Wednesday, April 21, 2010

People: Pacific Privateer

Statue of Woodes Rogers outside the Hilton Hotel, Nassau, the Bahamas

Today's merchant turned privateer turned Governor is a man whose sweeping story will take me two posts - at least. Woodes Rogers won and lost fortunes, circumnavigated the globe, found and forfeited love and hanged pirates en mass all in the span of 53 years. He is an impressive and controversial figure and it's well worth the time spent studying his all-encompassing life. Aside from Drake, Morgan and Nelson, I cannot think of an English seafarer who did or saw more.

Rogers was born the eldest son of merchant seaman Woods Rogers in Poole, England some time around 1680. The elder Rogers was a sea Captain who owned several ships that worked the Newfoundland fishing trade. This meant that Dad was gone a lot, sometimes for nine or ten months at a time. The family was small and young Woodes was probably sent to a local school for boys to keep him busy. It appears that there was never any doubt as to what trade Woodes would take up as he grew to manhood.

Around the age of 10, Woodes moved with his family to the port city of Bristol which his father's fleet called home. Within eight years he was aboard one of those vessels learning the family trade. Though Woodes does not appear to have been a cunning seaman, he was certainly capable. The hardships of the Newfoundland fishing trade probably made or broke a man, and Woodes seems to have come away in one piece. By 1704, he could command a vessel.

In January of 1705, Woodes made what appeared to be a rather brilliant move in marrying Sarah Whetstone. Sarah, younger then her groom and said to be "exceedingly fair", was the daughter of the well-heeled Admiral Sir William Whetstone. The Admiral set the young couple up in a comfortable home in Bristol and presented Rogers with a new ship for his merchant fleet, the modestly christened Whetstone Galley. When Woodes' father was lost at sea the following year, things appeared to be perfectly in place for the family business to take off with 26 year old Woodes Rogers at the helm.

For a while things did go rather well. The business flourished. Sarah bore three healthy children - a son and two daughters. Rogers managed to attain four letters of marque against the Spanish and French and Whetstone Galley, who carried one of these commissions, ventured into the lucrative slave trade. Unfortunately, the bottom of Rogers' first attempt at privateering fell out early. All four of his privateers were captured and libelled by the French, leaving the Rogers family nearly penniless. With a wife and three young children, the prospects looked grim for Rogers.

Just as things seemed most bleak, an old friend of Woodes' father appeared with an alluring proposition for the new head of the Rogers' operation. William Dampier was a navigator and naturalist who had just returned from a disastrous foray into the South Pacific. He cruised with the hapless Captain Stradling whose ill-kept ship Cinque Ports had been a cause for mutiny. The ship finally sank due to lack of maintenance.. Rogers paid close attention when Dampier proposed that Rogers lead a privateering expedition.

Thanks to the good will of the merchants of Bristol and Admiral Whetstone, Rogers was able to fit out two formidable frigates. Duke, the larger of the two, would be captained by Rogers himself with Dampier as sailing master and navigator and Rogers' younger brother as Lieutenant. The second ship, Duchess, was initially helmed by Simon Hatley. Commissions in hand, Rogers kissed Sarah and the kids and said farewell to Bristol August 1st, 1708.

Rogers ran up the Irish coast for supplies and lost some of his men there. He recruited others in Ireland but most were not British (many, in fact, were displaced Dutchmen who could easily be called pirates) and they grumbled at being told they could attack no shipping other than French or Spanish. The mood aboard both ships as they made for the Caribbean was probably rather gray.

The expedition put in at Tenerife to stock up on warm blankets and rum for the cold trip around Tierra del Fuego and then headed south. Rogers' ships went so far south that - unbeknownst to them - they were closer to as yet undiscovered Antarctica than to South America for several days. Rogers himself wrote that for all he knew, his ships were "...the furthest that anyone has yet been to the southward."

At last the turn north was made and, as Duke and Duchess passed the coasts of what would one day be Chile and then Peru, Rogers eased his ships toward Juan Fernandez Island to replenish their water. His look-out spotted a fire on the island. Duke effected the famous rescue of marooned sailor Alexander Selkirk (read more about the incident here) in February, 1709. Interestingly, Selkirk had been one of the Cinque Ports mutineers.

Rogers continued up the coast toward the Spanish colony of Quito, taking Spanish ships along the way. Pulling into Guayaquil in modern Ecuador, Rogers blockaded the little port and took the town hostage. When the Governor would not negotiate with the raiders, Rogers' sailors famously frisked the local matrons (to the ladies' unending dismay) for hidden treasures and took gold from the church, including the altars. Eventually Rogers was paid a ransom but it was not what his crew had hoped for. Talk of mutiny began.

All that ended when Rogers spotted a Manila treasure galley some miles off the southern coast of Mexico. The galley, Nuestra Senora de la Incarnacion, and her tender Begona put up a considerable fight. Rogers took a musket ball to the face and his brother was killed, but the galley was eventually taken. The haul was considerable, probably well over a million dollars in modern cash, and Rogers' ships along with two prizes sailed west through the Indian Ocean toward home. The ships made the Thames in October, 1711.

The circumnavigation of the world and the impressive amount of Spanish plunder made Rogers a hero to most of his countrymen. The only doubting party was formidable indeed, however. The British East India Company accused Rogers of violating their compacts by dealing with the Dutch in ports like Batavia. A lawsuit was brought and it was found that Duke and Duchess had indeed exchanged goods with the Dutch East India Company. Rogers was found libel and his fortune went to pay the suit, legal fees and his family's mounting debt.

At first, Rogers managed to stay afloat by writing a best-seller about his adventures entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World. Unfortunately, by 1712 Rogers had another judgement against him. This time over a hundred members of his crew had sued for their share of his expedition's profits. With no money left and his father-in-law now in the grave, Rogers sold his and Sarah's home to pay the judgement against him. Sarah gave birth to another son, but the boy was never healthy and died within a year. The strain was too much for Sarah and Woodes, whose marriage was probably already a tenuous partnership at best. They separated permanently early in 1713.

Woodes Rogers was as far down as a man could be. Or so it must have seemed. Come back tomorrow, Brethren, and find out just how wrong such an assumption can be.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, talk about a rollercoaster ride... and we're only halfway through the story. Another good example of history being more interesting and fun than most fictional stories. I'm looking forward to the rest tomorrow, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and seriously, you cannot make this stuff up. I also have to say that Woodes looks pretty dashing in that statue from the Hilton. Probably not so much after that musketball to the face but hey...