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A History of Nassau’s Pirates Part 3: The End of the Golden Age

Graphic of pirate Woodes Rogers

In our first post in this series, we learned about Henry Avery and his arrival in Nassau. In our second post, we saw how his legend inspired the next generation of pirates and began the Golden Age of Piracy.

In this post, we will find out how this Golden Age ended, and who was responsible.

In 1711, Captain Woodes Rogers returned to England after an expedition that took him the entire way around the world. This privateering voyage against the Spanish would lead to his first major encounter with fame, but also to his first bout with financial ruin. These two twists of fate would become recurring themes for the rest of his life

More than anything, though, Woodes Rogers was a skilled and respected captain. In The Republic of Pirates, Colin Woodward notes, “In an era when most captains ruled their ships through terror, Rogers would eventually take a more lenient, fair-minded approach. Winning the crew’s respect proved a much more reliable method of control than keeping them in a state of fear.”

While Rogers may not be a household name today, you may be more familiar with his influence than you think. He and his crew were the sailors that discovered the marooned Alexander Selkirk, who had lived as a castaway alone on an island off the Pacific coast of South America for four years. His story is believed to be the inspiration for the novel Robinson Crusoe.

Back in England after his expedition, Rogers suffered a series of financial setbacks. His wealthy father-in-law had died, and he had been unable to recoup his business losses through his latest privateering efforts. But as a successful captain, he decided to try again, this time with an expedition against pirates.

He first wanted to lead a fleet to Madagascar, under the guise of slaving, but his ulterior motive was to overthrow and reform the pirates who were hiding out on the island. This plan was vetoed by the Crown, and so he instead acquired a commission from the King to rid The Bahamas of pirates in exchange for a share of the British colony’s profits. This would lead to his becoming the first Royal Governor of Nassau.

Days before Rogers arrived in Nassau, a pirate by the name of Charles Vane was planning to leave the town. He had recently consolidated power on the island and declared himself governor, and he led a fleet of at least nine ships. Vane was a notoriously violent and vengeful man, willing to do anything to survive—and amass his fortune.

He planned to set sail for Brazil, where he could meet up with other pirates and, per Woodward, perhaps set up a new pirate kingdom in South America.

By now, the King’s Pardon had arrived in the Caribbean and The Bahamas. The British Crown was willing to grant clemency to any pirate who surrendered before September 5, 1718. This was the first major blow to the Golden Age of Piracy. Hundreds of pirates who believed they would be criminals and fugitives until they died were suddenly free to return to society. The offer was simply too good for many to pass up.

Graphic representing pirate pardons

But Charles Vane had no interest in giving up piracy. Woodward writes: “On the evening of July 24, 1718, with Vane’s men just three or four days from departure, the cry went out: The sails of a Royal Navy frigate had been spotted coming ’round the backside of [Paradise] Island. Woodes Rogers had arrived.”

Vane set one of his ships ablaze and attempted to ram it into the incoming Navy ships. The plan failed, but it bought him enough time to make his escape through the eastern end of the harbor, where he could not be immediately pursued.

Most of the pirates in Nassau had already accepted the King’s Pardon, and once in charge, Rogers granted it to those remaining who hadn’t. He declared martial law and set to work building up the defenses of the town, fearing invasion from pirates and the Spanish (who were now at war with the British). He experienced a series of significant setbacks, such as an illness that swept through his men but left the rest of Nassau’s citizens untouched. As well, the former pirates now under his rule were nearly impossible to command, and he was under constant fear that the town’s crumbling defenses would not be repaired before the next attack.

But Rogers did successfully defend the town, and when the Spanish arrived on Paradise Island (then called Hog Island) they were beaten back by Rogers’ men. While his first term was marked by constant difficulty, the King’s Pardon combined with Rogers zeal and personal financial investment, ended the era of the Pirate’s Republic in Nassau.

In many ways, the situation worsened for Rogers once the British and Spanish were at peace again. He had spent his own money and credit trying to build up Nassau’s defenses, but he was offered no further support from England and local merchants would extend him no further credit. He returned to England to find that a new governor had been appointed in Nassau and that he was now unable to pay off the debts he’d accumulated while rebuilding the town. He was thrown in debtor’s prison and was not released until his creditors took pity and forgave his debts.

Rogers became a national celebrity again when he supplied stories and information that were used in the book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson. History does not know for sure who Charles Johnson was (this name was a pseudonym) but the book brought renewed fame to Rogers. This allowed him to petition the King for financial redress, and he was eventually granted another appointment to govern Nassau in 1728.

By now, Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, and the most of the infamous pirates of the Atlantic were dead, pardoned, or had disappeared. The King’s Pardon and Woodes Rogers had rid Nassau of its pirates. In fact, the motto of The Bahamas was “Piracy expelled, commerce restored,” until its independence in 1973.

The Golden Age of Pirates was over.

Rogers’ second term as governor was mostly peaceful, but his health problems—with which he’d struggled for many years—finally led to his death in Nassau in 1732, at the age of 53.

In our next and final post in this series, we will discuss how you can learn more about Nassau’s pirate history when you visit The Bahamas.