Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Home Ports: Better In The Bahamas

Evidently, one of the things that pirates took note of when hunting for a good base was scenery. At least if today's home port is any indication. The picture above is Salt Cay in Nassau, The Bahamas and back in the early 18th century this gorgeous spot was a tent city with a pirate driven economy that quite literally never slept.

The island of New Providence, where Port Nassau is located, is almost smack dab in the middle of the island chain known collectively as the Bahamas. It has a number of major bays around its small perimeter but the one at Nassau was perfect for pirates and privateers. The water depth was perfect for sloops, schooners and brigs but too shallow for naval frigates and men-of-war. The harbor could hold hundreds of ships and there was ample beach to preform repairs and careen ships. The sand was white and beyond it was jungle and hills full of wildlife and fresh water. The native population had left the island after repeated raids by the Spanish in the 16th and especially 17th century. The place was a pirate paradise rivaled only by the French buccaneering island of Tortuga.

New Providence was a British holding but it had never been properly settled. The island's theoretical Governor was located on Eleuthera to the east and he paid no attention what ever to New Providence. When the pirate Henry Jennings sailed into port in 1714, he knew he was home.

Nassau quickly became a loose "city" formed by tents and huts made with local driftwood, palms, discarded wood and sails from ships. It was only a matter of a year before a relatively stable if freewheeling economy was establish. Carpenters, shipwrights, armorers and blacksmiths out of work elsewhere in a post-war economy could make a living in Nassau building and repairing ships and guns. Smugglers posing as merchants put in to port to buy stolen goods for resale in wealthy cities like Charleston, Baltimore, Boston and New York. Tavern keepers set up their tables and put out their shingles. Brothels sprang up and the ladies got their share of the pirate booty.

By 1716 a veritable who's who of pirates could be found in port at any given time. Edward Teach, Charles Vane, Sam Bellamy, Benjamin Honigold, Jack Rackham and a host of others called New Providence a base. The men and women who lived "a short life but merry" worked hard and played hard on the white sands of Nassau.

Of course, hygiene was non-existent and trash heaps full of anything imaginable (and probably some things unimaginable) littered the beach and forest. There was no rhyme or reason to the tent city, you just put up your tent where there was room. Arguments resulting in injury or death were very probably a daily - and nightly - occurrence. It would take a strong constitution to live in Port Nassau but some 3,000 individuals did so at the height of her popularity.

The British government eventually got fed up with the predations of the Nassau pirates and they decided to establish a Governor on sight. The Crown sent Captain Woodes Rogers to New Providence as the new Governor of the Bahamas with orders to break up the nest of thieves and establish a British colony on the island. Rogers, who had been a privateer for England for several years, is a post in and of himself. As a teaser, his ship Duke was the one that rescued Alexander Selkirk from Juan Fernandez Island in 1709. Selkirk is the castaway on whom the fictional Robinson Crusoe was based.

Rogers arrived in New Providence in August of 1718 and was welcomed by many of the residents of Nassau. Pirates like Rackham and Teach had left the island and, though Charles Vane fired on the Governor's ships as he left the harbor, as many as 600 pirates took the pardon offered by Rogers. Henry Jennings and Benjamin Hornigold even agreed to turn pirate hunter and helped Rogers defend the Bahamas against Spanish attacks a few years later. Rogers stuck to his guns with regard to zero tolerance for pirates and piracy. He ordered a mass hanging of pardoned pirates who had returned to their old ways in December of 1718.

Governor Rogers did his best to make the Bahamas a center of trade and agriculture for England but, once the freebooting was eradicated, London lost interest. New Providence's boom town days were over. Governor Rogers died in Nassau in 1732. I hope his room had a nice view.

Today, Nassau town and its port thrive on the pirate heritage of New Providence. Hotels, restaurants, bars and beaches capitalize on the history of a short but successful run as a pirate home port. I bet its a fun place to visit but I like to imagine that bright day in 1714 when the port and her beaches must have seemed utterly new.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is a pretty picture. Looks like a nice place for a "booty call". maybe when you are a mega-rich author, we can go there for a visit... I think I would like that of all things.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! We can always dream.