The real-life pirates of Black Sails: Woodes Rogers
The last chapter in my Real-life Pirates of Black Sails segment comes with the newest antagonist of the show: Woodes Rogers. Governor of the Bahamas and savior of Nassau, much of Rogers life is well known with the help of his biographer. He was a well-known English sea captain and sailed the world as a privateer with 2 ships and offered support against the Spanish. He was viewed as a national hero having been the only Englishmen to sail the known globe and return with his original ships and most of his crew. Rogers even saved Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an uninhabited island for 4 years. Selkirk’s rescue would later inspire the character Robinson Crusoe and also be part of Rogers own novel, A Cruising Voyage Round the World. The legal battle that would ensue after the global voyage would financially ruin Rogers, which forced him into bankruptcy. Rogers only means of overcoming this was to return to the sea as a privateer against pirates in 1713. He began his expedition by purchasing slaves from Madagascar and bringing them to the Dutch East Indies with the purpose of learning about the pirates there. Wanting to reform the pirates and colonize Madagascar, he returned to London in 1715 from a profitable expedition and a signed petition from the pirates to Queen Anne asking for clemency. The British East India Company, however, vetoed the idea to colonize Madagascar, believing it to be a threat against their monopoly. Rogers then set his eyes towards the West Indies.
The Bahamas at the time were infested with pirates, which used Nassau as their main headquarters. Rogers forged an agreement to form a company to manage the Bahamas for a share of the colony’s profits. On January 5, 1718, what was known as the King’s Pardon was issued to all pirates seeking clemency. Rogers would then spend months preparing for the expedition that amounted to 7 ships, 100 soldiers, and 130 colonists with food and supplies. He even brought religious pamphlets hoping the pirates would respond to spiritual teachings. Accompanied by 3 Royal Vessels, the expedition began on April 22, 1718 and concluded on July 22, 1718 with the capture of Charles Vane. With negotiations failing between Rogers and Vane, Vane managed to escape capture and left Nassau after brief battle. Vane used a captured ship as a fire ship (setting a ship on fire and sailing towards another ship) providing him a way to leave the harbor. Vane was no longer in Nassau and Rogers went straight to work by offering the pardon to any former pirate on the island. He also began rebuilding the island’s fortifications. Less than a month into Rogers arrival he was facing two threats: Charles Vane’s intentions of retaking the island with Edward Teach, and the Spanish had plans to rid the British from the Bahamas.
Along those threats, Rogers crew faced an unknown disease that killed 100 people with the inhabitants of New Providence untouched. 2 of the 3 Royal Vessels left for New York given they had no instructions to stay on New Providence. A ship sent by Rogers to the Spanish Governor in Havana never arrived, having revolted to piracy on its way. The third Royal Vessel left in September 1718 with a promise to return in 3 weeks but never did. Rogers heard that Vane was at the Green Turtle Cay and sent ex-pirate Benjamin Hornigold and John Cockram after him. Some pirates that received the pardon fled to join Vane. Several weeks passed and Rogers feared they wouldn’t return, he declared Martial Law and ordered everyone on the island to work on the island’s fortifications. Once Hornigold and Cockram returned, they brought back a captured ship and several pirate prisoners but Vane was still on the loose. Rogers then sent the two after the ship who turned to piracy that was originally headed to Havana. They returned with 10 prisoners and 3 corpses. On December 9, 1718, the 10 men were put to trial and 9 were convicted. From there 8 were hanged while he canceled the hanging on the 9th, having heard he came from a good family. The hangings intimidated many residents and a plot to overthrow Rogers was planned but led to the flogging of the conspirators.
On March 16, 1719, Rogers learned that Spain and Britain were at war again, which led him to double the efforts on the island’s fortifications. A Spanish invasion fleet was sent to Nassau on May 1719, but was redirected to Pensacola after the commodore of the fleet heard the French had captured it. This bought time for Rogers to fortify the island until a Spanish fleet had arrived on February 24 1720. Spanish troops landed on an island just off the harbor of Nassau but were driven away by Rogers. With Spain and Britain at peace, Spain made no further attempts at the Bahamas and Vane never returned. Rogers, however, faced huge debt and merchants refused more credit and no support from Britain. He left for Charles Town after falling ill to recuperate. While there he was wounded in a duel against Captain John Hildesley after a dispute regarding New Providence. Rogers then set sail for Britain in March 1721 due to lack of support and communication with Britain. Arriving 3 months later, he discovered a new governor was appointed and his company was liquidated. Rogers was now personally responsible for the debt accrued in Nassau and imprisoned for debt. Rogers would eventually return as governor in 1728 and would die in Nassau on July 15, 1732. Rogers slogan “Piracy expelled, commerce restored” remained a motto in the Bahamas until it gained independence in 1973.