Woodes Rogers

English Privateer, Governor of Bahamas,
Pirate Hunter, & Adventurer
   

Born: 1679(?)

Died: July 16th, 1732


Woodes Rogers was originally a merchant, but in 1708 fellow Bristol merchants, whose ships were falling prey to pirates, sponsored a retaliatory global expedition and selected Rogers to command it, with William Dampier as his navigator. Under a letter of marque Rogers set sail commanding the 350-ton Duke, (36 guns) and the 260-ton Duchess (36 guns) and 333 men. Rogers' described his crews as "tinkers, taylors, hay-makers, pedlers, fidlers etc, one negro and about ten boys." His mission was to harass Spanish shipping; to the English he was a loyal citizen but to the Spanish he was a pirate.

The painting below shows Woodes, after taking Guayaquil, Ecuador, directing his men to search Spanish ladies for their jewelry. (from Angus Konstam's The History of Pirates.)

Rogers ordering his men to search Spanish ladies for hidden treasures.

Woodes Rogers took the unusual strategy of harassing the Spanish on the Pacific Coast of the Americas where they would logically feel more secure from the English.

The expedition was very successful, with Rogers bringing home bullion, precious stones and exotic silks from victimized Spanish vessels. One of his victims was "the Great Manilla Ship" which he ambushed off the coast of California. "The prize," Rogers wrote, "was called Nuestra Señora de la Incarnacion, commanded by Sir John Pichberty, a gallant Frenchman; and the prisoners said that the cargo in India amounted to two millions of dollars. She carried one hundred and ninety-three men, and mounted twenty guns.” He also took the Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación de Singano with a cargo similarly valued. Rogers also brought home an extra passenger, a Scottish seaman named Alexander Selkirk.

Alexander Selkirk of Largo, Scotland, had run away to sea in 1695. By 1703 was the Master of the Galley. In September of 1704, after a quarrel with his Captain, the hotheaded Selkirk requested that he be put ashore on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez, four hundred miles west of Valparaiso, Chile. (This proved a fortunate decision since the ship later sunk with the loss of most hands.) Selkirk remained on Juan Fernandez until February of 1709 when he was discovered by Captain Rogers. Despite his long castaway, Selkirk was appointed Mate by Rogers and later given command of a captured prize ship. Selkirk finally returned home to Scotland where he lived the life of a recluse, later returning to sea once more. He died at sea in 1721 at the age of forty-five.

Rogers account of this voyage and his rescue of Selkirk was published in 1712 as:

A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to the South Seas, Thence to the East Indies, and Homeward by the Cape of Good Hope...Containing A Journal of All the Remarkable Transactions...An Account of Alexander Selkirk's Living Alone Four Years and Four Months on an Island.

This book would later inspire Daniel Defoe to write the classic Robinson Crusoe.  For a detailed and fascinating description of "Alexander Selkirk: The Real Robinson Crusoe" by James S. Bruce and Mayme S. Bruce, published in The Explorers Journal, Spring 1993.

Defoe (1660?-1731) was among Rogers' circle of acquaintances and accomplices that included the famous cartographer Herman Moll (1654-1732), author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the buccaneer William Dampier (1651-1715) and the field archeologist Rev. Dr. William Stukeley (1687-1765). Dennis Reinhartz, professor of history, writes that Defoe based Captain Singleton (1720), on Dampier and Rogers. He also suggests that Swift modeled the title character in Gulliver's Travels (1726) on Dampier, Rogers, and Selkirk-Crusoe.

In A Cruzing Voyage Round the World (1712), Rogers describes Selkirk,

"Immediately our Pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought an abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth’d in Goat-Skins, who Look’d wilder than the first Owners of them. He had been on the Island four years and four months, being left there by Capt. Stradling. In the Cinque-Ports; his name was Alexander Selkirk…

He had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could, but for the first eight months had to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with pimento trees, covered them with long grass, and lined them with the skins of goats, which he killed with his own gun as he wanted, so long as the powder lasted, which was but a pound; and that being almost spent he got fire by rubbing two sticks of pimento wood together upon his knee..."

Gov. Rogers and  Family

Governor Woodes Rogers with his family.
(This is the most popular depiction of Rogers appearing in The Funnel of Gold, by Mendel L. Peterson, The History of Pirates by Angus Konstam and several other books.)

As Konstam relates, "Here he is seen with his family, as his son proudly holds a plan of burgeoning Port Nassau (visible in the background). In reality, events proved less happy for the new British acquisition."

Although - or perhaps because - his expedition was so fabulously successful, Rogers found himself with another fight on his hands when he returned to England.

