Thursday, April 22, 2010

People: Bahamanian Governor

Woodes Rogers (right in profile to conceal his facial wound) in New Providence with his daughter Sarah (seated) and his son William Whetstone painted by William Hogarth, 1729

As we saw yesterday, Woodes Rogers had a life full of adventure. At the age of around 33, however, he was penniless, separated from his family and probably imagining a trip to debtor's prison. The sea had always been a source of income for Rogers and, as is typical of men born to the waves, he went back to it.

Little is known of how Rogers financed his next project but by 1714 he was captaining a slaver working the trade between Madagascar and British colonies along the Indian Ocean. Doubtless it was dirty work and one source attempts almost apologetically to infer the Rogers was actually pirate hunting and trying to establish an outpost on Madagascar for the British East India Company. Unfortunately the source (The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard) isn't clear on where this information came from.

Woodes was back in London by 1715 to find that Queen Anne was dead and King George I was on the throne. George was determined to put down the rampant piracy originating in his colony of New Providence (modern day Nassau) and he had issued an unequivocal order regarding the situation. He would send a permanent governor to New Providence to reform the "nest of infamous rascals" either via Royal pardon or execution. It seems that Woodes had some friends close to the King, or something like that, because he managed to be chosen as Governor of New Providence in 1717.

Rogers formed a company to fund this undertaking (the Crown conveniently offered only nominal backing) and investors threw money in hoping for the kind of profits that had come out Jamaica and Barbados with their sugar cane and rum. When Woodes set sail in April of 1718 he was in command of seven ships laden with soldiers, colonists, supplies including weapons and livestock. The passage took only three months, and Rogers fleet - now reduced to six ships as one was required to turn back due to leakage - cruised into New Providence harbor in July.

Captain Vincent Pearce had preceded Rogers flotilla by five months so the pirates still on New Providence (many, like our old friend Edward Teach, had already left) knew about the King's pardon. Those who stayed, with the exception of Charles Vane who tried to blow up the British with a fire ship which ultimately fizzled, planned to take the pardon and then go back to pirating once Rogers agreed to a cut of their plunder. To Rogers' doubtless surprise, he was greeted (once Vane had escaped) with huzzahs and haloos at New Providence Towne.

Woodes Rogers knew that the pirates' smiles were as black as their hearts and he had no intention of believing their oaths of fealty to King George. As he settled in, the pirates - to their own surprise - found that their new Governor had no intention of taking their bribes, either. What Rogers did next, though, should have astonished them even more. The Governor offered each man, regardless of his rank at sea, a chance to become a landowner. If a man would clear land and build a shelter, he would receive 120 square feet of said land free and clear, no strings attached. Fancy deeds had already been drawn up. The possibility of owning real estate, something none of these men could ever have done in Europe, was only a few axe swings and a lean-to away.

Rogers' intent was not to make pirates landed gentry but to give them a stake in the island. It was a critical issue. Rogers had received word that Vane was planning to put together a flotilla, breech the harbor and take back New Providence. The island's crumbling fortifications needed rebuilding, and only men who had an interest would do such work. When pirate leaders like Benjamin Hornigold and Henry Jennings stepped up and took the offer, many regular man jacks followed suit.

Shrewd and well-spoken, Rogers then dropped the bomb that the Spanish, the hated enemy of so many of the "former" pirates, were planing to attack New Providence. Work on the fortifications began immediately and in earnest. Meanwhile, he approached Hornigold and Jennings to speak privately about the situation with Charles Vane. The two Captains did a deal with their Governor: they would receive letters of marque, making them legal British privateers, and in return they would coincidentally hunt pirates on their cruises.

Neither of the new pirate hunters managed to catch up with Vane (he was later hanged in Jamaica) but they did catch others who had turned back to a life of freebooting. In December, Rogers hanged eight men brought in by Hornigold. These were pirates known to the locals, who heard one of the men say "We've a good governor, but harsh" before he met his end. The general feeling that going back to piracy might be an option seemed to fade. Men went back to work on the fortifications - and on their land - instead.

Spain did make an attempt on New Providence in 1720, but they turned away voluntarily due to problems with France on the Gulf coast. Rogers, however, was now having financial problems. His backers were no longer sending money as his island was not producing the sugar cane they had expected. He sailed to Charleston to plead his case there but only managed to fall ill and then lose a duel. Frantic for money, Rogers returned to England and arrived in June or July of 1721. He was promptly arrested and confined in debtor's prison.

Rogers, probably due to the efforts of his children and his fame as the hero of those South Sea adventures, was finally forgiven his debts and released from prison in 1722. He spent the next three years petitioning the King for redress. Though this was never afforded him, he was granted a pension in 1726 and reappointed Governor of New Providence in 1728.

Woodes Rogers, now in his 48th year or beyond, was no longer the man of action that had once swayed pirates and built fortresses. He tried to squeeze a profit from New Providence by way of farming and seafaring but his attempts at taxation and tariffs were blocked by the island's Assembly, which had been formed in his absence. His health began to fail, perhaps as much out of disappointment as simple illness. He again visited Charleston for a while, trying to find a cure for what ailed him, but nothing seemed to help. Rogers returned to New Providence and retired from public life. He died in July of 1732.

The motto of British New Providence and the Bahamas was "Piracy expelled Commerce restored", very much in honor of the man who did just that. Merchant, privateer, adventurer and Governor, Woodes Rogers was a force to be reckoned with. And certainly a man never to be discounted, no matter how low he might seem to be.


Daggar said...

I've run across more than one author--fictional and otherwise-- that treats Roger's pardon as the signal event that ended the golden age of buccaneering. Not the final stop, of course, but the point where the decline of the buccaneering life became irreversible.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! I can see that to some degree. Rogers' Governorship of New Providence has to rank up there - at least as regards New World piracy - with Morgan becoming Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and the deaths of the Laffite brothers.

I see each event as the virtual expiration date of first the buccaneers, then the pirates and finally the privateers. David Porter and his Mosquito Fleet just kind of put the exclamation point at the end of the sentence.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Well, yesterday I called Rogers early life a "rollercoater ride" and it looks like the second half wasn't much different. Triumph followed by tradgedy seems to be the motif. I guess you've got to admire the fact that every time he got kocked down, he somehow managed to pull himself back up again... albeit sometimes with a little help from friends or family, but hey, that's what they are for, right, Pirate Queen? Overall though, he was pretty much sucessful at acheiving his goals, so props to ya, Woodes... You da man.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I agree with you on all counts. As Governor Rogers, Woodes certainly accomplished most of his (and King George's) goals. It's really heartening that the people of Nassau keep his memory alive, too. That statue outside the Hilton certainly gives him a rock star edge. Way to go, Woodes!

Colin Woodard said...

Hi Pauline - You can find my sources for Rogers' Madagascar expedition in the end notes, pages 347-348 (in reference to pp. 118-121.) I certainly wasn't trying to apologize for Rogers' slave trading (for the East India Co.), but I do think he was using the assignment to do recon on the Madagascar pirate lair.

I occasionally add follow-up on new discoveries at my Republic of Pirates blog, such as this on Rogers:

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Colin and thanks for stopping by. I'm honored.

I was not trying to pin the badge of apologist for slave trading onto your lapel but, in rereading my post I see that it can come across that way. I'm sorry about that.

Thank you too for adding your link. I love your site and hope folks who come by Triple P will head over there, too. Keep up the good (and hard) work.