little known - he gave so much to his country, and got so little back in terms of money or fame. One plaque in Bristol is hardly 'just reward' for bringing an end to an utterly lawless situation in the Caribbean area. Without him the trade with the colonies would have tapered off, and with it the wealth which funded the Industrial Revolution would have dried up.

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  6. Fascinating post held me completely in it's grip. Thanks Mike

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  7. How nice to hear the story of the white hat in the story for a change. Thank you for sharing it. I'm not clear on how the Bahamas developed, so could you clarify where Charles Town was and why the Gov. went there to recuperate. The painting shows his son, so he must have been married, Is he buried in Nassau? See, you left me wanting more. The sign of a good post.

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  8. Charles Town, in South Carolina, became known as Charleston - a place of refuge on the mainland where Rogers went to in order to escape the political turmoil in the Bahamas.
    He had married in England but rarely saw his wife - not surprising given his long absences from their home in Bristol.From memory they had 4 children: one died in infancy and they had a son and 2 daughters but Rogers cannot have seen much of the family, what with sailing round the world and than settling in the Caribbean.
    Divorce was not an option in those days - but Woodes had separated from his wife Sarah long before he took up his governorship. The Hogarth painting is one of those highly symbolic affairs - painted in 1729 I very much doubt if the sitters were ever together in the same room at the same time.

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