The powerful East India Company tried to seize the treasure on the spurious grounds that Woodes Rogers had breached their trade monopoly in the area. Rogers' crew had to fight off the East Indiamen, while trying to avoid press gangs eager to grab them for the navy.

The legal rows went on and the Bristol merchants only received £50,000 from the £148,000 the treasure raised. They still doubled their stakes.

It was three years before the crew got their share, and only then after they petitioned the House of Lords, alleging "vile and clandestine practices" and fraud. (Bristol Times, "Tales from History," 11/23/99

In 1717 Rogers was appointed the first royal governor of the Bahamas and charged with ridding the islands of pirates. Originally a base from which English government sanctioned privateers could harass the Spanish, Nassau had become a rouge possession virtually ruled by pirates who owed loyalty to no one. By 1700, the pirates dominated Nassau with "lawless riot and drunken revelry" and chased off the remaining law-abiding citizenry to exile in Great Exuma. Edward Teach, The infamous Blackbeard (Edward Teach), took up residence in Fort Nassau and from which he toyed with the British Royal Navy. It was into this den of wolves the British Crown sent Rogers, a fellow privateer, to make order. The following year he arrived at Nassau, headquarters of more than 2,000 pirates.

In his first report to the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, Rogers described his arrival:

"...Your Lordships, I arr'ved in this Port on the 26 July last in company with the Men of Warr ordered to assist me. I met with little opposition in coming in, but found a French ship (that was taken by the Pirates of 22 Guns) burning in the Harbour -- which we were told was set on Fire to drive out His Majestys Ship the Rose who got in too early the evening before me, and cut her cable and run out in the Night for fear of being burnt by one Charles Vane who command'd the Pirates and at our [approach] and His Majesty's Ship -- the Milfords near approach the next morning, they finding it impossible to escape us, he with about ninety men fled away in a Sloop wearing the black Flag and Fir'd guns of Defiance when they perciev'd their Sloop out Sayl'd the Two -- that I sent to chase them hence ..."

Rogers received a group of representatives from Harbor Island who assured him that, unlike Vane, many of the pirates were eager to accept the King's amnesty. On the following day, as he landed, "he was received with joy by some three hundred persons. The repentant pirates formed a military guard of honor in two lines and fired off their muskets in celebration." (Peterson)

Whether the greeting was friendly in fact or a false showing, calculating that he was one of them or at the very least no match for them, Rogers quickly consolidated his power. He selected several trustworthy men of Harbor Island who had not been pirates, balancing them with an equal number of his own company, to act as an organizing council. As governor of the Bahamas Rogers exercised much authority, not the least of which was the power of pardon. Offered the Royal pardon all but ten of the most entrenched pirate captains accepted.. Those remaining ten, including Blackbeard, were hunted down by Rogers' forces. Blackbeard died in a legendary sea battle off the coast of Virginia in 1718.

A risk-taker to the end, Blackbeard ignored the warnings of his compatriots and allowed the British ship, Pearl, to trap his vessel in a sandbar. After toasting the British commander with a mug of rum, Blackbeard declared that he would take no quarter and be damned if he gave any. In the hand-to-hand fight that followed, he received "5 pistol balls and 20 cutlass wounds" before he fell. The British commander, Lieutenant Robert Maynard fought Blackbeard hand-to-hand in the bloody battle and although he is credited with dispatching the infamous pirate, it was actually a Scots seaman with a broadsword who beheaded Blackbeard.

Blackbeard's head swinging from the  Pearl's bowsprit.The British commander, Lieutenant Robert Maynard fought Blackbeard hand-to-hand in the bloody battle and although he is credited with dispatching the infamous pirate, it was actually a Scots seaman with a broadsword who beheaded Blackbeard.  Maynard displayed Blackbeard's "glowering head on the tip of the Pearl's bowsprit." (from the Official Site of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism).

None of the remaining pirates escaped, all being captured and hanged. Nor perhaps did Woodes Rogers himself escape this life of bloody violence; he died in Fort Nassau in 1732 of "mysterious causes."

Rogers slogan, "Piracy Expelled, Commerce Restored," (Expulsis Piratis/Restituta Commercia) remained the national motto of the Bahamas until independence in 1973.

A simple plaque in Queen Square, Bristol memorializes
Woodes Rogers today beneath his statue:

Statue of Woodes Rogers on the grounds of the Hilton/British Colonial Hotel (originally  the site of Fort Nassau. Photo by Daniel  O'Connell.

Woodes Rogers 1679-1732
"Great seaman, navigator, colonial governor"


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