The story of Woodes Rogers’ circumnavigation of the globe is old news to those who take a shine to the Golden Age of piracy. There were the generous merchants of Bristol, England who mounted the privateering expedition, the inclusion of French privateer, expert pilot, writer and naturalist Guillaume “William” Dampier, the surprise rescue of Alexander Selkirk who later became the model for Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and of course the nearly bungled taking of the City of Guayaquil on the Pacific coast of what is now Peru. The story is larger than the sum of its parts as Rogers made history – and a fortune – raiding Spanish interests in the Pacific, a first for any British privateer since Drake. But the parts are pretty interesting in and of themselves. Today, let us focus on the raid at Guayaquil using Dampier’s journal as our always accurate and frequently amusing guide.
The expedition set out in 1708 and rounded Cape Horn at the base of South America in early 1709. The timing was good from a standpoint of season but conditions are never amicable off Tierra del Fuego and by the time Rogers’ brigs, Duke and Duchess, had made the Pacific Ocean they were both in need of repair. The expedition was also short on prizes, not having spotted one Spaniard between Bristol and Chile, and the hands were starting to grouse. Rogers tightened his discipline but prayed for a prize.
On March 15th, things started to look up in the form of “…a scrap of a vessel” that Rogers had no trouble taking. The prize ship and her crew were of more interest to the privateers than anything aboard her and, with a refit, Rogers planned to use her “… as a courier or for river work”. Under the light of a full moon, Dampier writes poetically, Rogers put his flotilla of three in at the Islands of Los Lobos.
Los Lobos, interestingly, was not named for wolves but for sea lions known as lobos marinos or sea wolves. Dampier, with his naturalist flare, writes of these animals as “… noisy stinking brutes so fierce that one of them painfully mauled a Dutchman off the Duke, and nearly dragged him to his death in the surf.” He then disdainfully tells us that a hunting party brought back what they thought was a turkey. It turned out to be a vulture, “… smelling worse than the seal.” Despite these troubles of a seafaring life, the new ship – christened Beginning – was refit, Duke and Duchess were patched up and the expedition continued.
The prizes began to mount but, along with them, so did scores of Spanish hostages, seamen and African slaves. By April 12th Rogers had three new prizes but was running out of water. Pulling his officers together, including Dampier and Selkirk, now master aboard the prize renamed Increase, he came up with the plan to raid the city of Guayaquil. The officers agree but the crew has other ideas. As Dampier puts it, they were seamen and “… would fight any ship afloat, but they had not signed on with the intention of storming towns ashore.” Unlike Morgan’s hearty buccaneers, these English sailors weren’t eager to become infantry.
Rogers quickly hit upon just the thing to turn his men to his way of thinking. He upped the ante on prize goods by changing his Articles’ rules on plunder. It was written down that anything a privateer seaman could carry out of Guayaquil, with only a few exceptions including “… Women’s earrings with loose diamonds, pearls and precious stones”, would be his to keep. One has to imagine that the exceptions would be put into the general prize pot to be sold for hard cash which would then be distributed.
The men went for it and, rubbing their hands together at their potential haul, set a course north and east for Guayaquil. The port lay beyond the Island of Puna which was used as a look out spot, and a wide gulf beyond. Rogers’ plan was to use pinnaces armed with swivels as transport for the first wave of his men, with backup behind them in the form of Beginning and her crew. Two more ships were sighted and eventually taken on the way to the coast. The boarding action saw the unfortunate death of Rogers’ younger brother, John. Now burdened with over 300 Spanish prisoners, Rogers had no time to mourn. He stuck with his plan of attack which would occur under cover of night, secured most of his prisoners aboard his ships and dropped anchor just beyond Puna.
The island put up little resistance and Rogers collected the captured Lieutenant from the outpost there to use as a translator at Guayaquil. The crossing of the gulf, however, was not so smooth. Rogers said in his journal: “I had rather be in a Storm at Sea than here” and Dampier grumbled of days passed “… swatting mosquitoes in the mangrove shallows” so as not to be detected. Finally the opportunity to attack came but, as the boats rounded the last point toward the city, they found it alight at midnight with church bells ringing, people in the streets and beacon fires blazing. Not knowing if they had been spotted, the privateers fell back.
Though Rogers strongly advocated for an immediate attack, his officers decided that negotiating a ransom would be more prudent. The local Governor, who comes off as a cagey but decidedly dishonest sort, initially proposed a payment of 50,000 pieces of eight along with purchase of any stores the privateers might have in their prize ships. This was music to British ears and they agreed to the terms immediately. Just as immediately, Governor Solis y Pacheco began to stall. He failed to call aboard the Beginning at the designated time and sent an emissary with a clearly manufactured story that turned Rogers’ attitude sour. The emissary was given an ultimatum: either the Governor appeared with the promised specie by 7:00 the following morning or the privateers would storm the city.
The Governor showed up but with a much less attractive ransom – 30,000 pieces of eight and no mention of prize goods at all. Rogers had enough at that point. He allowed the Governor to pull back to his city while the privateers prepared to attack. As Dampier puts it, the Guayaquil militia “… made a formidable Show in respect to our little Numbers” but when Rogers’ men faced down the cannons in the church square, the militia scattered. Rogers took the city without a man lost, but the Governor’s stalling had allowed his wealthier citizens to gather up their treasures and evacuate.
A day of ransacking turned up nothing until Lieutenant Connely and Master Selkirk got a tip from a local Native as to where the prominent citizens may have run off to. This led to the amusing antidote pictured at the header (an engraving use in the published version of Rogers’ own journal). They found houses up river from the city wherein were secreted the Donas of Guayaquil. These ladies had their family jewels wrapped “…about their Middles, legs and thighs…” beneath their clothes. As Dampier tells us, clearly with a grin:
… the Gentlewomen of those hot Countries being very thinly clad … our Men by pressing felt the Chains etc. with their Hand on the Outside of the Lady’s Apparel…
This quick frisking led not only to a sack full of booty but a thankful response from the ladies who were allowed to remove their valuables themselves rather than being stripped or worse. They offered Rogers and his men a splendid luncheon and “… broke out a cask of choice liquor."
At last the Governor relented and agreed to pay the 30,000 pieces of eight to Rogers at Puna Island within six days. The British privateers had their hands full getting load after load of plunder out of Guayaquil and Dampier notes that more than one fainted due to exhaustion and the “… deadly heat.” Rogers and his men made Puna on April 28th. The ransom was delivered as promised and the expedition turned west into the Pacific. Rogers would return to Bristol in 1711, 150,000 pounds richer than when he left.